Museum of Contemporary Religious Art

December 12, 2008

Body and Soul

MOCRA’s second exhibition, Body and Soul: The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, opened on October 24, 1993, and ran through the end of the year. Some audiences may well have been asking, why was a contemporary art museum featuring a retrospective of a dance company?

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater," at MOCRA, 1993.

Installation view, "Body & Soul: The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater," at MOCRA, 1993.

The key is in the company’s namesake and founder, dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey. “It is evident that religion had a profound impact on Alvin Ailey’s life,” MOCRA Director Terrence E. Dempsey, S.J. wrote in a press release for the exhibition. “Spirituality is pervasive in his work. Some of Ailey’s greatest dances were his spiritual dances.”

Body and Soul: The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was organized by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts with the cooperation of the Dance Theater Foundation, Inc., and private collections. The exhibition was a celebration of (then) 35 years of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and its exceptional contributions to contemporary culture.

Ailey and his dancers have entertained and educated the public by bringing to the stage lyrical and energetic works inspired by the African American experience. He saw his company not only as a place in which to present his own works but the works of other aspiring African American choreographers as well. Furthermore, he felt an urgency to create a permanent company so that the great dances of earlier African American choreographers could be preserved.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater," at MOCRA, 1993.

Installation view, "Body & Soul: The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater," at MOCRA, 1993. Note the famous dress from "Cry" at left.

Above all, Alvin Ailey affirmed the dignity of all humanity. Dempsey told The University News, “One of the reasons for bringing this show here is that Ailey was one of the great bridge builders between the various races.” “Ailey celebrated the Black heritage, but his dances are not exclusive. He wishes to include all of humanity, and somehow we are all touched by the power of his dances.”

At the time of the exhibition, Ailey’s company had appeared in over 65 countries and performed before 13 million people. Now in 2008, as the company celebrates its 50th anniversary, that number has grown to 21 million people. The anniversary has been an occasion for reminiscences about Ailey, and for a gala tribute performance.

Ailey died in 1989, but his rich legacy lives on in a vibrant company that continues to thrive under his successor Judith Jamison, one of America’s greatest dancers.

The exhibition traced the development of one of America’s most important dance companies through the costumes, original drawings by Romare Bearden, videotapes of the major dances (including Cry, Blues Suite, and Revelations), and over 200 archival photographs.


Along with the exhibition, MOCRA offered a number of related programs. Performances were given by the St. Alphonsus Rock Choir and the Katharine Dunham Junior Dance Company.

James Truitte, Patricia Jacobs, and Danny Clark.

Panel discussion titled, "I Remember Alvin Ailey," at MOCRA, 1993. From left: James Truitte, Patricia Jacobs, and Danny Clark.

Two special evenings featured people closely related to the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. The first, “I Remember Alvin,” was an evening of reminiscences about Alvin Ailey with Patricia Jacobs, Director of the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey; James Truitte (d. 1995), choreographer and original member of the Ailey company; and Danny Clark (d.1997), a dancer with the company at that time.

Katherine Dunham reflects during her lecture at MOCRA, 1993.

Katherine Dunham reflects during her lecture at MOCRA, 1993.

Most wonderful was “An Evening with Katherine Dunham,” on November 5, 1993. This a dance legend discussed the famous “Dunham Technique.” She provided valuable insights into Ailey the man, and her influence on his career. Dunham, who died in 2006, moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1969 and founded the Dunham Dynamic Museum, through which she brought the power of dance to the children and adults of the community. Dunham’s life and work are chronicled in the exhibition Katherine Dunham, currently on display at the Missouri History Museum.

Katherine Dunham and a young admirer, at MOCRA, 1993. Dunham's legacy lives on in new generations of dancers.

Katherine Dunham and a young admirer, at MOCRA, 1993. Dunham's legacy lives on in new generations of dancers.

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