By ADAM FALLUJI – STAFF WRITER
One of the Norton Center’s most highly anticipated performances of the year was the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Founded by Alvin Ailey in 1958 in New York, the dance group is known internationally as the U.S.’s “Cultural Ambassador to the World.”
After growing up in Texas during a time of racial segregation, Ailey didn’t intend to become a professional dancer. In high school he sang in the glee club, wrote poetry, and excelled at languages, but after moving to southern California to finish his education, he enrolled at the Horton Dance Company, the first multi-racial dance school in the United States. During his time in San Francisco, Ailey met Marguerite Johnson, who later became known as Maya Angelou, and for a short time the two danced at nightclubs under the name “Al and Rita” before Ailey returned to Horton.
After Lester Horton’s death in 1953, Ailey, only 22 with no experience as a choreographer, stepped forward to take on the role of Artistic Director for the school and choreographed his first dance in his mentor’s memory.
In 1958, he formed his own group, called the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which performed for the first time on March 30 of that year. Mixing his background in ballet, modern dance, jazz, and African dance techniques, Ailey created an emotionally charged piece called Blues Suite, displaying the pain and anger of African-Americans in his piece. His most critically acclaimed and signature piece, Revelations, was based upon his dark memories of Texas and pulls upon the traditions of the blues, spirituals, and gospel music.
In addition to the 79 pieces by Ailey himself, the Dance Company now boasts over 200 works by more than 70 different choreographers, expanding its repertoire as well as maintaining the original masterpieces by its founder. The group, though initially comprised solely of African-Americans, became a multi-racial group in 1962. Today, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater recruits artists based on artistic talent and integrity rather than race.
Having performed for an estimated 23 million people across 71 countries on six continents, including 48 states in the U.S., the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performed in Danville for the first time in 30 years on March 11. Their performance at the Norton Center was a jaw-dropping experience for both students and community members.
First-year Amari Cowan has been a dancer for twelve years and a huge fan of Alvin Ailey since her childhood. Her anticipation for the dance company’s performance was met with satisfaction.
“I really enjoyed watching them because of the expression they showed in their performance,” Cowan said. “They were very explosive. Even hearing their footsteps and the power behind them was really significant.”
Her background in dance also made the show an enlightening experience, as she understood the company’s style and methods.
“I saw them telling the story of African-Americans through dance,” she said. “They started off with the tribal songs and then transitioned into hip-hop, and it was definitely more focused on spirituals toward the end.”
Even students who didn’t have a significant background in dance or were not aware of the group prior to that night also enjoyed the performance. Though first-year Mariah Harrod admits that at first she attended the show for another convocation credit, she thoroughly enjoyed the show by its end.
“I see dance as an outlet for emotion and expression, and you could sense that from their performance,” she said. “You don’t get that from all dancers. It takes a really passionate dancer to actually communicate their emotions through their movements on stage.”
Performance-based convocations always add an exciting element to the students’ expectations. First-year Ben McKernan enjoyed the energy generated by the group’s performance.
“By the end everyone got really into it,” he said. “People to my left and right stood up and clapped along to one of the last songs, and some were even singing and dancing along with the group. The whole time, the Dance Company was smiling and responding to the audience’s enthusiasm.”
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater put on a truly culturally enriching and entertaining performance. More information about the Norton Center’s upcoming performances can be found at nortoncenter.com.