NEW YORK — ALVIN AILEY, choreographer and founder of what is probably the most popular modern dance company in America, represented the idealism that set modern dance in motion. Ailey, who died Dec. 1, not only created a sleek, high-powered company and a nationally recognized school; through three turbulent decades he never gave up the idea of modern dance as an exemplary art form. His company is known for its portrayal of the black experience and the black spirit, but Ailey believed that dance is uplifting for all people. Ailey received his training in Los Angeles from the modern dance pioneer Lester Horton. An amateur ethnologist, proficient designer, and energetic improviser of schemes to keep his integrated company afloat, Horton was Ailey's model as company director as well as his teacher. After Horton's death in 1953, Ailey came to New York to dance in musicals, and started a small company of his own. From its first days in the '50s, the company lived hand-to-mouth, pulling itself out of disaster's way by calling on the fanatical loyalty of its audiences.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater came into prominence in the mid-'60s, answering the call for ``black power'' with inspired, sometimes angry and always galvanic dances. Some of Ailey's early choreography was based on spirituals, blues, and jazz, including his 1960 signature work, ``Revelations.'' Whatever it performed, though, the company could rouse the audience to a stomping, screaming affirmation reminiscent of a gospel service.
In 1965, when modern dance companies were identified almost entirely by the personalities of their director-choreographers, the charismatic Ailey left the stage and supplemented his own creations in the repertory with works by other contemporary choreographers, black and white. Undertaking what he considered his responsibility to dance history, Ailey began a living archive of little-known works by important choreographers like Katherine Dunham, Ted Shawn, Pearl Primus, and Talley Beatty.
In addition to initiating true modern dance repertory, Ailey crossed over into the ballet field before his colleagues were ready to let down the traditional barriers. He made the first post-World War II dance for a ballet company, ``Feast of Ashes,'' based on Lorca's ``House of Bernarda Alba,'' for the Joffrey Ballet (then sponsored by Rebekah Harkness) in 1962. It was followed by other ballet works, including ``The River,'' to music of Duke Ellington.
Gradually Ailey's own company style evolved from funkiness to glamor. After the first State Department-sponsored Asian trip in 1962, the company spent a large part of its time on international touring circuits, playing to huge audiences in in Europe, Africa, Australia. They learned to project theatrically, to cultivate long, stretched balletic bodies, and to augment their movement style with expansive, readable gesture.
The company got bigger, more homogenized. Individual eccentricity gave way to spectacle and technical thrills. But Ailey always bred distinctive stars. From Carmen de Lavallade and James Truitte in the '50s to Clive Thompson, Loretta Abbott, Joyce Trisler, Judith Jamison, Takako Asakawa, George Faison, Linda Kent, Mari Kajiwara, and Dudley Williams, the list of wonderful dancers is impressive. So is his willingness to give young choreographers a place to work. The company's one-month season, opening this week at City Center, will feature dances by relative newcomers Ulysses Dove and Barry Martin.
Ailey always said he wanted a beautiful and popular company. He achieved that and more. A true integrationist, a proselytizer for the serious possibilities of modern dance, a magnetic personality, he will be known as a father figure to hundreds of students, and as the producer of some of the most glorious spectacles seen on our stages.