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Sylvia Waters on Alvin Ailey's Life and Legacy

Posted February 28, 2024

Alvin Ailey appointed Sylvia Waters as the Artistic Director of Ailey II in 1974. Ms. Waters understood the significance of the new role: she had seen Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958 during its first-ever performance at the 92nd Street Y, danced in the Company for six years, and Mr. Ailey was now entrusting her with overseeing the next phase of his legacy. “It was a little frightening at first,” Ms. Waters said of the appointment to lead a company of young dancers, “being in charge of these young lives. How do you inspire them? Nurture them? All of those were challenges, but welcome challenges.”

In Ailey II’s early years, when it was known as Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble and before it was an acclaimed international touring company, its role was sharing dance with people in places with little to no access to the performing arts. “Our very first performance was in a prison,” Ms. Waters said. "Leesburg State Prison. That was a major learning experience. We had no costumes—just practice clothes. The dancers performed like they were performing in any theater. The audience sounded like it could have been any theater. They were so enthusiastic. And I looked out and saw the sea of faces of young men, mainly young men of color. There were very few Caucasians. Very few. It was shocking. It shocked me into an existing reality."

The experience at the prison showed Ms. Waters how powerful dance could be in connecting people across societal boundaries. Under her stewardship, Ailey II brought dance into senior citizens’ homes, schools, hospitals, and facilities for disabled children—anywhere that dance could bring joy to those who couldn’t make it to the theater. “It was just an inroad to humanity,” she said. “You tapped into the better part of yourself.”

Sylvia Waters and Hector Mercado in Alvin Ailey's 'Streams'. Photo by Rosemary Winckley.

Sylvia Waters and Hector Mercado in Alvin Ailey's Streams. Photo by Rosemary Winckley.

After 38 years, Ms. Waters stepped down from her position as Artistic Director of Ailey II. “I started wondering, ‘How much more can I give to this which will bring it forward?’” The change, however, was just the beginning of a new chapter with AILEY for Ms. Waters. “I loved this organization. I couldn't imagine what I would be doing otherwise.”

Ms. Waters began dedicating herself to preserving and sharing Mr. Ailey’s legacy. When she was a guest lecturer at Harvard University, she gave weekly lectures on his work and arranged for Ailey company members to dance at the university. “It was sold out every night for four performances and considered one of the best they'd ever had.” The responses to the lectures and performances revealed how eager people were to learn about Mr. Ailey’s work.

At the same time, Ms. Water began working with the Ailey Archives. She first got involved when helping to annotate Mr. Ailey’s diaries and journals with the organization’s in-house archivist Dominique Singer. She then spearheaded an oral history project, interviewing dancers, teachers, lighting designers, critics—anyone who had a creative relationship with Mr. Ailey. “That's when I started working in the archives,” Ms. Waters said, “filling in information, identifying photographs, and learning more and more about the technology and trying to retain it. I'm still struggling with it, but I'm much better.”

Sylvia Waters and Dudley Williams in Paul Sanasardo’s 'Metallics'. Photo by Fred Fehl.

Sylvia Waters and Dudley Williams in Paul Sanasardo’s Metallics. Photo by Fred Fehl.

Ms. Waters’ desire to educate and nurture a younger generation is now at the heart of her latest project: Portrait of Ailey, a seven-part documentary series on Alvin Ailey’s life using his voice, archival photos, videos, and interviews. She explained:

“I was in the elevator one day listening to these kids and I wondered, they know they go to the Joan Weill Center for Dance and The Ailey School, but do they know who Alvin Ailey was? Do they know what he did? Do they know what he created? Do they have any idea?"

Portrait of Ailey is an educational resource that charts Mr. Ailey’s life and work over the course of the series. During the process of creating it, Ms. Waters felt she got closer to Mr. Ailey. “I learned, in depth, what he was thinking about things, having read the journals and listened to the interviews, because when you're dancing in the Company, you're not preoccupied with that. There were many times I regretted not asking him very specific things.”

Being a dancer with first-hand experience of Mr. Ailey’s artistry, Ms. Waters knows his legacy cannot be communicated through mere facts and dates on a page. “I want to translate to dancers his style, his sensibility, the weighted-ness of the movement,” she said. "He loved all forms of dance. He was a very hybrid choreographer, merging and marrying ballet with modern and jazz and Afro-Caribbean movement. He was very good at merging all of that. It was part of his training from Lester Horton and Jack Cole. So, for dancers to understand that, and for their bodies to engage and ingest that—to find these things in their body—you want to help in any way that you can."