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Central Standard

Why Alvin Ailey Matters

Alvin Ailey was a choreographer who was born in Texas in 1931. He spent his pioneering dance career in New York City, touring internationally and transforming ideas about dance and race on the world stage throughout his life. He died in 1989, and yet, Kansas City dancers live and breathe Alvin Ailey in the 21st century. 

In recognition of the 30th anniversary of Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey (KCFAA), Central Standard explores the dance philosophy of Alvin Ailey and his relationship with Kansas City. 

Allan Gray, mayor pro-tem of Lee’s Summit, Mo., says he first met Alvin Ailey in 1982. "When we met, we immediately became close friends and friends for life. I knew that I had met an individual who was extraordinary," he says. 

Interview Highlights: Allan Gray, founder of KCFAA

On Alvin Ailey’s first visit to 18th and Vine

An amazing conversation ensued where Alvin talked to the young people to find out where they were in life and what was important to them and to tell them about dance and what dance could do for their lives. And, shortly after that, Alvin turned to me and began to talk about what his vision was for dance. He wanted to bring dance back to the people, bring it beyond the stage and past the proscenium into the lives and hearts and communities around the world.

On what dance can do for people’s lives

Dance has an inexplicable way of empowering individuals. It has a way of inspiring, it has a way of getting the individual that sees dance to believe in possibilities. When you see a dancer take a great leap across the stage or do a difficult athletic posture or movement on the stage, you know that it took hard work, you know it took discipline and something that comes from within.

And so what we’ve tried to do with KCFAA is to transfer that ability, that inspiration, to thousands of people. I think we share this with over 30,000 people every year, [and] over a million individuals in the last 30 years.

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Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR
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KCUR
Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey executive director Tyrone Aiken is also a choreographer. As a young dancer, he studied with Ailey in New York City.

Interview Highlights: Tyrone Aiken, executive director of KCFAA 

On Alvin Ailey’s vision for his company

When Mr. Ailey started his company, he wanted to have a repertory company and part of modeling that company was in his mentoring experience, when he was a young modern dancer, with Lester Horton Company. It was one of the first interracial dance companies in America. Lester Horton formed his company in 1932.

So when Mr. Ailey formed his company, he formed his company with many of the dancers that were in the Lester Horton Company, but [they were] much his senior. So in forming that company, he brought this group together and has maintained an idea of wanting to have America represented. Not only as the people and the cultures that make up America, but also the dance styles. 

On what you see in an Ailey performance 

There’s two quotes that Mr. Ailey said that I think are very, very powerful to me. And one is “the most unique individual in the world is you.” And he was very interested in seeing that from his dancers. But also he said he wanted his dancers to be able to “transmit through discipline an idea.” You’re talking about an idiom that’s ephemeral and that has the ability to convey many things. Having many opportunities in terms of music, in terms of costume, in terms of subject matter, to really explore and talk about what it is to be American, what it is to be African-American…

Interview Highlights: Jody Anderson, former dancer with the Kansas City Ballet 

On dancing Alvin Ailey's choreography 

At the end of that ballet [Memoria], there must be like 50 people on stage and it is just, the energy you get from everybody at the end of that piece, you can't describe it. Being on stage in that piece at the end, it's just one of the greatest feelings of my life, and that joy goes right across to the audience ... but then on the other end of the spectrum you have Flowers, which doesn't really have a happy ending. She dies at the end. I always knew that I performed that ballet well -- the ballet was probably 40 minutes of nonstop dancing, it was probably one of the most difficult ballets I ever performed as a dancer as far as stamina and emotional everything -- but at the end of that ballet, I knew I had danced it correctly when the curtain went down and nobody clapped. I loved that.

On Ailey as a mentor and coach

Being coached by him and working with him, he just lets you be you. I remember him coming in and coaching me in Memoria ... that was the first time I met him and I was of course really nervous, here's this dance icon walking into the room, and he literally walked into the room, took off his shoes off and said, 'OK, give me what you got.' And I was like, 'Oh, OK.' And then I did, and it was just two hours of amazingness working with him.

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People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.