Biography Essay on Alvin Ailey, a Dance Choreographer

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George Washington University
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Choreography refers to the art of creating dances. It involves arranging and planning dance movements, patterns, and steps for dancers (Popat). The word comes from a Greek word that means dance writing. A choreographer specifies dance moves for the dancers in different songs that enable the audience to pick a particular sequence and emotion from the dancers. This paper seeks to analyze Alvin Ailey, a dance choreographer and how his dance ideas identify with Susan Leigh Foster ideas of dancing as documented in her book Reading Dancing Bodies and Subjects in Contemporary American Dance.

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Alvin Ailey was born in the year 1931 in Rogers, Texas. At a tender age, he fell in love with dance, and his inspirations came from Lester Horton and Katherine Dunham (Foulkes). After Hortons death in 1953, Alvin Ailey assumed the directors position at Lester Horton Dance Theater the first dance company that includes people from all races. He worked with several famous dance artists and in the journey several acting and choreographies in the dance industry. He created his dancing foundation Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958 (Foulkes). His primary motivation was to develop the unique black cultural showcase and the American dance. He also aimed at growing, enriching and preserving the dances from these two cultural dances. Alvin Ailey has created 79 ballet dances that have been featured in major dance companies in the world (Foulkes). His most famous words stated, I wanted to explore the black culture, and I wanted that culture to be a revelation.

Alvin Aileys dance choreography was largely influenced by Lester Horton. Alvin Ailey encompassed different elements from a variety of dances to make his choreography style. Alvin Ailey in his choreography preferred the extensive use of the lower body, footwork and upper body movement that was matriculated in the modern dance. Throughout his work, he narrowed his dance styles to Ballet, Broadway, and Jazz in his choreographies.

Alvin Ailey was born in the era where blacks struggled to showcase their cultural and social identity. It is true that the bodies and race of dancers create a social identity in their body movements during dancing (Margolin, Indrani, and Dominique). Alvin Ailey believed that the African American body was able to create different social constructs from the pre-constructs the society had formed. Alvins choreography did not create movements for entertainment purposes only. He also focused on the communication aspect that would appeal to the emotional side of the audience (Margolin, Indrani, and Dominique). In most of his dances, Alvin used black music and cultural themes to create choreographies that received national recognition. This field of exploration identifies with Susan Fosters idea that a choreographer should strive to elicit different attitudes from the audience. These views may include empathy, understanding, attention or just admiration. Revelations are one of Alvin Aileys masterpieces that employ the use of several elements to communicate to the audience emotions. For example, the Revelation piece starts with black religious music; the piece starts with a sad tone to that of happiness depicted in the rock succession. The spirituality employed in the piece signifies the slavery the blacks strived to survive (Margolin, Indrani, and Dominique). The spiritual mood is represented by bold physical movements in the dance that appeal to the emotions of an audience.

Costumes are another integral part of the choreography. Choreographers need to use clothes that complement the dance and communicate to the public (Fuhrer, Margaret, and Alicia). Foster state that costumes in choreography dances contain active, passive and sign dichotomy. The potent signifiers in the dances allow for the audience to see different meanings at different moments during the performances. Alvins dances never failed when it came to costumes. He believed that a dress in dance is the visual manifestation that communicates to the audience in time and space (Fuhrer, Margaret, and Alicia). Alvin Ailey believes that costumes act a symbol of the religion, cultures and the attitudes and beliefs people carry about their surroundings. In his performance Pilgrim of Sorrow, Alvin used different shades of brown colors on the garments to show the black body was beautiful (Picart). During Alvins time, people disregarded the black people, and the black color was always associated with evil, sinful, and harmful objects. Ailey used costumes in the dance to correct the misconception people had about the blacks and their color of skin. He used the different shades of brown to communicate about equality in the society that was missing. His harmonization of colors showed that all people are equal despite the various shades of color. The costumes also sent a message to the audience that it is possible to live together with different races and still provide beauty in the world.

In the 19th century, there was a new tradition about promoting healthy physical body and exercise. This new trend formed a base that developed the Delsarte System of Expression that was taught in many gymnasiums (Prickett). It was a system that led to man women venturing in public and the creation of modern dance. Alvin Ailey was quick to adopt the politics of the dancing body in his choreographies to address the injustices that were happening in the society. Foster agrees that in dance, all historical, political, and social instances are portrayed in form and manner. She states that the ballerinas are usually over sexualized from their costumes to the way in which they dance. She states that while choreographers create dance movements, they should also strive to understand how their dances communicate gender, race and class issues. Alvin Aileys work and revelation piece are some of the creations that showcased politics in the dancing body. Foster states that dances are not created just for entertainment or a temporary escape to a world of fantasies. She says that dances are important in transmitting the meaning of daily occurrence in our lives. Dance is culture and shapes our construct about culture. In it carries the power of transformation and consequences of our actions in the society.

In conclusion, it is clear that Alvin Aileys dance choreographies identify with fosters ideas about dance and choreography. His choreographies show ha he adored ballet even though he substitutes with Jazz and modern dance elements. He is one of the most celebrated choreographers in the American history. His creations did not only speak about the society but also allowed the audience to create meaning that would resonate with their current life situation. Dance is an art that speaks to the public emotions and intellect.

Works cited

Foster, Susan Leigh. Reading dancing: Bodies and subjects in contemporary American dance. Univ of California Press, 1986.

Foulkes, Julia L. Modern bodies: dance and American modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey. Univ of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Fuhrer, Margaret, and Alicia Graf Mack. American Dance: The Complete Illustrated History. Voyageur Press (MN), 2014.

Margolin, Indrani, and Dominique Riviere. "Only human: Critical reflections on dance, creation, and identity." Journal of Arts and Humanities 4.10 (2015): 74.

Picart, Caroline Joan S. "Moving into New Directions: Cunningham and Ailey." Critical Race Theory and Copyright in American Dance. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2013. 117-159.

Popat, Sita. Invisible connections: dance, choreography and internet communities. Routledge, 2013.

Prickett, Stacey. "Constrained Bodies: Dance, Social Justice, and Choreographic Agency." Dance Research Journal 48.3 (2016): 45-57.

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