A veteran dancer reflects on the legacy of Alvin Ailey 

The Humanity in Choreography

You can tell she's smiling. Even on the telephone.

Renee Robinson, a 27-year veteran dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, was talking about the African-American company's namesake and his vision half a century ago to create a dance troupe for everyone, not just for a coterie of aficionados and trendsetters.

"He believed dance belonged to the people," Robinson says. "He wanted his company to be like a mirror held up to the audience, so that they can see some part of themselves."

It's a humanist vision that transcends race and culture, she says from New York City, which, come to think of it, echoes the message of another remarkable American.

"I'm very pleased that Barack Obama was elected just when we're celebrating the 50th anniversary of Alvin Ailey company," Robinson says.

That sound over the phone is of a proud woman grinning, which seems an appropriate response to the rare occurrence of history taking on a graceful form of symmetry.

Alvin Ailey was born in Rogers, Texas, and rose to become a seminal figure in modern dance with the founding of his company in 1958. But like many black artists, he was often pigeonholed by his race. His masterpiece, Revelations, reflects the practice of mass baptisms that is commonplace in black churches in the South. But, argued Ailey, who died in 1989 after a long illness, the larger theme of spiritual renewal was universal. (You can expect Revelations and other classic Ailey choreography at the Spoleto Festival.)

"People don't have to know it's a baptism," Robinson says. "They just have to know, and they do know, that it's about God and spirit and beauty. Mr. Ailey always aimed for a formula that was for everyone and that embraced the idea of betterment for all. People get that."

Indeed, among the many reasons Ailey's dance company has been around for 50 years, Robinson says, is its relentless focus on the "humanity of choreography."

"That opened the doors to showcase the full range of what the dancers can do," she says.

Like jazz musicians who can sit in with total strangers simply because they've mastered a widely familiar idiom, Ailey dancers are equally versed in the language of dance.

One of those dancers is Robinson. Since 1981, she has been a key figure in the company. It's rare that a dancer performs for so long. Even Ailey stopped performing by his mid-30s. But Robinson, like her mentor, strives to transcend limitations. She'll have something to say as long as her body holds out — and no doubt long after that.

"When I stop and think about it," Robinson says, "I've been a part of a special company established by a special human being trying to be a vehicle for all humanity.

"I'm truly blessed."

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