It has been six decades since Alvin Ailey and a small, intrepid group of young African-American modern dancers performed a program of original choreography at New York City’s 92nd Street Y. The eight dancers, including Ailey, later set out to spread their spirit-lifting dance through a series of what Ailey called “station wagon tours.” So it began, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has been bringing dance to the people ever since.
These days, instead of cramming into a humble automobile driven by a longtime friend, the Ailey company jets its nearly three dozen dancers around the world; they’ve hit 71 countries on six continents. Dance fans in Boston have been enjoyed their work for more than 50 years. When the company makes its annual Celebrity Series of Boston appearance May 2-5, it will honor the legendary Ailey’s legacy with five programs that encompass new commissions and historical treasures. A special Saturday matinee called “Timeless Ailey” features excerpts from the choreographer’s canon spanning 30 years, from “Blues Suite,” which was on the company’s very first program in 1958, to the 1988 “Opus McShann,” the last ballet Ailey completed before his death.
“For the 60th anniversary, I wanted to make sure we did things that allow us to hear his voice,” says Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater artistic director Robert Battle. “This [program] speaks to me wanting to constantly remind people that Alvin Ailey wasn’t just a figurehead but a brilliant choreographer who had so many sides to him, not just ‘Revelations.’”
That gospel-inspired masterpiece will close each program, an Ailey tradition Battle says is almost a rite of passage, with new generations coming under its spell with each performance. “It impacts so many people across lines of age and race. Whether they’re across the street or across the ocean, people respond to it as if it’s their own. It’s a really universal message of hope and faith.”
Battle, 46, took over the reins of the company in 2011, following Judith Jamison, whom Ailey handpicked as his successor before his death in 1989. Jamison in turn picked Battle, who carries the mantle of his stewardship with great care, not only to preserve Ailey’s spirit, but also to move the company forward and expand its repertory with new works and commissions from prominent, often groundbreaking choreographers. The company’s Boston engagement includes the 100th ballet of Jessica Lang, a commission called “EN,” which Battle says reflects the idea of relationships coming full circle, as well as British choreographer Wayne McGregor’s “Kairos.” It’s the first American company to perform the work. “It’s very balletic and shows off the versatility of our dancers,” Battle says.
But when he wanted to commission a world premiere especially for the 60th anniversary, Battle turned to hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris, currently the company’s first artist-in-residence. Harris’s new “Lazarus,” which will be presented Friday and Saturday nights, is the first two-act work the company has tackled, and it evokes Ailey’s life and legacy through the prism of African-American history and culture.
“Rennie is such a brilliant storyteller, and I thought using street dance would be unexpected and would reach young people, bring people together, which is such an important message and so timely in this era of discord,” Battle says.
The imagery in “Lazarus” addresses racial inequities. “I decided to deal with what’s going on in society while Mr. Ailey was in his creation mode, pushing the company forward,” Harris says. “It’s about civil rights, more or less what’s happening now and has been happening since we were enslaved. It’s about the African-American plight.”
But he says the work is also about resurrection and the spirit of regeneration that Ailey’s work exemplifies, making it as relevant now as ever. “He’s sort of like a beacon that says you can still move forward, be progressive,” Harris says. “He continues to be an example, to inspire life.”
Battle adds, “The [work’s] refrain is that as with so many leaders who inspired change and excellence, [Ailey’s] death didn’t have the final word. He’s embodied in all of us, in his legacy.”
At the foundation of that legacy is accessibility. Ailey’s credo was that dance comes from the people and should be given back to them in a way that resonates with their lives. Over the past 60 years, the diversity of the audiences that this company has reached through performance and outreach is unparalleled.
“It has been in a way that is approachable, spiritual, life affirming,“ Battle says. “I think Alvin Ailey’s openness as a human being was because of his experience of being left out, and he wanted dance to be for everybody.”
ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER
At Boch Center Wang Theatre, May 2-5. Tickets $35-$90. 800-982-2787, www.bochcenter.orgKaren Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.