Alvin Ailey

(1931-1989)

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Alvin Ailey (1931–1989) was an African American choreographer and activist who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Ailey School in New York City.

Portrait of Alvin Ailey wearing a sweater and scarf with his arms crossed in front of him.

Portrait of Alvin Ailey by Jack Mitchell, 1979.

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© Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. and Smithsonian Institution, All rights reserved.

As a teen, Alvin Ailey studied with renowned dancer, choreographer, and teacher Lester Horton. After three years of performing and training with the Lester Horton Dancers, Ailey became a choreographer and later director of the company when Lester Horton suddenly died in 1953. Equipped with his preeminent training and influence from Horton, Ailey decided to open his own dance company. He established the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) in 1958. He also created ballets for other notable companies including the American Ballet Theatre, Royal Danish Ballet, London Festival Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet, and Paris Opera Ballet among many others.

As common practice at the time, Ailey maintained a closeted persona regarding his sexuality but would utilize his art as an outlet for it. His choreographed ballets for AAADT exhibited imagery reminiscent with male and female homosexuality such as juxtaposing same-sex partnering with religious and hypermasculine archetypes. Such examples include AAADT performances of Quintet (1968), Streams (1970), Flowers (1971), and The Mooche (1975). Ailey succumbed to AIDS-related complications on December 1, 1989, at the age of 58. Among his many accolades, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Ailey the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014, the highest civilian honor, in recognition of his contributions and commitments to civil rights and dance in America.

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Top image: Portrait of Alvin Ailey by Jack Mitchell, 1962. © Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. and Smithsonian Institution, All rights reserved. A2013.245.3.2.14.5.4