Raising money wasn’t always a glamorous business for Alvin Ailey. The late African American choreographer changed modern dance when he founded his troupe in 1958, but the company nearly folded several times in its 55-year history. Now the company is among the most financially solvent troupes in the country, bolstered by corporate sponsors and three major galas: one at Manhattan’s City Center, one at Harlem’s Apollo Theater and, since 1999, one at the Kennedy Center.
Organizers say Tuesday’s event will raise $700,000 for the company, a percentage of which will provide scholarships for a dozen D.C. area youth to attend the Ailey School in New York. The money also underwrites the company’s annual six-day run at the Kennedy Center — which this year runs Tuesday through Sunday and allows the dancers to offer free master classes while they are in town.
“It’s a party with a purpose,” said Chinyere Hubbard, a communications executive. “That’s a cliche, but it really is true. There isn’t another event in D.C. quite like it.”
Hubbard and her husband will be attending for the fifth straight year. They go not only because they are longtime supporters of the company but because in February in Washington, the Ailey gala is the place to be.
“It really is the event that kicks off the social season, especially for African Americans,” she said. “There’s an important fundraising goal and a very special performance.”
This year, the troupe comes with two Washington natives, Ghrai DeVore and Jermaine Terry, who received Ailey School scholarships thanks to gala funding. Of the company’s 29 remaining dancers, four — including soon-to-retire matriarch Renee Robinson — are from the District, Maryland or Virginia and have received some sort of scholarship from the company. Add leggy star Alicia Graf Mack, who grew up in Columbia, and it’s a performance that’s a homecoming for many Ailey dancers.
“There are such strong support roots for Ailey in D.C., it is the perfect place for a fundraising gala,” said Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, a former Ailey dancer who has powerful memories of performing at the Kennedy Center during her 13-year tenure. Washington is the only city that Ailey has toured to annually for the past 20 years.
From 1968 through 2005, the Washington Performing Arts Society presented the company 35 times, with the Kennedy Center taking over in 2006. Douglas Wheeler, a former WPAS president, said it wasn’t easy in those early years to attract black audiences to Ailey performances, and it wasn’t until the National Endowment for Arts began funding residencies that WPAS was able to send company members to places such as Howard University. Those residencies, Wheeler said, allowed WPAS to cultivate African American fans in the District.