Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Mini Performance

Grades 5-8, Family Theater (60 minutes), February 7, 2019

Robert Battle, Artistic Director
Masazumi Chaya, Associate Artistic Director

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater shares “Ailey Magic” with students, giving insight into the history of the company and its founder Alvin Ailey. The company performs selections from its varied and inspiring repertoire, including their signature work, Revelations.

Standards Connections:
Social Studies — History and Culture
Music, Dance — Connecting (Cn.11)

Student Guide

On March 30, 1958, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) performed for the first time at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Led by Alvin Ailey and a group of young African American dancers, that performance changed the perception (and look) of American dance.

Sixty years later, the company is considered one of the most successful arts organizations in the country. In fact, in 2008, a U.S. Congressional resolution designated the Company as “a vital American cultural ambassador to the world” that celebrates the uniqueness of the African American cultural experience and the preservation and enrichment of the American modern dance heritage. In all, more than 235 works by over 90 choreographers have been part of the Ailey company’s repertory. And since that first performance, AAADT has gone on to perform for an estimated 25 million people at theaters in 48 states and 71 countries on six continents—as well as millions more through television broadcasts, film screenings, and online platforms.

Here’s a quick peek at the company’s 60th anniversary video celebration.

For a much deeper look, check out this video from the program “Works & Progress at the Guggenheim.”
The conversation is moderated by author Susan Fales-Hill and features the company’s artistic director, Robert Battle, and artistic director emerita, Judith Jamison. Throughout the evening, Ailey dancers perform highlights from signature classics and commissioned works to demonstrate the company’s continuing goal to push dance into new territory.

At the performance, you will see Ailey’s iconic work Revelations, and The Call or Flight Time. All three are discussed below along with information on Alvin Ailey and his choreographic style.

So, What’s Going On?

You may have heard of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. No surprise—they’ve been on the main dance stage since 1958. Based in New York City, the company has toured all over the world. But who exactly was Alvin Ailey?


Caption: Portrait of Alvin Ailey. Credit: Photo by Jack Mitchell.

Born in a small Texas town in 1931, Alvin Ailey began his dance training at age 11 by being exposed to classical, social, and folk dances, as well as the emerging style of modern dance. But at the start of his career, he encountered few opportunities for African American dancers like himself.

Ailey wanted to create a company that allowed African American dancers to display their talents and to express their experiences and heritage. When he formed AAADT, it was one of the first professional companies where dancers of all races and backgrounds were welcome. According to the New York Times, “You didn’t need to have known Alvin personally to be touched by his humanity, enthusiasm, and exuberance and his courageous stand for multicultural brotherhood.”

Watch (and learn) what makes Ailey “Ailey”?

Ailey died in 1989, but his legacy lives on with his company and school. Today, AAADT is under the artistic direction of Robert Battle who not only choreographs new works, but who also invites others to create dances for the company.


Caption: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations.
Credit: Photo by Pierre Wachholder.

What’s the Big Deal about Revelations?

Revelations is Alvin Ailey’s signature work and has been performed by the company since its creation in 1960. This masterwork has been seen by more people than any other modern dance. More than 25 million audience members in 71 countries have been to a performance. Now it’s your turn.

First, watch this short film Celebrating Revelations at 50 Film from Alvin Ailey on Vimeo that celebrates the work by telling the history and significance of this modern dance classic.

It’s hard to watch Revelations and not be caught up in the emotions and atmosphere of the work. The dance is based on Ailey’s early years worshipping at his southern Baptist church. Drawing on his childhood recollections of people and places, and using traditional African American blues, work songs, and spirituals as his musical inspiration, Ailey tells the story of African American faith and persistence in the face of adversity.

Revelations is divided into three sections; each includes several dances representing different aspects or experiences in Baptist worship. The main sections include:

  • “Pilgrim of Sorrow” speaks of people yearning for salvation but burdened by the troubles of this life. Look for arms reaching out in all directions, and bodies pulled back to earth.

