This season, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater commemorates its 60th anniversary as a company and the 50th anniversary of its first performances at the Auditorium Theatre. This legendary company, established by Alvin Ailey in 1958, forever changed the perception of American dance. Take a look through the company’s significant history as we celebrate these important milestones.
1931 – Alvin Ailey is born in Rogers, TX.
1949 – Ailey, who relocated to Los Angeles at the age of 12, begins studying with modern dance legend Lester Horton and joins Lester Horton Dance Theater the next year. Horton was one of the fi rst choreographers in the United States to insist upon racial integration in his company. “What it came down to was that, for Lester, his art was much more important than the color of a dancer’s skin,” Ailey would later state.
1953 – Horton dies and Ailey briefly takes over leadership of Lester Horton Dance Theater.
1954 – Ailey relocates to New York and begins dancing in Broadway productions.
1957 – Ailey performs as a lead dancer in the Broadway musical Jamaica, which stars Lena Horne.
1958 – Ailey establishes his own company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The company performs for the first time on March 30, 1958, at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, premiering Ailey’s work Blues Suite.
1960 – Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater becomes the company-in-residence at the 92nd Street Y. Ailey’s work Revelations, a tribute to African American cultural heritage and born out of Ailey’s “blood memories” of growing up in rural Texas, premieres for the first time.
1962 – The Ailey company tours Asia and Australia as part of President John F. Kennedy’s “Special International Program for Cultural Presentations.”
1965 – Judith Jamison performs with the company for the first time.
1966 – Ailey choreographs a production of Antony and Cleopatra for opera singer Leontyne Price at New York’s Lincoln Center.
1967 – Sponsored by the United States State Department, the Ailey company goes on a two and-a-half month tour of Africa, visiting ten countries.
1968 – Ailey sets Revelations on Ballet Folklórico de México for the opening ceremonies of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, marking the only time that another company performs Revelations.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs at the White House for President Lyndon B. Johnson.
1970 – The company goes on a six-week tour of the USSR. The Washington Post reports that the company is kept onstage for 20 minutes of curtain calls after a sold-out opening night performance at Moscow’s Variety Theater.
1971 – The company performs at City Center in New York for the first time. Ailey choreographs Cry for Jamison as a birthday present for his mother. The piece is dedicated to “all black women everywhere – especially our mothers.”
1972 – Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater becomes New York City Center’s first resident modern dance company.
Ailey choreographs Carmen for the Metropolitan Opera.
Jamison becomes a presidential appointee to the National Endowment for the Arts.
1976 – Ailey choreographs Pas de Duke for Jamison and Mikhail Baryshnikov. He receives the prestigious Spingarn Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
1977 – The Ailey company performs at President Jimmy Carter’s inaugural gala at the White House.
1982 – Ailey receives the United Nations Peace Medal.
1983 – The Ailey company celebrates its 25th anniversary with a special program that causes the New York Times to proclaim that “Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is not just a company, it is a school of thought.”
1984 – Jamison premieres her first ballet, Divining, set on the Ailey company.
1985 – Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is the first modern dance company to go on a United States-sponsored tour of the People’s Republic of China.
1987 – Ailey receives the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award, a huge commemoration in the modern dance arena.
1988 – Ailey receives the Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime contribution to American culture through the performing arts. He also receives New York City’s Handel Medallion, an award given to individuals for their contributions to the city’s cultural landscape.
1989 – Ailey asks Jamison to succeed him as Artistic Director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Ailey dies at the age of 58. At his funeral, poet Maya Angelou reads “For Alvin Ailey” and dancers from the Ailey company perform excerpts from Revelations and Cry. “Eyes may have been filled with tears but faces were smiling,” the Washington Post reports. “America buried Alvin Ailey as the king of dance that he was. And it was clear … that he lives on. In the hearts and minds of the millions who saw and loved his work, in the fond memories of his friends and family. But most of all, and forever, in the dancers and the dance.”
1992 – The company performs at President Bill Clinton’s inaugural gala.
1993 – New York City’s West 61st Street is renamed Alvin Ailey Place.
Jamison premieres Hymn, a tribute to Ailey, created in collaboration with the Tony Award-nominated actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith.
1994 – Jamison’s autobiography, Dancing Spirit, edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, is published.
1996 – The company performs at the Atlanta Olympic Games.
1997 – The company embarks on a historic residency in South Africa, following the lifting of the international cultural boycott.
1999 – Jamison wins a Prime Time Emmy Award in the “Outstanding Choreography” category for her work on the PBS documentary A Hymn for Alvin Ailey. She also receives The Kennedy Center Honors for Lifetime Contributions to American Culture through the Performing Arts.
2002 – Jamison carries the Olympic torch in Salt Lake City, Utah before the 2002 Winter Olympics.
2004 – The United States Postal Service issues a first class postage stamp honoring Alvin Ailey as part of its American Choreographers stamp series, which commemorates visionary 20th century choreographers who made an impact on the dance world.
2007 – The Ailey company is featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show and on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
2008 – Ailey celebrates its 50th anniversary season. The company performs on Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance? The United States Congress passes an official resolution naming Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater a vital American “Cultural Ambassador to the World.”
The Ailey 50th anniversary tour kicks off in Washington, DC, where President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama attend a company performance.
2011 – Jamison personally selects choreographer Robert Battle to succeed her as Artistic Director. The United States Senate passes a resolution recognizing the artistic and cultural contributions of the Ailey company and the 50th Anniversary of the first performance of Alvin Ailey’s masterwork, Revelations. Authored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and co-sponsored by Senators Charles E. Schumer and Robert Menendez, this resolution honors Revelations as a timeless classic “beloved by people around the world” with universal themes “that illustrate the strength and humanity within all of us.”
2015 – A children’s book based on Battle’s life, MY STORY, MY DANCE: Robert Battle’s Journey to Alvin Ailey is published. Battle sets Awakening, his first world premiere since becoming artistic director, on the company.
2016 – Jamison’s contributions to dance are celebrated at a White House Black History Month event hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama.
2018 – The company celebrates its 60th anniversary in its 2018-19 Season. Rennie Harris is named the first-ever Artist-in-Residence for the Ailey company. He creates the company’s first two-act ballet, Lazarus, for the company. Lazarus is loosely inspired by the life of Alvin Ailey.