Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. History

211 West 61st Street, Floor 3
New York, New York 10023

Telephone: (212) 767-0590
Fax: (212) 767-0625

Nonprofit Company
Incorporated: 1958 as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Sales: $15 million (2001 est.)
NAIC: 711120 Dance Companies

Company Perspectives:

Promoting the uniqueness of black cultural expression and the preservation and enrichment of the American modern dance heritage.

Key Dates:

Alvin Ailey, Jr., premieres his choreography with the Lester Horton group.
Ailey moves to New York for a professional dance career.
The company is founded after the first successful performance of Ailey's original works at the 92nd Street Y.
The company makes its first international tour.
At its 20th anniversary, the company has doubled in size and runs the leading dance school in New York.
Ailey dies; Judith Jamison takes over as artistic director.
The company receives a stabilization grant to straighten out finances.
Several grants allow the company to plan building its own dance center in Manhattan.

Company History:

Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. is the umbrella organization for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the best-known modern dance companies in the United States. Founded by African-American dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey in 1958, the company was one of the few showcases for black dancers anywhere in the United States. Headquartered in New York, the Alvin Ailey company began touring internationally in 1962. The group has found a devoted following worldwide with its innovative dances, which often explore African-American culture in ways never previously seen. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater tours extensively abroad and in the United States. In addition, its junior company, known as Ailey II, tours and performs widely. The Ailey School teaches dance to thousands of students from the age of three through adults. The school's curriculum is based on the dance techniques of Lester Horton and Martha Graham, and includes ballet, West African dance, and other dance techniques. The Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation also runs an extensive arts in education program, bringing dance to schools through performances, workshops, and artist-in-residence programs. The foundation runs Ailey Camps as well, which teach dance and other skills to underserved children. The foundation is currently building a new home in New York City, which will be the largest facility devoted exclusively to dance in the United States.

A Career Shaped by Happenstance: 1931-53

Alvin Ailey, Jr., was born on January 5, 1931, in a wooden cabin in the small southeastern Texas town of Rogers. His mother, Lula Cliff Ailey, and his father, Alvin Ailey, Sr., separated when the boy was just six months old. For years afterward, Lula Ailey subsisted by taking in washing, picking cotton, and doing cooking and cleaning for white families. Ailey and his mother moved frequently, and the child was often left alone while his mother worked. Alvin spent much of his childhood in Navasota, Texas, and then moved with his mother to Los Angeles in 1942. Young Ailey attended Thomas Jefferson High School, a neighborhood public school that served a mostly African-American, Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese population. The school made a point of introducing its students to the arts, taking them on field trips to see performances in downtown Los Angeles. Ailey first saw a professional ballet troupe in 1945, on a school trip to a performance by the touring Ballet Russe. Ailey began attending other dance performances, and soon after he met the charismatic Katherine Dunham, an African-American woman who starred in an eclectic dance performance called the "Tropical Revue."

Ailey had friends who were as interested in dance as he was, including Ted Crumb, who was later a member of the Negro Ballet Company, and Carmen de Lavallade, a fellow student at Thomas Jefferson who became a big star on her own and danced with Ailey on Broadway and as a guest with his company. Crumb and de Lavallade steered Ailey to the Lester Horton studios. Lester Horton was a white man who had studied various forms of modern and ethnic dance. He eventually began choreographing his own works, which often dealt with uncomfortable social issues such as police brutality. Horton's works were performed side by side with works of the best known modern dance companies of the time, including those of Martha Graham and Lincoln Kirstein, but headquartered in Los Angeles, he was out of the main current, which flowed from New York. He ran a racially diverse studio at a time when the dance world was extremely segregated. Horton's students learned the gamut of putting on a performance, not only dancing, but making sets and costumes and writing publicity. Ailey began taking dance classes only reluctantly, first watching his friends dance for about six months. His teachers immediately noticed his talent, but Ailey was shy and unsure whether dance was really for him. After graduating from high school, Ailey attended the University of California at Los Angeles, intending to major in romance languages. He did not do particularly well in college, but he was not sure he was committed to dance, either. He moved briefly to San Francisco, going to San Francisco State College, and then in 1953 found a job as a dancer in a Los Angeles night club. He continued to study and perform with Lester Horton. Horton's company seemed to be achieving a new level of success. The company was invited to perform in New York in 1953, and then invited to the annual summer Jacob's Pillow dance festival in Massachusetts. The company had work lined up when Horton died of a massive heart attack in November 1953. Although Ailey had been ambivalent about his career in dance, with Horton's death he was thrust into a demanding role. He became the group's choreographer, as well as a teacher and one of its star dancers. Within months of Horton's death, Ailey was presenting a show of Horton classics, plus two full-length works of his own. But for Horton's sudden demise, Ailey might never have realized his own gift for choreography.

