Jack Mitchell (1925- 2013) was an acclaimed photographer who began chronicling the work of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1961. Alvin Ailey (1931- 1989), one of the most influential African American choreographers of modern dance, dedicated himself and his dance company to creating ballets that not only accelerated the careers of young African American dancers, but also stole the attention of national and international audiences in displaying the racial perspective of dance in the African American experience. This collection serves as Mitchell's documentation of the dance company's evolution while capturing the true idiosyncrasies and physicality of movement through still images. Through Alvin Ailey and Jack Mitchell's partnership, they were able to collaborate and produce a unique production of art, fusing the meaning and movements of dance and the techniques of photography.
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Scope and Contents
The Jack Mitchell Photography of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Collection is comprised of approximately 10,000 black and white prints of solo and ensemble acts, portraits of principle dancers and various associates of the company, color slides and transparencies for private photo sessions and performances, black and white film strips and their corresponding contact sheets, and reference materials.
Biographical / Historical
Jack Mitchell was born on September 13, 1925 in Key West, Florida. Although he was not in the field of photography, Mitchell's father bought him his first camera when Jack was a teenager. His first published photograph was of actress, Veronica Lake, for a War Bond Tour, a tour issued by the government that promoted debt securities to soldiers to finance military operations and expenditures He enlisted in the United States army and became a photographer in Italy at the end of World War II. In 1949, Ted Shawn, a dancer and choreographer who is respected among the dance community as a pioneer of American modern dance, invited Mitchell to Massachusetts photograph his dancers at his dance center, Jacobs's Pillow. It was during this time where Mitchell's interest and appreciation for moving bodies was realized. In the lifespan of his career, Mitchell created over 150 covers for Dance Magazine1, the New York Times, Time, Life, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and Vogue.2
As Jack Mitchell started to photograph the poses and ballets of the American Ballet Theater throughout the late 1950s, Alvin Ailey saw some of Mitchell's photographs. By 1961, Mitchell had established himself as a distinguished photographer of dance, coining the term, "moving stills". His photographs became the benchmark and standard that other dance photographers measured their work. In November 1961, Ailey invited Mitchell to a performance space in Clark Center, NY, and with his dancers, they performed for Mitchell's camera; some of the photographs from that first photo session can be found in this collection.
Alvin Ailey was born on January 5, 1931 in in Rodgers, Texas, during the Great Depression. As his repertory reflected, the beginning of his life was defined by a tight-knit, predominantly African American folk culture. At age 12, Ailey and his mother, Lula Cooper, moved Los Angeles, California. It is here that he was exposed to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which led him to study under the Lester Horton Dance Theater, where he danced with Carmen DeLavallade, James Truitte, and Joyce Trisler. After 3 years of performing and training, he was positioned as a choreographer and later became the director of the company when Lester Horton suddenly died in 1953. His influence from Lester Horton, Martha Graham, and Katherine Dunham help to establish his philosophy that "Everything in dancing is style, allusion, the essence of many thoughts and feelings, the abstraction of many moments. Each movement is the sum total of moments and experiences".3 After Horton's death, Ailey went to perform at Ted Shawn's Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, and then on to New York with his longtime schoolmate and fellow dancer, Carmen DeLavallade, to perform in the 1954 Broadway production of "House of Flowers". The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Company was established in 1958.
