Alvin Ailey in 1984: I’ll pass on Black ‘My Fair Lady’


Alvin Ailey, the renowned dancer/choreographer and founder of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, was interviewed in 1984 for a televised series called “Dance On” hosted by jazz-dance specialist Billie Mahoney.

Ms. Mahoney started the series at the height of the “dance boom” on a New York City cable access channel in 1980. She interviewed dozens of influential dancers and choreographers. Her 121 filmed interviews with a fascinating array of dance artists are available through PROQUEST.

In the interview (we have no rights to post it here, so excerpting), Ailey comes off as gentle and strong, humble and impressive, rather charming and most of all, smart as a whip. It is well known that after his start in studying dance, at Lester Horton Dance Theater on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, Ailey attended UCLA as a Romance language major. He spoke fluent French and Spanish. Ailey’s role model was Horton, whom he deeply admired, and his dance idol was Jack Cole. He danced for Cole in the film Lydia Bailey (1952), but was ill at the time of the filming. He danced for Cole in Jamaica (1957) on Broadway, and concurrently gathered a group of dancers of color around him for a first concert at the 92nd Street Y.

I found this excerpt from the interview to be prescient. Amusing. Sad. .

Alvin Ailey: It’s always been my idea that, I’ve always tried to make what I call “the total dancer.”

Billie Mahoney: Right.

Alvin Ailey: Because that’s what you need to be. Especially if you’re black out here. You have to be able to spin on your head 45 times to get a job.

Billie Mahoney: Right. Yeah.

Alvin Ailey: And I’m talking about racism in the dance world…

Billie Mahoney: Yeah.

Alvin Ailey: …and on Broadway.

Billie Mahoney: Mm-hmm.

Alvin Ailey: It’s, you know, it’s terrible. So, uh, I teach my kids that they have to learn to be able to do everything fairly well, you know.

Billie Mahoney: Now, is racism on Broadway, has it, has it improved? That’s the…

Alvin Ailey: Has it improved?

Billie Mahoney: Has it improved?

Alvin Ailey: There you are, Billie. Shame on you.

Billie Mahoney: Yes, yes. No. But I mean, is it any easier today than it was in the early ’50’s?

Alvin Ailey: Well, I’m not on Broadway, but from what I see, look at who’s … look at the shows.

Billie Mahoney: Yeah. But we, we did have a bunch of all-black shows there for awhile. And we had a bunch of all-Oriental shows for awhile and then all-black shows and, uh…

Alvin Ailey: But you always have a lot of all-white shows, right?

Billie Mahoney: Yeah.

Alvin Ailey: I mean, if you’re gonna talk about the colors.

Billie Mahoney: But, now…

Alvin Ailey: What would you call a Mexican show?

Billie Mahoney: What would I…?

Alvin Ailey: All-what? What color would you call a Ballet Folklorico show from Mexico? You just categorized everybody.

Billie Mahoney: Yeah, yeah, right.

Billie Mahoney: Uh-huh. But the show that I just choreographed that was a, not all-black cast, but it was primarily a black cast and they do “Oklahoma,” they do “My Fair Lady,” and they do…

Alvin Ailey: Why? What for? What do they need with “Oklahoma”?

Billie Mahoney: Well, they do these…

Alvin Ailey: Or “My Fair Lady”?

Billie Mahoney: …do these shows.

Alvin Ailey: There are wonderful shows that can be done about black people. Why do we have to always be imitating whites?

Billie Mahoney: Yeah, mm-hmm, yeah.

Alvin Ailey: You know…

Billie Mahoney: True.

Alvin Ailey: Who needs to, I don’t want to see a black “My Fair Lady”? I mean, you know?

Billie Mahoney: It was terrific.

Alvin Ailey: Why should black people be in, you know, in …why can’t they imitate themselves? Why do they have to be Britons?

Billie Mahoney: Yeah.

Alvin Ailey: Why can’t somebody do something about new black stuff, you know?

Billie Mahoney: Yeah.

Alvin Ailey: I mean, there are historical … the period in New Orleans of black people is just as beautiful as the period depicted in “My Fair Lady.”

Billie Mahoney: Is anyone writing shows like that?

Alvin Ailey: Probably, but they can’t get them put on.

Billie Mahoney: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Well, there’s a problem with getting things produced in any direction.

Alvin Ailey: Especially if you’re black. (laughs)

Billie Mahoney:Yeah, right.

Alvin Ailey: Forget it.

Billie Mahoney: Yeah. Well, I don’t know because I know we white women have our problems, too.

Alvin Ailey: You’d rather be black.

Billie Mahoney: That’s true.

Alvin Ailey: Anyway, there are other problems besides color.

Source: Dance on. Alvin Ailey / Billie Mahoney ; produced by Video Workshop for Dance and Theatre ; producer, William Hohauser New York, NY : Insight Media, [1984]

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