Celebrating 60 years of Ailey Ascending
We pick 6 great moments from the Company’s archives.
Last season, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – NJPAC’s principal resident dance affiliate – celebrated its 20th year at the Arts Center. This year, the Ailey company brings an even greater sense of occasion to its traditional Mother’s Day engagement in Newark: a 60th birthday roll-out.
Titled Ailey Ascending, this tribute to the company’s founding choreographer and namesake is crowned by a 21-city North American tour, culminating May 10-12 at NJPAC. An ensemble of bold and lyrical dancers, under the artistic leadership of Robert Battle, performs a special repertory of new works, returning classics and rarely seen gems.
All three performances at NJPAC include the iconic Revelations, Alvin Ailey’s reverent and hopeful suite honoring the African-American experience. Programs on Friday and Saturday feature the New Jersey premiere of Rennie Harris’ Lazarus, the company’s first two-act ballet. Sunday’s Timeless Ailey, another New Jersey debut, is a pièce d’occasion that showcases memorable sequences from a baker’s dozen of Ailey’s outstanding dances throughout the decades.
“The Arts Center congratulates Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, our principal resident affiliate, on its illustrious and glorious 60 years,” says NJPAC President and CEO John Schreiber. “Even though NJPAC has only been in existence for a third of that history, we look forward to continuing and deepening collaborations in arts education and programming with Artistic Director Robert Battle and the company’s Artistic Director Emerita, Judith Jamison, our Board Director Emerita. Welcome back to your home in Newark.”
Sixty years span countless milestones, from world tours and command performances for presidents, to historic broadcasts and coveted awards ceremonies. Here are just six remarkable moments taken from across those six decades:
1960: A mere two years after founding his company at the 92nd Street Y in New York, Alvin Ailey (1931-1989) creates his signature work, Revelations. Describing it at the time, he wrote: “This suite explores motivations and emotions of African-American religious music which, like its heir, the Blues, takes many forms – ‘true spirituals’ with their sustained melodies, ring shouts, song-sermons, gospel songs, and holy blues – songs of trouble, love and deliverance.” The choreographer went on to produce 79 ballets, but Revelations stands alone as a powerful dance-drama that reminds us of the victories and strife shouldered by freedom seekers everywhere.
1970: The Company embarks on a second State Department-sponsored tour of North Africa and Europe, and also tours the USSR – where the Company was kept onstage for 20 minutes of curtain calls after a sold-out opening night in Moscow. For Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s 50th anniversary in 2008, the U.S. Congress passes a resolution naming Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater a vital American “Cultural Ambassador to the World.”
1989: Ailey’s friend, collaborator and muse – the brilliant dancer Judith Jamison – is named Artistic Director at his request. During her tenure, the company’s dance training programs, performances and media exposure take a big leap forward. Jamison receives the Kennedy Center Honors, the 2001 National Medal of Arts, an Emmy Award for choreography and is the subject of a salute by First Lady Michelle Obama. Only last year, Jamison was back on the Prudential Hall stage, accepting the Living Legend Award at BET’s Black Girls Rock! Awards.
2005: The Joan Weill Center for Dance, New York City’s largest building dedicated to dance and the Ailey company’s new home, opens on West 55th Street. It becomes a cultural space where fitness-minded senior citizens, physical therapists, costumers, fledgling students and seasoned professionals all share a love of dance. Interestingly, the building stands on the former site of WNET-TV studios, where the company made its television debut in the early Sixties.
2011: In a watershed year, Robert Battle, succeeding Jamison as Artistic Director, rolls up his sleeves to focus on initiatives that support emerging choreographers. Meanwhile, in Newark, NJPAC joins a 10-city, national league of AileyCamps, which began in 1989 in Kansas City. AileyCamps provide nearly a thousand underserved youngsters with activities that build positive self-image, creativity, teamwork and other life skills.
2015: A return to South Africa after a nearly 20-year absence is especially sweet for the globe-trotting Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which presents performances, workshops and classes throughout Johannesburg and Cape Town. The company’s original 1997 residency in South Africa was an indicator of the arts community’s end to the decades-long cultural boycott of the apartheid regime.
Tickets to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, part of the M&T Bank Dance Series, range from $25-$89 through njpac.org, 1-888-GO-NJPAC (466-5722) or the box office at One Center Street.
April 2, 2019