by ALEX CARNEVALE
“You know the type – you’ve seen them,” Alvin Ailey wrote about a gay man. “He had been afraid a long time and this he did not like.”
Women at Lester Horton’s dance studio in Los Angeles routinely fell in love with Alvin Ailey. He was just as shy with them as he was with the public, fleeing before his onstage debut in 1951.
Alvin took a bag to San Francisco and found himself just as unhappy there. He found a dance group in the city, where he met his first friend, a talented singer and dancer named Marguerite Angelos. For money they performed at black Elks Lodges and supper clubs.
Ailey moved back to Los Angeles to work with Horton, whose studio was financially foundering. When Lester died of a heart attack in 1953, Ailey took over as the group’s choreographer. He had never taught before, and his first efforts as an instructor were unrefined. He specifically struggled with the young students – after all he was himself a 23 year old with little training.
His own dancing was still uneven. Through teaching others, he sharpened his techniques. One night, after a performance that had eclipsed all of his previous work, the theater’s director Frank Eng came to him in a fury. “Goddamnit it! You can dance like that. You’ve been giving us shit.”
Alvin Ailey’s mother had been pretty sure her son was gay, but it was nothing she ever talked about with him. When she saw him backstage in makeup for the first time, she slapped him. From nothing, Lula Ailey had worked her way into a job with Texas Instruments after washing clothes and picking cotton as a teenager in Texas.
Ailey’s productions at Horton Theater caught the eye of choreographer Herbert Ross, who hired him for a show called House of Flowers. Written by Truman Capote and directed by the English director Peter Brook, the production was very much a mess when Alvin joined the cast as a featured dancer. Because Ross was also working in television at the time, the dancers could only rehearse from midnight to 5 a.m.
The show would only last five months, even after Capote’s furious rewrites. The experience in the New York theater world opened Ailey’s eyes to the larger racism in the community. Peter Brook’s direction had to deal with the subject of interracial romance; all the while the belligerent Brook addressed the show’s black dancers as “you people.”
In New York, Alvin met everyone. Capote, Langston Hughes, Carl Van Vechten, Carson McCullers, Marlene Dietrich. Ailey had never had much in the way of alcohol before, but now it helped to bring him out of his shell. He carried a notebook everywhere he went. When House of Flowers closed, he went on unemployment and rented a room at 109 E. 9th Street.
During the 1950s, many shows would not even allow blacks to audition. The New York Times dance critic, a man named John Martin, openly encouraged blacks not to copy “the white man’s art,” claiming that blacks did not have the proper bodies to perform ballet. Despite these obstructions, Ailey’s talent shone through, allowing him to find some work as a performer, and plenty as a teacher.
Alvin wrote his mother to tell her he did not need the $10-$20 per week she had been sending him. He was a much better teacher in New York, gifted with the ability to soften every critique. Women and gay men were both swept up by his charisma. He wrote his mother to tell her that he had met “a wonderful girl,” but his relationship with a fellow dancer was only subterfuge.
In Algiers, much later, he finally worked up the courage to patronize prostitutes. A friend said, “I think inside that self-hatred was a real connection with who he loved and what it was for him to love somebody- a man, a boy, whoever was loving. He could open that up and pour it out and get it.” In the meantime, he began receiving therapy from a gay analyst and concentration camp survivor named Carl Goldman.
Alvin was cast in Call Me By My Rightful Name after the show’s casting director saw him dance in a production of Jamaica. “Alvin was magnetic, sexual and exciting,” director Milton Katselas broadcasted. He became friends with co-star Robert Duvall’s roommate Dustin Hoffman. The show lasted 127 performances before closing.
Alvin gave up acting after that, and returned entirely to the world of dance. He had recently created the dance that would become his company’s signature piece, Revelations, and a government sponsored tours of the Philippines and Russia were in his future. New ideas scribbled in his notebook included a drama based on the work of Samuel Beckett and a piece about the painter Henri Christophe. But again and again Alvin eschewed a more intellectual approach for dance that was based on the lives of the people he knew.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
“Closer” – Nathaniel Rateliff (mp3)
“Winded” – Nathaniel Rateliff (mp3)