Alvin Ailey, having breakfast at Howard Johnson's, had just finished reading the review of his dance company's opening night here. Respectful and serious, the judgments ranged from "vibrant original vision" to "engaging if modest achievements" to "total clunker."
He growled for a while and ordered scrambled eggs.
Then he laughed.
"I like a discerning audience," he said. "I don't care if everybody falls on their face at every piece, like Broadway. This isn't the Hit Parade."
He hates the Broadway everybody's-gotta-love-it mentality. He's been there. He spent the entire year of 1969 working on a musical version of the film "La Strada," tried out in Detroit for five weeks, opened and closed in one night on Broadway. Never again.
Most of his 51 years, it seems, he has been trying to escape the labels people put on him. Twenty-one years ago he choreographed a great ballet called "Revelations," based on spirituals and black folk music, and it electrified everyone who saw it. And still does.
"It follows me around everywhere," he said. "I've done it every season except one, when I just couldn't put up with it anymore and dropped it, but my board of directors said it sells tickets so put it back."
He smiled quietly. "I've learned to like it."
But Ailey is interested in what he's doing now. He has moved far beyond his original idea of a black folkloric troupe. A brilliant choreographer himself ("the feeling, the idea of making something in empty space where there was nothing before, of turning people on, making them see something about themselves, about life . . . "), he also has a dozen choreographers working for him, and he creates dances to Gershwin and Steve Reich and Duke Ellington and Bartok, and is rescuing modern classics by Ted Shawn, Jose Limon, Lester Horton, Doris Humphrey and others which could so easily be lost forever if they weren't constantly revived.
"People always say, 'Oh, what's he doing now, Bartok? It's not his trip. Why doesn't he give us another "Revelations?" ' Esoteric works I like, yes, but I want to mix 'em with works that have immediate appeal. My background being black contributes to that, our jazz, folk songs, blues and spirituals reach out to people, so people called us commercial. We're still accused of being commercial because of jazz. In America, that is. Europe respects jazz as art."
Another thing: His company makes a point of being multiracial. The black heritage is still there in some of the works and individual styles, but Ailey is trying to speak to a far greater audience, a universal audience. "The critics put you in a bag, they say only black people can do that, only black people can do the blues . . . Give us a break. We're 20th-century Americans."
It has been a long road. Born to a farm family in Rogers, Tex., ("Nothing but a gas station and a church"), he soaked up blues and spirituals firsthand. At 12 he found himself in Los Angeles, a big kid, interested in gymnastics and football.
"One day I followed a most beautiful young lady to the Lester Horton dance studio in Hollywood. I'd been turned on by the whole idea that black culture could be put on the stage this way, could be dignified. I wanted to be a foreign language student, and I spent time at UCLA and San Francisco State, but the dance called me back to L.A."
Horton, a white dance pioneer who was interested in Indian and Oriental and other ethnic dance styles, died in 1953, and Ailey moved up to become the company's choreographer, costume designer and director, producing a number of rather imitative works over the next year. Then he got a call from New York. They were making a musical of Truman Capote's "House of Flowers" and wanted him to dance in it, along with Carmen DeLavallade, the most beautiful young lady who had lured him to Horton's in the first place.
The rest was not history, not yet, but it did give him a chance to tune in on the great modern dance extravaganza in the East, and he plunged into concerts and classes with Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and others. He danced in a few musicals, then appeared in "Jamaica" with Lena Horne.
"I decided right then that what I wanted to do was make dances," he said. "I pulled together a group of dancers from 'Jamaica' and from my schools and courses and gave a concert in New York in '58. There were seven of us. We're still at it."
Surely no American dance theater has disbanded as often as Alvin Ailey's. "We'd rehearse six months for a performance at the Y, all for that one night, and that was it. All that energy and zeal and love." After every concert, the dancers scattered to the winds. Nobody got paid, of course. They did one concert in '58, two in '59, three in '60. And in '61 they went to the Jacob's Pillow dance festival in Lenox, Mass.
And now the history part: "The State Department saw us there. That got us a five-month tour of Southeast Asia and kind of established us as a group and kept us together for the first time. We went to the Rio arts festival where we met European impresarios, had a three-week season in Paris, a great success, and a six-week season in London in '64, and after that we were invited back to Europe every year."
The company was still dissolving after every season. But gradually the money got better and the situation stabilized. Today the theater has a $4.5 million budget, 30 members who perform a rich repertoire of 50 ballets by at least 30 major choreographers. Plus: a second company, a third company, a scholarship program, a children's program and -- Ailey's pet project -- a dance course for the blind.
"We make about 70 percent at the box office, and the rest has to be raised. We're running a million-dollar deficit, what with Reaganomics and all. We've cut back by $500,000 already, which means the elimination of some artistic excellence. It really curbs your fantasies. We have a genius who does our backdrops of pure light, but we'd love to have some scenery. And live music. And something more than minimal costumes. But the spirit of the dancers is great."
Being based in New York, Ailey naturally attracts many New York dancers and many who come there, magnetized by the dance mecca. But others are from all over: Washington, Miami, Seattle, Japan, Germany, Dayton, Ohio. Marvelous, long-legged Keith McDaniel, a black Jacques D'Amboise whose sinuous dancing pops eyes in the sensational "Treading," was spotted at 16 in a Chicago dance class ("Look at that!" Ailey muttered at the time). He, like all the soloists, appears with the company too.
"We're a rather democratic group, that way. No stars, no principals, no corps de ballet. Judy Jamison has gone off to Broadway but she's still very much part of the family. Our dancers have a wonderful perception of themselves, a sense of who they are. A lot of choreographers have come out of our company, I'm proud of that. Twelve of our dancers traveled the whole route from the school program on up."
Trained in classical ballet, and modern, and jazz, and the unique styles of Lester Horton ("a very broad, expansive technique that sort of goes outside the body, very energetic, muscular, big lines"), Graham, Shawn and others, they have become Ailey dancers. You know them by the way they use everything: arms, feet, hips, heads, even their mass presence to create amazing plastic multihuman shapes. And by the pleasure they obviously take in their work.
"They'll be over there on the stage at 3 this afternoon," Alvin Ailey said. "Trying to perfect tonight's program. Even now. Constantly seeking perfection. Trying to make something fine. Yearning to be perfect is what dance is all about."