By GAIL FINEBERG
Alvin Ailey, a visionary creator of modern American dance, once said that dance "came from the people" and that it should "always be delivered back to the people."
That happened on Feb. 8, with the transfer of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AADT) archives to the people of the United States, whose national library, the Library of Congress, will preserve the materials, digitize them and make them more widely available to future generations.
"The legacy of Ailey is of seminal importance, not just to the performing arts world, but also to the broader public," said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. "The Ailey Company embodies the best of American culture: It inspires creativity, it energizes us all, it educates America's children, it celebrates diversity."
The Librarian said it is appropriate to add the Alvin Ailey archives to the collections of the Library, which, he noted, "has been collecting and preserving cultural treasures since its founding in 1800 and has, thanks to copyright deposits and major donations, the closest thing we have to a mint record of America's diverse creativity—collections like those of Lester Horton, Katherine Dunham, Martha Graham and others in a world of dance—[millions of] items of African American history, legacy and culture."
Joining the Librarian for the event in the Coolidge Auditorium were AAADT artistic director Judith Jamison and members of the dance company and its foundation board, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., whose appearance was not certain until she walked to the podium near the end of the program. Library staff members were invited to attend.
Clinton said she was pleased to have a part in the program because some of the funding to pay for the processing and digitization of the Alvin Ailey archives will come from the White House Millennium Council's preservation program, "Save America's Treasures," which she started when she was first lady.
"The very beauty of dance helps us think more deeply about our shared human experience, and that's why this extensive collection of … sketches, of dances, programs, costume design, everything, including nearly 21 linear feet of audiotapes and of original Alvin Ailey footage, is so important," Clinton said.
She noted that intranet systems available on site at the Library, as well as the Alvin Ailey Company in New York City, will make the digitized items available to "students, dancers and interested advocates and supporters of the arts throughout the country and, indeed, the world."
Selected digitized items also will be integrated into the Library's American Memory Web site of more than 10.5 million primary documents of American history and culture for students and lifelong learners. The Library will also provide on-site public access to the original paper-based archives.
Commenting that his 8th Congressional District in New York City represents the cultural center of the United States, Nadler said, "Year in and year out, Alvin Ailey is at the forefront of expression and interpretation, not just in New York but across the country and around the world. The company has been showered with honors since its inception. The impact of its work stretches beyond the artistic realm. Its work influences the American dialogue; it is an essential part of American culture.
"It's only appropriate, then, that the precious Alvin Ailey archives will be housed and preserved by the institution principally responsible for honoring the treasures of American culture, the Library of Congress," he continued. I applaud the collaboration of these two very special cultural organizations to ensure that people across the country will be able to learn about the Ailey Company's American modern dance for generations to come."
Billington introduced Jamison as "the real star of this show," as "the performer who first embodied Alvin Ailey's artistic vision" and as the guardian of the Ailey dance company she now directs. "Anyone who ever saw her in ‘Revelations'  experienced a revelation. And when you heard the surge of a standing ovation last night at the Kennedy Center, when the company she now directs in such a distinguished manner staged this marvelous piece and brought it to life, you realized we all had the opportunity to experience a continuing revelation."
Before introducing three Ailey dancers—Renee Robinson, Matthew Rushing and Dwana Adiaha Smallwood—who brought "Wade in the Water" from "Revelations" to life for the Library audience, Jamison expressed her appreciation for all in the audience who have supported the company, its programs and a new building in New York City.
"Thank you all for being the support system that we need to continue to make art breathable, livable, a part of our space and our hearts and our spirits and our minds, part of what makes us embrace the world," she said.
"I acknowledge the Library of Congress for taking our archives, which were in a closet, and taking it from our little closet, our 48-year history, and putting it in our nation's capital and letting it be available for our nation, and the world, and for our young people so that our legacy continues for centuries, until God calls the ends of this earth," she said.
Jamison reflected on the legacy of Alvin Ailey and the significance of preserving his work for all time. "Let it be known to everyone that the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater existed, and exists in triumph, because of one man named Alvin Ailey, who had a dream in 1958 with eight dancers of color (we now have 30 dancers of all nations, of all nationalities, of all races), who went on a stage, that long ago," Jamison said.
"And now, we have a school with 3,000 students who come through the door, 55th Street and Ninth Avenue, 77,000 square feet of space, built and paid for with dancers' blood, sweat and tears, with faith, and a board, who sit here now, who gave us the money, and the love, and the courage to continue doing what we're doing," she said.