From the beginning of his journey as a dancer and choreographer, Ailey wanted to show African American experience in his performances. He embedded folk culture in his early works "Revelations" and "Blue Suites". In reflection, before his first South Asian Tour, Alvin expressed, "The cultural heritage of the American Negro is one of America's richest treasures. From his roots as a slave, the American Negro- sometimes sorrowing, sometimes jubilant but always hopeful -has touched, illuminated, and influenced the most preserved of world civilization. I and my dance theater celebrate this trembling beauty."4 "Revelations" was well- received by national and international audiences, Ailey recognized by the dance community as a choreographer with promise and his company and ballets he created were highly anticipated. By 1965, Ailey went from being a dancer to being the company's choreographer. From the onset, Ailey embraced diversity and invited interracial and interdisciplinary perspectives at of the company. He also created ballets for other notable companies including the American Ballet Theatre, Royal Danish Ballet, London Festival Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, and LaScala Opera Ballet.5 He was invited to choreograph Samuel Barber's Anthony and Cleopatra for the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in 19666, and Leonard Bernstein's Mass for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1971.7
As the company embraced racial diversity, Ailey never lost his sense of obligation to the African American community. In 1969, he established the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, which became the Ailey School, formed the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble, and pioneered programs promoting arts in education, particularly those that benefitted deprived communities. Among his numerous distinctions were the Dance Magazine Award (1975), the NAACP Spingarn Medal (1976), given for "the highest and noblest achievement by an American Negro during the previous year or years"8 , the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award (1987), the most prestigious award for modern dance for a lifetime contribution to the field, the Kennedy Center Award (1988) and Honorary Doctorates from Princeton University (1972)9 , Bard College (1977)10 , and Adelphi University (1977). President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Ailey the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014, the country's highest civilian honor, in recognition of his contributions and commitments to civil rights and dance in America.11
Through Jack Mitchell and Alvin Ailey's work, they were able to collaborate and create something "rich in historical connotations, the liveliest kind of permanent record of the works of important creators and creations that formed the nucleus of Ailey's remarkable vision of American dance and what it could be"12. Alvin Ailey's reputation for creating eclectic dance methods produced movements and poses that are still studied and idolized today. Mitchell was able to pay homage to many of the world's best dance artists from James Truitte, Carmen DeLavallade, Dudley Williams, Donna Wood, Renee Robinson, Gary DeLoatch, as well as Ailey, through his photography. With Ailey's longstanding and established stature within the dance community, and Mitchell's pronouncement of the detailed through his use of lighting in his photographs, this collection highlights the incredible collaboration between Ailey and Mitchell, and serves as a unique document of one of the world's most renowned American dance company's.
Alvin Ailey's vision for a dance company was dedicated to enriching the American modern dance heritage and preserving African American culture. In a 1989 interview with Dance Magazine, shortly before his death, Ailey discussed how he took pride in knowing that "No other company around [today] does what we do, requires the same range, and challenges both the dancers and the audience to the same degree." Ailey searched for a collaborator that would help him display the value of communicative movement; he found his match in Mitchell. Ailey's influence went beyond the stage and Jack Mitchell's images in this collection document that evolution. With Alvin Ailey's passing in 1989 at age 58 and Jack Mitchell's death in 2013 at age 88, these photographs of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Collection serves as one of the few sources of this dynamic dance company, from its early days to an internationally recognized troupe.
Footnotes: Footnotes, Jack Mitchell. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Jack Mitchell Photographs. (Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1993), viii, Bruce Weber, "Jack Mitchell, Photographer of the Arts, Dies at 88", The New York Times Obituaries (November 9, 2013):http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/10/arts/jack-mitchell-photographer-of-the-arts-dies-at-88.html, Jennifer Dunning, Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance. (New York; Addison- Wesley, 1996), 123, Ibid, 146., Alvin Ailey, Revelations: The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey. (New York: Birch Lane, 1995), 6-7., Alvin Ailey, Revelations: The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey. (New York; Birch Lane, 1995), 7., Ibid., Ibid., Dunning, Jennifer. Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance. (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1996), 286., "Bard College Catalogue 2016-17: Honorary Degrees": https://www.bard.edu/catalogue/index.php?aid=1205177%26sid=670501, Office of the Press Secretary, "President Obama Names Recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom" (November 10, 2014): https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/11/10/president-obama-names-recipients-presidential-medal-freedom, Jack Mitchell. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Jack Mitchell Photographs. (Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1993), ix.