Caption: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Ghari DeVore and Yannick Lebrun in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations.
Credit: Photo by Pierre Wachholder.

  • “Take Me to the Water” is an enactment of Ailey’s own baptism that took place in a pond behind his church. Watch for the devotional leader in white holding a large white umbrella. She leads a young couple to the baptismal river of billowing blue silk. Look for the way the dancers undulate through their arms and torsos and stretch long pieces of fabric to emulate rippling water.

Caption: AAADT’s C. Heyward, V. Gilmore, R. McLaren, F. Tesfagiorgis in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations.
Credit: Photo by Paul Kolnik

  • “Move, Members, Move” begins with three men dancing to the song “Sinner Man.” The next section shows a congregation, decked out in yellow, participating in a joyous church service. Watch how Ailey brings humor to the work by showing churchgoers who gossip and otherhers who fan themselves in the heat.

Caption: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations.
Credit: Photo by Pierre Wachholder.

Ailey described the memories that inspired Revelations as “blood memories” because they were so strong he felt they were part of him as much as the blood that ran through his veins.

The Call

Choreographed by Ronald K. Brown
Music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Yo-Yo Ma, Mary Lou Williams, and Asase Yaa Entertainment Group

A Tribute to Alvin Ailey
The Call is choreographer Ronald K. Brown’s love letter to Alvin Ailey. Brown pays tribute to Ailey, whose work inspired him to pursue dance, in this dance created especially for the company’s 60th anniversary celebration. Critics have called The Call a conversation between Brown and Ailey. The choreography references Ailey’s canon of work and imagery, but also reflects the evolution and inspiration of Ailey’s legacy on contemporary movement today.

Take a look at a clip from The Call:

Listen for:

  • The surprisingly harmonious mix of classical, jazz, and Malian music.

Watch for:

  • The dancers perform a canon where each one enters the stage after another and executes the same choreographic sequence.
  • The natural conversation of ballet technique, contemporary choreography, social dance, and West African movement.
  • Iconic “Ailey” images including when the dancers stand in a triangle, lift their chests and heads, and raise their arms into a high “V” position like in the opening of Revelations.
  • How the dancers leap, partner, and take up space with an essence of joy and splendor.

Caption: Notice the triangle of dancers with arms outstretched in a “V” shape.
Credit: Photo by Paul Kolnick.


Caption: This triangle pose harks back to the opening image in “Fix Me, Jesus” from Ailey’s famous piece, Revelations. Credit: Photo by Paul Kolnick.

Think about:

  • How is dance a conversation—between choreographer and dancer, dancer and fellow dancer, and dancer and audience?
  • Brown utilizes a variety of music styles in The Call. What qualities unify the score? How does this idea translate to the movement of the piece as well?

Caption: The Call weaves together modern dance with West African forms. The piece speaks to the spirit of Alvin Ailey. Credit: Photo by Paul Kolnick.


Caption: In “The Love,” one male dancer begins on stage and calls upon the rest of the cast to join him. This symbolizes Ailey’s creation of his dance company. Credit: Photo by Paul Kolnick


Caption: The Call explores the balance between strong and soft, joy and pain, independence and unity, both in the themes of the piece but also in the choreographic movement. Credit: Photo by Paul Kolnick.


Caption: Brown explores themes that we see in other Ailey works including spiritual awakening and redemption. Credit: Photo by Paul Kolnick.


Caption: The “Blues for Timme” duet evokes the dancing partnership of Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade. In fact, de Lavallade was responsible for taking Ailey to his first dance class. Credit: Photo by Paul Kolnick.

Did you know… Carmen de Lavallade received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2017; Alvin Ailey was himself honored in 1988.

Take a look behind-the-scenes at Brown’s rehearsal process for The Call:

Flight Time (excerpt from Phases)

Choreographed by Alvin Ailey
Composed by Larry Mizell

Joyful Jazz
Phases is a five-part suite that choreographically presents five ways to have a good time. Ailey choreographed this dance at the height of his artistry in 1980. Each section was composed by a significant African American jazz musician.

