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The poverty and racism of 1930’s Texas were “an enormous stain” on his life, recalled Alvin Ailey in his autobiography. Yet other memories of his Texas childhood helped the dancer and choreographer leap to stardom: The affecting blues of nightclubs in Navasota and the rousing spirituals of the town’s Baptist churches inspired two of his greatest works, Blues Suite and Revelations. Since he founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958, the company has performed modern, jazz, classical, and ethnic dance for 19 million people in 68 countries, and its school enrolls 3,500 students of every color every year. Alvin Ailey, Jr., was born in Rogers on January 5, 1931, and grew up in Navasota, where he started picking cotton at the age of five. He never knew his father.
In 1942 he and his mother moved to Los Angeles, where he soon became a devotee of live entertainment, hearing Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and other greats. By 1949 he was studying dance with Lester Horton, whose integrated troupe was a rarity for its day.
After heading to New York in 1954, he took lessons from Martha Graham, for one, and performed in musicals with Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne. He also appeared with Dorothy Dandridge in the film Carmen Jones, co-directed Langston Hughes’s play Jericho Jim Crow, and starred Off-Broadway in Call Me by My Rightful Name with then-unknowns Joan Hackett and Robert Duvall.
Critics liked Ailey’s sinuous dancing but raved about his evocative choreography. In 1958 he premiered Blues Suite, his company’s first performance; two years later he unveiled Revelations, which once received sixty curtain calls. A third hit, 1971’s Cry, was a tribute to black women inspired by his mother’s life; it catapulted six-foot dancer Judith Jamison to stardom.
At the age of 34, Ailey gave up dancing to focus exclusively on choreography. He created 79 works altogether, including dances based on the lives of rock stars Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison and jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. He also choreographed parts of Samuel Barber’s opera Antony and Cleopatra and Leonard Bernstein’s controversial Mass.
In the eighties Ailey suffered a mental breakdown and a succession of physical problems. He died in New York City on December 1, 1989.