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Originally published Sunday, March 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Alvin Ailey company celebrating 50th in Seattle

A 50th birthday celebration, both lyrical and raucous, will take place next weekend on the stage of the Paramount Theatre. Alvin Ailey American Dance...

Seattle Times arts critic

Dance preview

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. March 30, Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; $25-$50 (www.theparamount.com or 206-292-ARTS).

A 50th birthday celebration, both lyrical and raucous, will take place next weekend on the stage of the Paramount Theatre. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the New York-based company beloved by audiences worldwide, celebrates a milestone few modern dance companies reach — and the actual birthday will be celebrated in Seattle, with some local dancers sharing the joy.

A native of Texas, Alvin Ailey was a dancer on the rise when he founded his company with a group of young African-American modern dancers, beginning with a performance at New York's 92nd Street YMCA on March 30, 1958. Over subsequent years, AAADT became one of the world's best-known companies: touring widely (to an estimated 71 countries on six continents), opening a school, founding the junior company Ailey II, receiving numerous awards and honors, and in 2005 opening its own vast new dance center in Manhattan.

Ailey was a marvelously prolific choreographer, creating 79 dances as well as commissioning numerous new works for the group. But offstage he was troubled, struggling with substance abuse and mental illness. Ailey died in 1989 of an AIDS-related blood disease, at the age of 58. Judith Jamison, a star performer with the company from 1965 to 1980, took over as artistic director after Ailey's death, a position she still holds today.

AAADT's members tend to stay a long time (associate artistic director Masazumi Chaya will celebrate his 35th year with the company this year), just as audiences keep coming back to see the trademark ballet "Revelations" over and over again. ("Revelations" will be presented at each Seattle performance; see below for the full schedule.) Choreographed in 1960 by Ailey to traditional spirituals and gospel music, the dance takes its audience on a journey from sorrow to redemption to joy. Is there, in all of dance, a happier moment than the Ailey company, in Sunday dresses and natty vests, riotously grooving to "Rocka My Soul"?

Jamison, who herself performed "Revelations" countless times in her career, said that Ailey dancers never tire of it. " 'Revelations' has a tendency to draw you into itself, no matter what's going on in your life," she said. "This is a dance that does take you with it, and you become a part of it, and by the time it's over you don't want to leave it. Dancers who come into the company don't feel they've joined the company until they've done 'Revelations.' It is an experience unto itself."

In honor of the anniversary, a special performance of Ailey's "Memoria" will be presented at Sunday's 2 p.m. matinee, with 23 young dancers (aged 14 to 22) from the Pacific Northwest joining the company on stage. AAADT rehearsal director Ronni Favors traveled here to audition and rehearse the dancers. Created by Ailey in 1979 as a memorial to his choreographer friend Joyce Trisler, the dance represented the first time the main company, Ailey II and the advanced students of The Ailey School performed together. Jamison noted that some of the dancers in the current company performed "Memoria" as students. "It's a wonderful journey for young people to have, to be on the same stage with a company that they've admired in their young lives."

The dance makes a fitting tribute to Ailey, whose legacy remains in full bloom — and whose dedication to community outreach, particularly to the young, was a theme throughout his life. The Seattle tour stop will also include school residencies at African American Academy and Zion Preparatory Academy, as well as a number of master classes.

Jamison, a woman whose warmth and ebullience is evident even in a telephone interview from New York, has been a witness to most of those 50 years, and a few more. (She recently announced that she will step down as artistic director in 2011.) "Of our 50 years of existence — superlative existence, if I do say so myself — there is an absolute charge from Mr. Ailey that says that we must be magnificent in our integrity and in our absolute enduring faith in the fact that you cannot dance in a vacuum," she said. "You must bring people along with you, especially children, especially young people. You absolutely must, because you have to remember how you got started in all of this, and why it was magical to you."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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