Listen for:

  • Parallels between jazz music and jazz dance: syncopation and swung rhythms, improvisation, off-beat accents, glissando (slide from one note to another).

Watch for:

  • Traditional Horton technique—a lengthened spine, lateral movements, deep lunges, and daring hinges.

Think about:

  • When a work of dance is long and divided into several sections, it is often called a ballet even if it is another style of dance such as musical theater or modern dance. Why do you think this is?

You can watch this montage of Ailey Classics for clips from Flight Time, Revelations, and other signature works of the company: “Ailey Classics”.

Check This Out!

Ailey’s Signature Style
Ailey accepted dancers into his company who were trained in different styles including ballet, modern, jazz, and hip hop. He encouraged their individual strengths and differences in style, bringing them together in performance like a conductor of jazz music. Despite these differences, there are common elements in his choreography. Watch for:

  • straight lines in the lower body, with quick and sharp leg and foot movements, like in ballet
  • an expressive upper body with fluid arms and torso movements, like in modern dance
  • energetic dancing that emphasizes strength
  • expressive hands
  • a fusion of African-influenced movements with ballet and modern dance

There is also good reason why Alvin Ailey called his company “a dance theater.” Ailey was interested in how elements of theater—costumes, props, lighting, and music—could be combined with dance to communicate with an audience. Watch…

  • how colors have meanings in costumes. Notice how the color scheme for the costumes is different in each section, first earth-toned, then white, and finally yellow. Why do you think he chose these colors?

Caption: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations.
Credit: Photo by Pierre Wachholder 2015.

  • how props tell a story. In Revelations, the dancers use props to help bring Ailey’s childhood memories to life. For example, long sheets of blue and white fabric stretch across the stage to suggest water; white parasols, wide-brimmed hats, and fans imply the heat of Texas summers; and stools used by the dancers represent a seated church congregation.
  • how lighting creates mood. Revelations begins with a group of dancers standing under a single spotlight on a darkened stage. Later, the dancers move across a fully illuminated stage. Why do you think the lighting changes?

Take Action: Art for All

Alvin Ailey made Revelations based on his own personal experience, yet it speaks to people of all ages, all over the world, regardless of their racial and religious backgrounds. After you see the work, brainstorm why you think it inspires so many people every time it is performed. Share your thoughts with friends and family.


Go even deeper with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Performance Extras.

Teacher & Parent Guide

Parents, Teachers, and Caregivers: We’ve Got You Covered

Revelations was created more than 50 years ago, but is still relevant for today’s audiences. To learn more about this amazing dance work, you may want to visit some of the following sites:

Revelations Revealed:

More on the dance and Ailey’s signature style at this ARTSEDGE resource, “Master + Work: Alvin Ailey and Revelations.


A short film called Celebrating Revelations at 50 Film from Alvin Ailey on Vimeo.

Playlist of songs from Revelations.

What the Dancers Say:

Artistic Director Robert Battle and dancers talk about What "Revelations" Means To Me from Alvin Ailey on Vimeo.

Explore History of the Company:

This timeline on the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Web site highlights some of the major events in the history of the company.



Mary Callhan
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Tiffany Bryant
Assistant Manager, Audience Enrichment

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is part of the Kennedy Center's Human Journey representing Resilience. www.kennedy-center.org/humanjourney

The Human Journey is a collaboration between The Kennedy Center, National Geographic Society, and the National Gallery of Art, which invites audiences to investigate the powerful experiences of migration, exploration, identity, and resilience through the lenses of the performing arts, science, and visual art.


David M. Rubenstein

Deborah F. Rutter

Mario R. Rossero
Senior Vice President

Major support for educational programs at the Kennedy Center is provided by David M. Rubenstein through the Rubenstein Arts Access Program.

Kennedy Center education and related artistic programming is made possible through the generosity of the National Committee for the Performing Arts.

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