As more than 400 students pour out of Allen Edison Village School in silent, single-file lines, a few of them can't stifle dance moves. Passing through the hallway, a teenager in a red coat swings her arms in time with some unheard rhythm. Outside, approaching a convoy of 11 school buses, a young student with pigtails and a pink parka twirls around a traffic cone.
"We're not doing that," a teacher chides her.
These kids regularly spend time with dance instructors from the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, a group that uses the techniques and inspiration of the famous choreographer to teach kids the basics of modern ballet. Today, though, the students go to the KCFAA.
When the buses pull up to the Midland downtown, middle-schoolers shuffle haltingly through the doors, gazing up at the ornate décor of the renovated theater. Some are startled out of their awe by KCFAA artistic director Michael Joy, a tall, thin man with a wide smile who knows many of the students.
"You remember me?" he asks a group of elementary-school children. "The last time I saw you, you were in kindergarten, huh?"
Inside, the hall reverberates with the excited conversations of more than 2,000 students. Grade-school kids bounce in their seats, exuding energetic impatience. Teenage girls in gold hoop earrings crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the high-school boys.
A large video screen is rolled away from the front of the stage, revealing a line of ballet dancers in sweat suits stretching their legs against a long bar. The students shriek as though the curtain just went up on pop-star Chris Brown. As the dancers continue to warm up — undulating their hips, flipping partners over shoulders — bursts of applause and shouts ripple through the young audience.
Finally, Ronnie Favors, the dance company's rehearsal director, darts onstage. She welcomes the children to this special performance of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater — more than 4,300 local students will see the company perform over two days. She explains that Alvin Ailey started the dance troupe 50 years ago, casting black dancers to perform modern ballets depicting and celebrating African-American heritage. He changed the face of modern dance, she tells them, and traveled all over the world.
"He created a sensation that has not died down yet," she says.
The lights go down, and the students giggle and shift in their seats. In the darkened hall, the dancers rise and fall in a golden spotlight, their graceful movements breathing expression into a gospel song. Silence settles over the packed house. By the final dance, the students have been confined to their seats for more than an hour. But they bob their heads and sway in their seats unselfconsciously as the dancers, dressed in flowing dresses and flower-studded hats, raise their arms and bounce their knees to a jaunty hymn: Rocka my soul by the bosom of Abraham.
After the children leave, the Midland is silent for only a few hours. By 7 p.m., women in evening gowns and men holding the hands of their young daughters fill the hall for a performance celebrating the Ailey company's 50th anniversary. They watch enduring classics, including "Revelations" (Ailey's passionate rendering of African-American spirituality in 1930s, red-dirt Texas, heralded by critics as the most important choreography of the 20th century) and "For Bird With Love" (a tribute to jazz legend Charlie Parker that was created with funds raised by the KCFAA). The Midland patrons are seeing sequences from brand-new dances; the company hasn't yet opened its new season on its home stage in New York City.
Anywhere else, the Ailey troupe takes its turn onstage and then disappears until its next tour rolls through. In Kansas City, though, the Ailey presence lingers year-round with classes and performances. For the past quarter-century, this has been the second home of the first African-American choreographer to make it big on the world stage. It is also the second home of his legacy.lvin Ailey's roots in Kansas City were never about geography. He grew up in a dusty town in Texas, found movement in a back-alley studio in Los Angeles and rose to fame in New York City. His connection to Kansas City was seeded by a 1983 walk through the abandoned remnants of the Jazz District at 18th Street and Vine.
That leisurely afternoon stroll was with Allan Gray. Now a Lee's Summit city councilman, Gray speaks with a soft, reserved dignity and serene self-confidence. As a founder in the 1980s of the Gentlemen of Distinction, a group of black professionals, he considered himself well-educated in African-American history and culture. But he wasn't familiar with the name Alvin Ailey until 1983 when the Folly Theater gave his group 500 tickets to an upcoming Ailey performance.
He soon learned who Ailey was and how his works incorporated gospel and blues and the African-American experience. Ailey had taken his pieces to Brazil, Japan and even the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. "He was creating a dance company and putting African-Americans onstage in places in this country where they couldn't even drink at the same water fountain," Gray says. "He was making changes in how the world viewed the dancer and ballerina prototype."
Gray's group saturated the city with advertising about the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. "Our credo was, you'd have had to live under a rock in this city to not know who Alvin Ailey was," Gray says. The work paid off with a packed house that included many members of the black community.
When the dance company arrived at the airport, Gray ushered Ailey into a limousine. Wearing scuffed loafers and a black-leather jacket, Ailey wasn't accustomed to such luxury. His creative fame hadn't amounted to great financial wealth.
