World AIDS Day is powerfully personal for the legendary Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. On December 1, 1989, the pioneering dance company lost its larger-than-life leader Alvin Ailey to AIDS. At the time, however, it was not widely reported that Ailey had AIDS.
In his obituary by the New York Times, it was noted that “Dr. Albert Knapp, Mr. Ailey’s physician, attributed his death to terminal blood dyscrasia, a rare disorder that affects the bone marrow and red blood cells.”
Today, the veil of silence and shame has been removed and, in bold fashion, Alvin Ailey will kick off its New York season at the New York City Center Main Stage with the bold new work Home choreographed by Rennie Harris, who founded his company Rennie Harris Puremovement, which concentrates on preserving hip-hop culture, in Philadelphia in 1992.
Ailey dancer Hope Boykin, who has been with the company for 12 seasons and has worked with Harris previously, feels that Home is” a celebration of life” that “represents a revival of the life that can come from what we’ve learned and what we can engage in.”
Home itself is a unique collaboration between Alvin Ailey and Bristol-Squibb Meyers, makers of the prescription drug Reyataz which is used, along with other drugs, to treat AIDS sufferers from age 6 and older. Harris created the piece by using real stories and images gathered from the ten first place winners of the 2011 Reyataz “Fight HIV Your Way” contest.
Launched in 2006, the contest, according to a press release, “has leveraged the power of words and the visual arts as a platform to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS among the general public and inspire people impacted by the disease to continue their fight.”
Robert Battle, Alvin Ailey’s newly installed Artistic Director as of July 1, shared via press release that “The ‘Fight HIV Your Way’ initiative has enabled us to bring to the stage compelling stories about the individual and collective fight against HIV, through the unique perspective of hip hop choreographer Rennie Harris.”
Alvin Ailey was born on January 5, 1932 in Rogers, Texas, near Waco, to a 17-year-old mother whose husband left her six months later. At age 12, Ailey moved with his mother to Los Angeles and it was there that dance was introduced into his life. Ailey, who had appeared in Carmen Jones and choreographed Samuel Barber’s opera Anthony and Cleopatra, the first Metropolitan Opera production at Lincoln Center, founded Alvin Ailey in 1958.
A critical voice in the foundation of black modern dance, Ailey is hailed not just as an African American genius by the dance world but as an American master. “Alvin Ailey was a warrior for the arts and all who dared to be authentic,” Victoria Rowell, who began her successful career in performing arts as a dancer, emailed theGrio. “His humanitarianism and legendary vision demanded excellence on stage and off, never tolerating prejudice of any kind.”
Revelations, Ailey’s signature piece that remains a fixture at the company, is an American classic that incorporates the vigor and vitality of African-American spirituality that dominated small towns like his birthplace but Ailey was clear about its universal appeal.
“Its roots are in American Negro culture, which is part of the whole country’s heritage,” the New York Times quoted him in his obituary “But the dance speaks to everyone…. Otherwise it wouldn’t work.”
Boykin, a Durham, North Carolina native whose mother took her to see Ailey when she was four or five not knowing that her daughter would one day dance with the company, has felt what Ailey spoke. “When we travel to all of sorts of countries, to Greece, to Israel and we’re able to [perform] Mr. Ailey’s work and watch it celebrated, to see people standing to their feet at the end of each performance, you know that you are part of something amazing.”
Moving the art form forward is also a part of the Ailey legacy so that’s why new pieces like “Go in Grace,” which Boykin choreographed in 2008 with Sweet Honey in the Rock, as well as the latest Home by Harris, easily fit into the Ailey repertoire.
“We have a foundation,” Boykin said, “but everyone has their own story to tell though through that foundation.”
Giving back is at the core of Alvin Ailey, Boykin added. “Mr. Ailey was so about community,” she shared. One of his endearing quotes, she noted, is “Dance came from the people and it should always be delivered back to the people.”
With Home, which will be performed throughout the season in New York and other cities the company travels to, that’s exactly what the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is doing. It’s not just honoring World AIDS Day or the the passing of its visionary leader. More than 50 years after its birth, it is still enlightening and entertaining the community which gave it flight.