She noted that the school, which takes dancers of all ages to study for the stage or to learn the cha-cha, also produces college graduates with bachelor's degrees in fine arts, offered in cooperation with Fordham University. For the past 48 years, before outreach was popular, the school has reached into the school systems "to connect dance with math and science" and out to at-risk middle-school children at Ailey Camps in seven U.S. cities.
"Come to the man whose life left such a legacy, such a legacy that we can now live in his light and continue his legacy and visit it every time the curtain goes up, and visit it every time you come to the Library of Congress—isn't that wonderful?" Jamison exclaimed. "There are some things that should happen, and you know when you are in the right place at the right time. This is the right place, and this is the right time."
Alvin Ailey (1931–1989)
Born in Rogers, Texas, on Jan. 5, 1931, Ailey moved to Los Angeles at the age of 12. While on a class trip to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, he fell in love with concert dance. Inspired by performances of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company and others, Ailey began his formal dance training with Lester Horton, founder of the first racially integrated dance company in the country. After Horton's death in 1953, Ailey—then only 22 years old—became the director of the Lester Horton Dance Theater and began to choreograph his own works.
In 1954 Ailey and his friend Carmen de Lavallade were invited to New York to dance in the Broadway show "House of Flowers" by Truman Capote. While in New York, Ailey studied with many outstanding dance artists, including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. He took acting classes with Stella Adler and won several acting roles while continuing to dance and choreograph.
In 1958 Ailey founded his own company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT). Two years later he choreographed "Revelations," the classic masterpiece of American modern dance based on the religious heritage of his youth.
During his short but productive life, Ailey created 79 ballets, many of which have appeared in the repertoire of major dance companies, including the American Ballet Theatre, the Joffrey Ballet, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Paris Opera Ballet and La Scala Ballet. His work was a fusion of jazz, modern dance, classical ballet and African and Caribbean movements.
Following Ailey's death on Dec. 1, 1989, Judith Jamison succeeded him as artistic director of the AAADT. On May 5, 2004, Ailey was honored with a commemorative postage stamp.
The Ailey stamp is part of the American Choreographers stamp series, which also includes dance legends Martha Graham, Agnes de Mille and George Balanchine.
About the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Since its founding in 1958, AAADT has performed for more than 21 million people in 71 countries and on six continents. The Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation Inc. is the umbrella organization that includes AAADT; Ailey II, which was founded in 1974 as a junior performing company of emerging young dancers; and the Ailey School, which was founded in 1969 and offers some of the most extensive dance training in the world. For more information, visit AAADT at www.alvinailey.org.
About the Alvin Ailey Collection
Since its founding in 1958, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) has amassed an extensive collection of archival materials relating to Ailey's life and career, Judith Jamison's contributions as a dancer and now artistic director and the work of the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation. The collection also contains primary-source materials of other influential artists such as Katherine Dunham, Donald McKayle, Lester Horton and Lar Lubovitch.
The entire contents of that collection have been donated to the Library of Congress. Highlights include:
- Ailey's personal papers, including sketches of dances, programs, costume designs, rehearsal notes, honorary degrees and correspondence with noted photographer Carl Van Vechten;
- musical manuscripts and orchestrations, including holographic scores of works by Duke Ellington, Keith Jarrett, Leonard Bernstein, Phoebe Snow and Donald McKayle, as well as collaborative works with Katherine Dunham;
- Ailey's groundbreaking "Revelations" and his work on Bernstein's "Mass";
- the contents of Ailey's desk, including business correspondence, press kits, contracts and personal correspondence;
- national and international news clippings containing the original pasteups from 1960 to 1961;
- 998 original telegrams and congratulatory notes from dignitaries and celebrities around the globe;
- 8,500 black-and-white photographs representing an artistic and visual record of most of Ailey's ballets, as well as those of other choreographers whose works were performed with AAADT. Some of the most notable photographers included are Jack Mitchell, Fred Fehl, Kenn Duncan, Normand Maxon, Susan Cook, Anthony Crickmay, Johan Elbers, Lois Greenfield, Jack Vartoogian and Martha Swope;
- audiotapes used for performances from 1958 to 1995 and 24 reels of 16mm film footage; and
- some 4,000 programs of national and international appearances from 1958 to 2004.
Gail Fineberg is editor of The Gazette, the Library's staff newsletter.