Yale Dance Theater celebrates pioneer choreographer Alvin Ailey

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Matthew Rushing of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, shown here in rehearsal with the Yale Dance Theater, created a new work for the troupe. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

“When you say Alvin Ailey to a room full of 18-year-olds, their eyes light up,” says Emily Coates ’06, ’11 GRD, a lecturer in the Theater Studies Program, director of the dance studies curriculum, and faculty director of Yale Dance Theater (YDT). “Even if they know nothing about dance, many people know Ailey.”

The legacy and work of Ailey, a pioneering African-American choreographer and dance activist, has been the focus of YDT’s 2015 project — “Inheriting Ailey: Featuring a New Work by Matthew Rushing” — which will culminate in two performances comprising a new commissioned piece by Rushing, a featured dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT), and an excerpt from an early Ailey ballet, “Blues Suite” (1958), staged by Renee Robinson, another celebrated AAADT dancer.

The performances, which are free and open to the public, will take place Saturday, April 11 at 2 and 5 p.m. at the Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, 177 College St. Reservations are preferred and can be made through the Yale Drama Coalition’s website.

“Inheriting Ailey” is the fifth project for YDT, which began in 2011 and currently features an ensemble of 15 student dancers. Past projects have focused on the work of Twyla Tharp, Merce Cunningham, Reggie Wilson, Akram Khan, and Trisha Brown. This year, Coates wanted to commission an entirely new work. 

“YDT has mainly focused on reconstructing historical works. Students who have done multiple projects have an incredible array of dance histories in their muscle memory,” she said. “It felt important at this moment to give the dancers the chance to have a piece made just for them. I also wanted very much to turn YDT’s attention to the history of African-American concert dance. I thought of Matthew Rushing because through his choreography, he is transforming and carrying forward the Ailey legacy.”

Forming his company in the late 1950s, Ailey promoted African-American cultural forms while simultaneously embracing multiculturalism. He featured diverse training and repertory, including Caribbean and African dance, ballet, Graham technique, jazz and tap, and Horton technique. Just as Ailey looked both to the past and the future in dance, the YDT’s production looks backward and forward at once. 

“We have two of the most impactful Ailey dancers of the last 30 years on campus working with the students,” said Coates. “Matthew and Renee have absolute respect for the students as artists. They are incredibly generous teachers and mentors, able to draw out each dancer’s strengths.”

Students spend six hours each week in intensive rehearsals. In addition, YDT features a writing component that asks each of the dancers to contribute to a blog. Their writings eventually become part of a printed publication, “The Yale Dance Theater Journal,” edited by a small team of YDT members.  This month, YDT will release its second journal issue, on the choreography of Trisha Brown. The third issue will spotlight the “Inheriting Ailey” project.

Renee Robinson of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater choreographed an early Ailey ballet, “Blues Suite,” for the Yale Dance Theater. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

The dance studies curriculum also supported courses that helped to historicize this year’s project. This semester Coates is teaching a course on the history of dance, and visiting professor Constance Valis Hill is teaching “Dance and Black Popular Culture: Stomping the Blues,” which considers Ailey’s work through the lens of music.

Coates stressed the multidisciplinary reach of dance. In February, YDT hosted a symposium at the Afro-American Cultural Center, which included YDT dancers, Robinson, Rushing, Valis Hill, and Yale faculty speakers from a variety of disciplines, comprising political and cultural historians, music and dance scholars, and artists. Among the participants were Elizabeth Alexander, Daphne Brooks, Jonathan Holloway, and Matthew Jacobson.

“It was a rock star line-up,” said Coates, noting that two of the panelists shared firsthand memories of Ailey’s company. Holloway, dean of Yale College and the Edmund S. Morgan Professor of African American Studies, History, and American Studies, went to see Ailey’s work at the Kennedy Center as a child. Alexander, the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry, and professor of African American studies and American studies, had studied dance seriously.

As for the April 11 performance, Coates sees it as an opportunity to celebrate an important aesthetic legacy of American history.

“It’s always been a goal of YDT to educate the public about the complex history of dance,” she said. “Ailey’s incredible legacy is one that we all inherit and have a responsibility to carry forward into the next century.”

She noted that the student dancers’ multifaceted understanding of the work and their development, mastery, and engagement as dance artists will also be on display on April 11.

“We’re gathering to celebrate the students’ work and growth as artists,” she added, “as well as dance as a cultural, political, and social force in our society.”

YDT’s spring 2015 project is sponsored by the dance studies curriculum, the Theater Studies Program, and Alliance for Dance at Yale, and funded by the Arts Discretionary Fund in Yale College, with additional support from Vera Wells, Joan Winant, and Paula Armbruster. This spring Coates worked with student coordinators Naomi Roselaar ’17, Holly Taylor ’17, and Karlanna Lewis, a graduate student at Yale Law School and the School of Management.

A photography exhibition at Yale’s Pierson College features images of all five YDT projects.

See also: Small in size but large in scope: Dance Studies at Yale

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Media Contact

Amy Athey McDonald: amy.mcdonald@yale.edu,