Ailey needed a haircut, so Gray took him to a lively barbershop on Prospect Avenue, answering the choreographer's questions about Kansas City on the way. The dancer explained his lifelong fascination with Charlie "Bird" Parker, so Gray shuttled him to the Charlie Parker Memorial Foundation on the Paseo. But on the way to the Jazz District, the limo cruised by the Black Archives of Mid-America, and Gray spotted the founder, Horace Peterson, outside. "Horace knew immediately who Alvin was and took him on a kind of semi-tour of the archives and talked about what he had envisioned for 18th and Vine," Gray says.
In what once was the vibrant seat of American jazz, boards had been nailed over windows and doors, and facades had begun to crumble. The neglected Mutual Musicians Foundation showed signs of decay. The Gem Theater was rotting.
Ailey was fascinated. "There wasn't a lot there physically, but there were all these ghosts," Gray says.
At one end of the street, they ran into a group of children raising money with a car wash. Ailey asked them about their schools, about their goals for the future. He told them how his passion for dance had lifted him from poverty to international fame. Gray recalls the conversation: "He said, 'Starting with this car wash, do your very best. But be in touch with all the other things around you. The feel of the water. The shape of the hose. The color of the cars.'"
As they continued to tour the decimated urban core, Ailey told Gray that he wanted to teach kids, who were growing up as he did, that their history was worth celebrating, that opportunity awaited them outside their neighborhoods. "In many ways, Alvin felt he had come to a place that he had been searching for," Gray says.
Their relationship continued after Ailey returned to the East Coast. Traveling with the company in Europe and Asia, Ailey would wake Gray in the middle of the night. "Allan? Were you asleep?" the choreographer would ask jokingly at 3 in the morning. Gray didn't mind. He called their conversations "dream sessions." They talked about how to take Ailey's inspiration from the stage to the neighborhoods.
"And then, at the end of the conversation, he'd say, 'Oh, well, let's pull back, get back into reality,'" Gray says. "But I never pulled back. The wheels kept turning for me. Alvin would go back into his world, but I was still thinking back to that walk at 18th and Vine and seeing the impression that had made on Alvin. I could see him wanting to believe he could do something but being shackled by the responsibility of the company and going on tour."
Within a year, Gray had found a way to relieve some of that burden. In 1984, his Gentlemen of Distinction was among a number of groups that moved to establish a second home for Ailey's company. For Kansas City, it would mean annual performances by the dance troupe. For Ailey, it meant financial support, including a $125,000 commission for a ballet about Charlie Parker. The arrangement also allowed Ailey to add education to his dance company's mandate.
Gray put Ailey's dream-session musings into action. When the company returned to Kansas City in the fall of 1984, Ailey dispatched his dancers throughout the community. They went to schools and churches and the Jackson County Jail. It was a modest demonstration, just three or four dancers with a boombox, but the message was clear. Gray recalls one woman at Lansing Correctional Facility grabbing Ailey's arm and asking urgently if he'd still be dancing when she got out in four years.
The outreach continued to gain momentum each year, and by 1989, the KCFAA had organized the first Ailey Camp, a six-week program that incorporated not only dance technique but also self-esteem exercises. Ailey flew to Kansas City for the students' final performance. He was an inconspicuous shadow at the back of the auditorium during the poetry and dancing. When Gray introduced him to the children, he was mobbed onstage by scores of awestruck children who regarded Ailey as they would have regarded Michael Jackson.
Over the past two decades, Ailey Camp's education model has spread to eight other cities. "And it all came out of that conversation at 18th and Vine," Gray says.
Today, Ailey's presence moves alongside the ghosts he recognized on the streets of the Jazz District. The question is whether his spirit will help restore the vitality he saw behind the broken facades.
At 9:15 on a bright Saturday morning, a few cars line a lonely stretch of 18th Street, but the sidewalks are empty. The tables at Harper's Restaurant are still shrouded in darkness. The American Jazz Museum has just opened its doors to the usual feeble tourist traffic. As is the case most days, there's no impending performance at the Gem Theater.
But at the east end of the Jazz District, there's life.
Windshields of cars lining the street reflect bright displays hanging in the windows of the KCFAA studio. Inside, a dozen teenagers are taking instruction from KCFAA executive director Tyrone Aiken. On weekends, he slips into gray sweat pants and an orange T-shirt and, drawing on his years as a professional dancer, assumes the role of teacher.
"Passé, attitude, over and up," he calls over the music as his students raise legs, bend knees and rotate. "Promenade, passé and close," he finishes, nodding his head slightly as his gaze follows the kids' movements. When they don't absorb a sequence quickly enough, Aiken chides them lightly. He tells them that other classes learned this move faster. He steps to the front of the room to demonstrate in more detail.
"Check out your calves!" one teenager says as Aiken pushes up one leg of his sweat pants.
"Dang!" a chorus of students replies.
