Troy Powell remembers the late Alvin Ailey fondly. The legendary choreographer saw something in Powell at nine years old and recruited him for a children’s program after leading a masterclass at his elementary school. Perhaps that’s why, when asked about Ailey’s legacy, Powell says simply, “It's magical.”
This year marks more than six decades since Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater — but it’s also the 30th anniversary of his death. It’s taken about this long for the full scope and impact of his art to receive its due beyond the stage. “His story gives people hope. It gives people perspective, not just on dance: it really touches your own life where you're looking at yourself [and] who you are as a human being,” Powell says. “His legacy is so profound.”
Ailey was born at the height of the Great Depression to a young mother in 1931 in Rogers, Texas. His father abandoned him when he was six months old, forcing his mother to raise him alone amid racial segregation and violence. In 1942, they moved to Los Angeles, and at age 18, Ailey began taking dance seriously. Studying under Lester Horton, who started the first multiracial dance school in the United States, he balanced an interest in dance with fascinations of romance languages and the writings of James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. At 22, he formally joined Horton’s company, and he became artistic director less than a year later, when Horton died. Following a stint performing on Broadway, Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958 as a way to preserve the uniqueness of the Black American cultural experience and imbue modern dance heritage with it. He established the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center (now The Ailey School) in 1969 and formed the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble (now Ailey II) in 1974, becoming a pioneer of arts education programs benefiting underserved communities.
“One of the things that Mr. Ailey often said [was that] dance came from the people and should always be given back to the people,” Powell remembers. “Sometimes dancers just dance for themselves and don’t really trust audience members in the theater to leave thinking differently about themselves. We just go on the stage, do our job. But with him telling us that you have to do this in the most honest way, it helped me grow as an artist.”
Such selflessness underscores the Ailey philosophy, something Daniel Harder has come to learn since joining the Company and dancing Ailey’s work. He’s the lead in this season’s big premiere, “Lazarus,” which is inspired by the life and legacy of the legend himself.
“You really get a sense of Mr. Ailey's spirit, his upbringing, the different influences within his life,” he says, “and, of course, in a very intangible way, [I’ve] come to understand his generosity, his love for his artists in his company, and his love for telling stories that need to be told.” And for a Black gay man — who kept his sexuality private and asked his doctor to say he died of terminal blood dyscrasia instead of HIV/AIDS complications — “to have the courage to create a space where African American dancers and choreographers could share their stories, but also take those stories and highlight them in a way where they become accessible to everyone... I just think the cultural significance of being so resilient during that time is incredible.”
Harder referenced the Black adage about honor: “Give people their flowers while they can still smell them.” While it would’ve been great to adulate Ailey while he was still alive, “it is [only] recently that a lot of people are honoring how much of an impact Mr. Ailey made. “And I think it's incredible,” Harder said.
“I mean, better now than never.”
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater continues its 60th Anniversary tour through May 12, followed by a New York season at Lincoln Center June 12-16.
Photographed By Micaiah Carter
Styled By Yashua Simmons
Movement By Troy Powell
This article appears in Out's May issue featuring artist Zanele Muholi and model Ruth Bell as cover stars. The issue is guest edited by Kimberly Drew. To read more, grab your own copy of the issue on Kindle, Nook, Zinio or (newly) Apple News+ today. Preview more of the issue here and click here to subscribe.