Extolling the great Alvin Ailey through the reminiscences of his leading ladies.

Celebrating the Life of Alvin Ailey panel discussion_Renee Robinson

Judith Jamison, Sylvia Waters and Donna Wood, with Renee Robinson as moderator




By Joel Benjamin


Alvin Ailey would have been 85 years old on January 5th, 2016. To honor and celebrate this great man of dance, Lisa Johnson-Willingham, the director of the Ailey Extension Division gathered a panel of veteran Ailey dancers to illuminate his achievements and his influence on their lives. It was heaven for dance mavens, not to mention a fascinating look at cultural history.

Celebrating the Life of Alvin Ailey panel discussion_Judith Jamis

Judith Jamison, Sylvia Waters and Donna Wood, with Renee Robinson as moderator, revealed their inner Aileys in the resulting conversation which was as moving as it was informative. Even though they all agreed on his genius, their stories and impressions were different enough to make a complex—even a sometimes perplexing—portrait of this giant of modern dance.

Celebrating the Life of Alvin Ailey panel discussion_Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Artistic Director Emerita

Each of the three journeys to membership in the Ailey troupe was different. Judith Jamison had danced in her native Philadelphia with side journeys through the companies of Agnes De Mille and American Ballet Theater (where opportunities were few) before being invited into the company and later asked by Mr. Ailey to take over the troupe.


Sylvia Waters’ journey was more arduous, even after meeting Mr. Ailey when he took over a Lester Horton technique class at the New Dance Group. Their paths criss-crossed until she was actually asked to join without actually auditioning, eventually becoming the esteemed artistic director of Ailey II, the junior touring version of the Company.


Donna Woods was permitted by her parents to come to New York to audition for two weeks (!) and wangled her way into an Ailey company class where she was observed by not only Mr. Ailey, but the legendary Katherine Dunham in whose works she later appeared.


Each also reacted differently to their new surroundings. Although their performing histories overlapped somewhat , each faced different challenges and found their own unique relationship with Mr. Ailey and their fellow dancers.


Much was made of the camaraderie on tours and the early years of one night stands, being zipped off to the next city right after curtains calls. They each had “tons of choreography” thrown at them and had to bear the responsibility of communicating their heritage throughout the world, often having to deal with Mr. Ailey’s wilting comments. (Larry, the slightly inept bus driver, was another running theme.)


When asked about Mr. Ailey’s favorite city—aside from New York, of course—Paris seemed to be the leading contender, although Ms. Jamison was awestruck by their time in Africa.


It was generally agreed that Mr. Ailey knew how to bring out the best in each dancer. For instance, Ms. Wood was, in real life, a shy person, but Mr. Ailey knew exactly what images and subtext to imbue her with so that she could exude sensuality and energy. She came out of her shell enough to have been asked to take over Ms. Jamison’s signature work “Cry,” that rare female solo that has bowled over audiences since it was created on Ms. Jamison’s totally different physique.


All, however, agreed that they did not feel “official” until they were put into “Revelations,” the AAADT’s signature work.   Their descriptions of being in “Revelations” and also watching from the audience were precious, particularly when the subject of the now de rigueur encore of the final section came up for discussion. “Revelations” has been in the repertoire since the very first Ailey show at the 92nd Street’s YM-YWHA in 1960, although the fascinating reprint of the original program handed out to this audience showed a different version of this masterwork.


They all made a big point of the fact that the Ailey troupe was, and still is, a repertory company with works by many other choreographers, in many different styles, included on the programs: Donald McKayle, Katherine Dunham, James Truitte, Rudy Perez, Lester Horton, Ms. Jamison and Robert Battle, the company’s new artistic director.


In the end, this portrait of Alvin Ailey was full of conflicts as it should be. He was generous, but he was tough; he was an autocratic choreographer, yet accepted different interpretations of his steps; he was personal, yet distant. This is how a genius should be. His premature death, before the creation of the brilliant building that houses his legacy, was sad but all on stage agreed that the Ailey Studios and theater, housed in the Joan Weill Center—just a short walk from their main New York venue, New York City Center—would have been his crowning glory.

Photos: Lauren Morrow


Celebrating the Life of Alvin Ailey (January 5, 2016)

Ailey Extension Division

Joan Weill Center for Dance

405 West 55th Street, at 9th Avenue

New York, NY

For information about upcoming events visit www.alvinailey.org