Aiken stifles a smile and continues class. He's barely halfway through the morning. Every year, Ailey Camp enrolls thousands of students in its free six-week workshop. For kids who want to keep dancing after the workshop, the KCFAA offers evening and weekend classes. Young dancers without shoes or leotards look through boxes of brand-new donations lining the hallway.
These classes and this space are recent additions to the Jazz District. For years, the KCFAA kept its modest office in the River Market and held its sparse schedule of classes in borrowed spaces and church basements. Gray says he envisioned anchoring the organization at 18th and Vine from its inception. But it took more than two decades to get here.
There's more life at 18th and Vine since Ailey visited the jazz ghost town, but the district doesn't show the city's $30 million investment. After nearly 20 years of effort, the only major tenants are the American Jazz Museum and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. A number of new housing projects have sprung up adjacent to the historic strip, but there's been little business growth to support the new tenants. The well-known Peachtree Restaurant fled to the Power & Light District this year.
"You can't really expect that in 10 years you can turn around something that's been allowed to deteriorate for 40 years," says Denise Gilmore, director of the Jazz District Redevelopment Corporation, which was created to guide the area's revitalization.
Moving to the district wasn't an easy sell to the KCFAA board of directors, Aiken says. The organization also was interested in spaces in the Crossroads and the resurgent downtown. Members of the board were concerned about safety at 18th and Vine. They finally agreed on the appeal of the district's heritage and made an advantageous financial deal for office space, but some suggested installing a buzzer on the door so people couldn't wander in uninvited.
"It was a hard-fought and long process," Aiken says.
The results are evident at the previously silent corner at 18th Street and Woodland. Every week, more than 200 students attend free dance classes in the large, mirrored studio. Before and after each class, students gossip with their friends, and adults linger to chat. "When parents come to drop their kids off, this is one of the most interesting places on the block," Aiken says.
Gilmore says her aim is to re-create the neighborhood feel that has been lost at 18th and Vine. Aiken wants the students to understand the value of their cultural legacy and the wealth of history in their new neighborhood.
"It's very easy to get grounded in what's not happening, but a great deal has happened," Aiken says of 18th and Vine. "For me, I grew up in Long Island. There was no Negro Leagues Museum. There was no African-American [news]paper. There wasn't this richness of culture or history, something that you could sort of delve into. It's about how you do that. And one thing I do know is, this organization wants to be part of that discussion."
At 3 p.m. on that same chilly Saturday, there are still plenty of empty parking spots along 18th Street. There's no line to buy tickets to the Jazz Museum, and only a couple of visitors chat in the echoing lobby. But across the street, bouncing to keep warm in their black tights, half a dozen young girls wait under the Gem's marquee for an afternoon dance workshop organized by the KCFAA.
In a narrow aisle of dull metal shelves, Gray handles yellowing paper and forgotten manuscripts with a surgeon's delicate touch. Purple gloves guard the paper against the oil in his skin. Despite the fluorescent light overhead, he's shrouded in shadow as he pulls down narrow cardboard boxes from a section marked with fading black labels stamped "Alvin Ailey Collection."
These were the contents of Alvin Ailey's desk when he died, the artifacts that cluttered his New York apartment. The collection will become a centerpiece of the Black Archives of Mid-America when it reopens in the Jazz District in 2009.
Gray's friendship with Ailey didn't end with the formation of the KCFAA in 1984. The pair remained close even during Ailey's more turbulent final years. During Ailey's last days, in 1989, Gray visited his friend in the hospital. When the dying choreographer pressed him for beer, Gray smuggled in a six-pack. Ailey told nurses it was apple juice. Ailey had another request for Gray: Preserve his legacy.
At first, the boxes shipped from the East Coast to Kansas City sat in Gray's basement. They've spent the past decade in an old firehouse on Vine Street, sharing the dim space with a reconstructed slave cabin and white Klu Klux Klan hoods. Inside the boxes are scores of notebooks, many of which open with a burst of jumbled creativity before drifting again to empty paper because Ailey lost them or set them aside. There are sketches of costumes and choreography, the circles and lines wildly underlined for emphasis. The photos include a picture of the Ailey company posing with Hugh Hefner in the Playboy mansion.
Careful not to worry the fragile spine of a datebook, Gray flips through letters sent to Ailey from Sydney, Australia; Stockholm, Sweden; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Leaning against the shelf next to him, in a frame held together with disintegrating Scotch tape, a poster set in bold Cyrillic type promotes an Ailey performance behind the Iron Curtain. Scrawled in hasty script at the top of a page full of indiscriminate notes is a reminder: "Meet with Baryshnikov."
