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Fifty years of Alvin Ailey's American Dance Theatre

by Susan Owensby

Article published on the 2009-07-24 Latest update 2009-07-31 10:40 TU

(Photo: Andrew Eccles)

(Photo: Andrew Eccles)

Shall we dance? It’s the 50th birthday of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and the dance troupe is celebrating it here in Paris.

Culture in France: Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre celebrates its 50th birthday

24/07/2009 by Susan Owensby

(Photo: Andrew Eccles)

(Photo: Andrew Eccles)

At the Châtelet Theatre. Part of Les étés de la danse Festival, the company is presenting three different programmes, meant to honour the past, engage the present, and look towards the future.  

Alvin Ailey, an African-American from a small rural town in Texas, founded the all-black company in 1958.

He wanted to give voice to a population all-too-often unheard from, and to reflect the joy – and sadnesses – of the American black community. Until his death in 1989, not only did he choreograph 79 ballets and run an incredibly successful international dance company, he worked tirelessly to include the public – to “break the wall between performer and public”, for, as he put it, “dance is for everybody.” 

(Photo: Andrew Eccles)

(Photo: Andrew Eccles)

The company has an impressive outreach programme that includes school demonstrations, mini-performances, and open classes at its school in New York.

Even though Ailey’s initial vision was to celebrate black cultural expression, the mission evolved in his lifetime, according to Judith Jamison, the company’s current Artistic Director.

Judith Jamison(Photo: Andrew Eccles)

Judith Jamison
(Photo: Andrew Eccles)

She says it soon became a celebration of the whole American experience, and that Ailey used to say: “I don’t care if you’re green and have polka dots. If you can dance, you’re welcome!”

Since Maestro Ailey’s death, the company has been led by Jamison. A former dancer, she joined the  company in 1965, and served as muse to Ailey for many many years.

She says she wants audiences to be “touched in their hearts, in their spirits, and in their minds – I want them to feel lifted when they leave the theatre, to feel changed – and to feel as if the experience belongs to them - and that they want to share it”.

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