The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is making available the collection of more than 10,000 photographs chronicling the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater from 1961 to 1994. The Jack Mitchell Photography of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Collection includes 8,288 black-and-white negatives, 2,106 color slides and transparencies, and 339 black-and-white prints depicting private photo sessions, repertory by Alvin Ailey and a wide range of choreographers and iconic solo performers. (Image credit: Portrait of Alvin Ailey with Judith Jamison, Linda Kent and Dudley Williams in dance studio. Photography by Jack Mitchell © Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation Inc. and Smithsonian Institution, All rights reserved.)
Alvin Ailey, was the first African-American to pave the way of modern dance. He was awarded the Springarn Medal, Kennedy Center Honors and posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Jack Mitchell’s collection documents the dance company’s evolution while capturing the true idiosyncrasies and physicality of movement through still images. The photography showcases the innovative performances and groundbreaking artistry of Ailey, who shined a spotlight on the contributions and experiences of the African American heritage that inspired the racially diverse performances he presented that forever changed American dance and culture.
Acquired in 2013, the entire digitized photography collection has been recently made available to the public online via the Smithsonian’s Online Virtual Archives. The collection is jointly owned by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation.
“To have one photographer as talented as Jack Mitchell capture the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s history allows us to really witness the groundbreaking and historic nature of Alvin Ailey’s dance style and his vision for a dance company,” said Spencer Crew, interim director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “It’s particularly difficult to capture the essence of performing arts in photography, yet this collection showcases the ephemeral nature of the performances that made the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater so special to so many audiences around the world.”
Mitchell’s photography vividly illustrates the evolution of Ailey’s principal dancers, notable performances and Ailey himself. The collection contains photographs of over 80 choreographed performances by Ailey, including his debut piece “Blues Suite” along with “The River” and “Revelations,” one of Ailey’s most popular and critically acclaimed pieces that tells the African American story from slavery to freedom and remains one the most beloved works of modern dance, acclaimed as a must-see and applauded by audiences around the world. The collection also features portraits of Judith Jamison, who was Ailey’s muse, most notably for the tour-de-force solo “Cry,” and who he entrusted to become artistic director before his death. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s other earliest and most revered dancers are featured, including Dudley Williams, Sylvia Waters, Masazumi Chaya and Donna Wood.
“Photographer Jack Mitchell was one of the great chroniclers of the performing arts, including his iconic work with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for over three decades,” said artistic director emerita Judith Jamison. “Alvin Ailey was a pioneer in opening doors for performers of all backgrounds, especially black people, to share their stories in performances that inspired, enlightened and brought together all of us. He was a genius of a choreographer who celebrated African American culture and the modern dance tradition in stirring masterpieces like ‘Cry,’ ‘Blues Suite’ and ‘Revelations.’ I am thrilled that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has made this treasured collection available so the public can further experience the artistry and the history of the company and our founder Alvin Ailey.”
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