Beginning a Company of His Own in 1958

In 1954 Ailey went to New York with his friend Carmen de Lavallade to dance in the Broadway show "House of Flowers," starring Pearl Bailey. Ailey and de Lavallade were featured in a duet, and Ailey had a show-stopping solo. But after "House of Flowers" closed, there was little work for Ailey, or for other African-American dancers, no matter how talented. An all-African-American show like "House of Flowers" came around only once every five years or so, and many opportunities for white performers were closed to nonwhite dancers. Ailey taught dance classes and worked sporadically, living hand to mouth. In 1958 he decided to put on a performance at the 92nd Street Y, a popular venue for small theater and dance. The idea, in part, was to show off Ailey's choreography, which had not had much outlet since he left Los Angeles, and also to give underemployed African-American dancers something to do. The show was meant as a one-time performance, and Ailey and 13 other dancers approached it casually, rehearsing where they could in various studios between other jobs. The show premiered Ailey's "Blues Suite," a dance set in a tawdry bar, showing the kind of people the young Ailey had seen in the small Texas towns where he had lived with his mother. This dance in particular got a huge response from the audience and an ecstatic write-up in the major dance journal Dance Magazine. Nine months later Ailey put on another show at the 92nd Street Y, this time to a packed house. Other invitations to perform followed, and Ailey and his dancers began to work together as a company. In 1960, Ailey brought out a new dance, "Revelations," set to spirituals and depicting moments of religious joy. The work stunned the audience at the Y, the first to see what became one of the most-performed dance works in the U.S. repertory.

The Ailey company became a recognized force on the U.S. dance scene with the success of "Revelations." But the group had little money, nevertheless, and relied on the charity and volunteer work of friends and well-wishers. The Ailey company's first headquarters was in a donated space at the YWCA on Eighth Avenue and 53rd Street. The company rehearsed, taught classes, and performed in the small space at the Y, known as the Clark Center for the Arts. Ailey's reputation grew in New York, and in 1962 the State Department invited the company to tour Asia. The group spent three months abroad, performing in Australia, Korea, Japan, South Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. Afterward, the company performed new dances in New York and traveled through the Midwest and South. In 1964 Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater toured Europe for the first time. The slew of engagements was handled by a booking agent, while the finances of the company were taken care of by a husband-and-wife team of devoted volunteers. Ailey stopped dancing himself during the mid-1960s and spent all his time on choreography and directing his troupe. He repeatedly announced that he would disband the company, even as its fame grew. In 1967 the company became a little more organized when it incorporated as a nonprofit corporation, the Dance Theater Foundation. This way, the group became eligible for government and foundation grants. The dance foundation's first office was in Ailey's small apartment.

Growth in the 1970s

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater toured abroad so much in the 1960s that it was better known in Europe than in its own country. In 1968 the group began an extended U.S. tour. Ailey continued to produce works that reflected African-American U.S. culture, at a time of great racial strife. His company featured mainly African-American dancers, though he used white and Asian dancers as well. The group's shows brought rave reviews, and the company got support from grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and from the Rockefeller Foundation. The company completed another domestic tour in 1970, and Ailey collaborated with jazz great Duke Ellington on a ballet for American Ballet Theater. Despite the group's growing fame and the influx of grant money, the company was still barely solvent. At the close of the 1970 season Ailey announced that financial problems would force him to disband the dance company. The company recently had moved to new quarters in the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which proved unsatisfactory, and a promised State Department-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union had been canceled. But the group had many supporters, and ultimately it moved back to Manhattan and the Soviet tour was reinstated. The company embarked on another long tour of the United States the next year. The year 1971 also saw the premiere of another Ailey classic, "Cry," which featured the extraordinary six-foot tall dancer Judith Jamison. In new quarters at the American Dance Center on East 59th Street, the company worked relatively comfortably for the next nine years. Ailey established a popular school, and added two student companies. The company reigned over modern dance in the United States in the 1970s, and was lauded on its international tours. By 1978, when the company celebrated its 20th anniversary, the company included 29 dancers, more than twice its original number, and enrollment at the Ailey school was almost 5,000 students. The company's budget had grown to about $3 million annually, and Ailey himself was making a substantial income from choreography commissions and royalties, television appearances, and his salary for directing the company.

Ups and Downs in the 1980s

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater gave a command performance for President Jimmy Carter at the White House in 1979, and then flew to Morocco for a New Year's performance at the behest of that country's king. Nevertheless, the company was still running a deficit, and when its headquarters building was demolished, it could not afford to build a studio and school to its specifications. Instead it moved into three floors of a midtown building owned by one of its board members. Ailey's health was beginning to fail, and the 1980s were a slower decade for the group than the 1960s and 1970s had been. Ailey was arrested in 1980 for creating a disturbance, apparently while having a mental breakdown. He was released without charge, only to set off a similar incident a few months later. Ailey was apparently increasingly frustrated that his company still had to scrounge for funds and it seemed that he was treated better in Europe than in New York.