Only one other place in the country holds a public collection of Ailey memorabilia. In 2006, the company donated a wealth of performance artifacts to the Library of Congress. But Ailey's intimate items have been seen only in Kansas City. Over breakfast one morning with Kansas City Museum director Christopher Leitch, Gray mentioned his basement full of boxes. Understanding Ailey's historical significance, Leitch pledged on the spot to organize an exhibit.
Over the course of a few weeks, the pair unpacked every box, examining letters from Langston Hughes and reminders of appointments with Lena Horne and Aretha Franklin. They called the three-month installation Finding Alvin Ailey because it was more than playbills and posters. Leitch says the exhibit attracted new visitors as well as people who hadn't ventured to the museum in years.
Like 18th and Vine, the Black Archives has stumbled in recent years. After nonpayment of county property taxes and the loss of its subsidy from the city, the organization lost its nonprofit status and was dissolved by the state in 2006. Last year, the board was reconvened with Barbara Peterson at the helm. Her late husband, Horace Peterson, created the archives and was the first to champion the revival of 18th and Vine. When the archives open at a new, expanded $3 million facility just behind the KCFAA studio next year, the plan is to make the archives a national draw. The Ailey collection is at the center of the effort.
"These are his personal papers," Peterson says. "There's nothing else like it."
Ailey's offstage life is a study in flawed humanity. In his posthumously published 1997 autobiography, Revelations, Ailey writes that, during the 1980s, he choreographed with a vial of cocaine at the ready. "I used it for everything. I put it in champagne, in Perrier water. My whole life became centered on cocaine and sundry drugs." For years, he was secretive about his declining health. Even in the book's epilogue, co-writer A. Peter Bailey notes that the choreographer died of "a rare blood disease." Ailey died at age 58 after a long battle with AIDS.
"This isn't going to be the Convention and Visitors' Bureau or the marketing version of Alvin Ailey," Leitch says of this personal exhibit. "This is the real Alvin Ailey."
Ailey speaks to everyone, Gray says. "It has taken me 19 years to come to this point of sharing this with the rest of the world. It wasn't time until now."
In the east wing of the American Jazz Museum, kids in winter jackets press against their friends' backpacks for a better view, jockeying for space in front of colorful displays.
"I know her!" one shouts, pointing at a group picture.
"Hey, hey, that's me!" another yells, trying to get her peers' attention.
It's an early November evening, opening night of the Faces of Ailey Camp exhibit. A neat line of standing banners circles the space, showing the 20-year timeline of the Ailey Camp. Each piece is decorated with photos and recollections of former students.
"The Group changed my life. It helped me stay out of the streets."
"I realized in this struggle called life you aren't alone. My group became like brothers and sisters."
Dazzling posters advertising the Ailey company's visits to Kansas City line the walls alongside stark black-and-white photographs of dancers frozen in dramatic movement. In one corner, highlights of the choreographer's most popular pieces flash across a monitor. The air is punctuated with unexpected reunions.
"Damn, girl, you look different," a young man exclaims when a smiling woman walks down the stairs into the exhibit space.
There's Marcus Oatis, a slender, soft-spoken man who was introduced to dance at Ailey Camp in 1995 and now performs with the Kansas City Ballet. There's Demetrios Walker, a former Chiefs player and current defensive lineman in the Arena Football League. He smiles over his drink and says Ailey Camp taught him to be more focused and creative.
And, padding around barefoot, stretching his feet, is Winston Dynamite Brown.
Some of the kids inspecting the exhibit recognize the lithe, wisecracking dancer. The 2000 graduate of Paseo Academy lives in New York and has danced professionally for years. He's preparing for an engagement with the Metropolitan Opera this winter. For two weeks, though, he is in Kansas City to teach for the KCFAA at his former high school. At the morning sessions, he pushes the students to learn his choreography with tight precision and deep expression. But he keeps things light with references to TV shows and with a voice that slides up a couple of octaves to signal a sly joke. The teenagers are charmed.
He says his peers on the East Coast are shocked when he tells them that this is Ailey's second home. Even lifelong Kansas City residents don't understand the Ailey connection, Brown says. But that's changing. "It's great to finally be able to be seen," he says. "With Kansas City Friends where they are, they're able to network and reach out and anchor now a little bit more."
As Gray and Aiken and other board members take enthusiastic turns at the microphone to speak about the new studio and the expanded Black Archives, the kids sitting on the floor fidget and slouch. Then Brown and Latra Wilson, his wife and fellow New York dancer, move to the center of the room. An ethereal song by Annie Lennox begins to hum from a small silver stereo.
Brown and Wilson ease into a dance choreographed by Aiken. The pair arch and undulate with silken elegance, floating across the floor in mirror-image unison before collapsing in an embrace.
As they watch the dancers, the adults stand motionless. The kids in the front row suspend their fussing, hands limp, CapriSun juice pouches forgotten in their laps.
For a few moments, all in the room hold their breath.
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