Wonderful images of Alvin Ailey and his eponymous dance company taken by the photographer Jack Mitchell are now available via the Smithsonian’s Online Virtual Archives. For those of us who appreciate Ailey’s distinctively African-American rendition of modern and contemporary dance since the early ’60s it is a privilege being able to publicly access the collection of more than 10,000 photographs chronicling the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater from 1961 to 1994.
On December 1, recognized as Worlds AIDS Day, which also coincided with the 30th anniversary of Alvin Ailey’s death, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture made available the Jack Mitchell Photography of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Collection. The digitized collection includes 8,288 black-and-white negatives, 2,106 color slides and transparencies, and 339 black-and-white prints depicting the repertory of Alvin Ailey, choreographers, and iconic solo performers the company is known for. Acquired in 2013, the collection is jointly owned by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation.
The company became known (and still remains so) for its blending of Black American and African movement (think bent knees, hips and backsides swaying rhythmically, shoulders and torsos dipping and twisting) and emotionally evocative gestures with a classical ballet vocabulary that emphasizes strict adherence to geometric lines and a courtly bearing. The collection features imagery very recognizable to those familiar with its history. There are images of the founder Ailey as a young dancer and later as a seasoned ballet master. There are many pictures of Judith Jamison, once a star dancer in the company (whose solo performance of Cry is still regarded as among Ailey’s best dances) who left to pursue other interests and then returned to eventually become the company’s artistic director, a role she held for 21 years. And pictures of Masazumi Chaya, a dancer originally from Japan, who worked with the company for 15 years as a dancer and stayed on as a rehearsal director after retiring. There are, of course, many lovely scenes from dances in both rehearsal and performance, including that of their perennial favorite, Revelations.
This collection is a boon to the public in that it allows all who are interested to see how this performance group distilled the experiences of African American heritage into movement that in its early days was groundbreaking and today remains unforgettable.