Ailey was beset by both mental and physical problems from 1980 on. He was under treatment for manic depression, and he was in pain from arthritis. He continued to choreograph in the 1980s, producing another of his best-loved works in 1984, "For Bird--With Love." Ailey and his company were feted and honored repeatedly in the 1980s, and toured both abroad and domestically. Ailey was made Distinguished Professor of choreography at City University of New York in 1985. In 1986 Philip Morris Companies awarded Ailey's troupe a $300,000 grant, to cover two years of touring. In 1987, Ailey was diagnosed with AIDS. Although he continued to travel and undertake new projects, by that time he was clearly very ill. In 1988, the Ailey company's lease expired on the midtown building it had rented, and yet again the group had to scramble to find a suitable space. Ailey died on December 1, 1989.

Finding Stability in the 1990s

Leadership of the company fell to Judith Jamison, the dancer who had made her mark with Ailey's signature piece, "Cry." She had left the company in 1980 to pursue her own choreography, but she returned after Ailey's death. She became the company's artistic director, dedicated to keeping the vision of Ailey alive. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had always made a point of performing work of other choreographers, and during the 1980s, it put on far more non-Ailey works than Ailey originals. So it was not necessarily the loss of its chief choreographer that hurt the company most. But despite the Alvin Ailey group's long prominence, the company was still not on a sound financial footing. The company had amassed a deficit of roughly $1 million during the 1980s, and in the early 1990s, government funding for dance began to dry up. The company could not continue without some restructuring and a plan for future fundraising. Jamison brought in a new director of development and recruited new trustees--generally, corporate CEOs--who could contribute $10,000 and take a seat on the foundation's board of directors. In 1993 the company received a grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund as part of its Art Stabilization Initiative. The grant gave money to the group not for performing or touring but to let it pay off debts. The grant allowed the company to build capital reserves so that its finances would no longer be so unstable.

By the mid-1990s, the company was in much better shape. It had paid off its debts, increased its revenue from performances, and found other ways to bring in cash. By 1996, the group brought in $3 million through fundraising, about twice the figure from 1992. The Ailey company also got corporations to underwrite some of its domestic shows, while Philip Morris continued to give money for domestic and international touring. The group also increased its marketing efforts, finding new ways to spread the Ailey name, particularly through outreach programs in schools. The company began unusual co-marketing agreements in 1998, trading its name to corporations for major donations. For example Jaguar became the "official car of Alvin Ailey" (Ailey had long dreamed of owning a Jaguar), and a chain of sports medicine clinics used the Ailey name in its advertising, while giving free physical therapy to Ailey dancers. These various stratagems paid off. By 1998, the company had an operating budget of $12 million, and it managed a $1 million surplus. Jamison said in an interview with Black Enterprise (December 1991) that for years she had "listened as Alvin struggled with prospective donors on one telephone line and bill collectors on the other." She was determined to ask for and get appropriate funding for her group to avoid that embarrassing struggle, and she was extremely successful.

In the late 1990s, Jamison began to plan for something the company had never been able to afford--a home of its own. Its rented space on West 61st Street was filled to overflowing, and the company had had to move suddenly before when leases expired. So Jamison began working on funding to build a school, studio, and performance space. In 2001 plans were cemented to build a new dance center on 55th Street and Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani approved a $7.5 million matching grant from the city to the company, surprising many with his generosity. The Dance Foundation began raising funds needed to complete the building, expected to open in 2004.

Further Reading:

  • Barbieri, Kelly, "Alvin Ailey Tour Greeted with Increase in Advanced Ticket Sales," Amusement Business, February 14, 2000, p. 5.
  • DeNitto, Emily, "New Steps Bring Alvin Ailey into the Business of Art," Crain's New York Business, December 7, 1998, p. 4.
  • Dunning, Jennifer, "Ailey Troupe Goes in Search of Big Money," New York Times, November 27, 2001, p. E3.
  • ------, Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1996.
  • Hruby, Laura, "$15-Million Promised to Dance Group; Other Gifts," Chronicle of Philanthropy, December 13, 2001, p. 16.
  • Moran, Kate Mattingly, "Giuliani Helps Ailey Get a Home of Its Own," Dance Magazine, August 2001, p. 30.
  • Reiss, Alvin H., "Foundation Support, Board Upgrading Help Top Dance Troupe Achieve Stability," Fund Raising Management, January 1997, p. 34.
  • Ross, B., "Choreographing the Money Dance," Black Enterprise, December 1991, p. 82.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 52. St. James Press, 2003.