- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

Climatic conditions outside the Kennedy Center’s Opera House Tuesday couldn’t have been drearier, while the emotional temperature inside couldn’t have been warmer or more inviting.

Washington’s many-faceted arts supporters came out in full force to welcome the New York-based Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on the opening night of its 45th touring season with a rapturous embrace that was the best possible rebuttal to a forecast of sleet and snow.

The company’s crowd-pleasing performance, two old favorites and two D.C. premieres, was followed by a benefit supper dance for about 350 patrons, many of whom eagerly identified themselves as “Ailey junkies.” No-shows homebound by icy roads and runways included officials and guests of Atlanta’s Southern Co., the gala’s underwriter.

“The gala always has good feelings,” remarked lawyer and Ailey patron Riley Temple, one of the evening’s eight vice chairmen, explaining the large turnout.

“The [company’s] caliber gets better every time,” District Mayor Anthony A. Williams pronounced before admitting he isn’t much of a dancer himself. He and his wife, Diane, stayed until 11 p.m.

It was the fifth year for the gala, bringing in an ever-increasing amount of money — $225,000 this year — for the organization’s outreach educational activities, if not quite the $2 million net the Ailey team can raise from New York boosters in a single night. Wendy Raines, wife of Fannie Mae Chairman Franklin Raines and a co-chairman along with Carolyn Brody and Debra Lee, says she gives her all for the troupe “because I love the fact they take young dancers from here for training and then on to New York.”

A glass-fronted building costing $54 million that’s scheduled to open this fall at 55th Street and Ninth Avenue in Manhattan will house the Ailey organization’s studios and headquarters, proof that the troupe has made an impact on the public with the energized style of modern dance developed by founder Alvin Ailey, who died in 1989. Former star dancer and choreographer Judith Jamison, indisposed by illness Tuesday, has carried on as artistic director.

“What defines the spirit of this troupe is the dedication to excellence,” said Washington native Renee Robinson, one of the 30 dancers who will be performing here through Sunday under auspices of the Washington Performing Arts Society. (Three others are from Baltimore.) “Alvin always said that dance comes from the people and gives back to the people.”

Ms. Lee, president andchief operating officer of BET Holdings Inc. and a trustee of the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, played up the family feeling of the occasion in her remarks thanking gala supporters for turning out. “We have a few beds downstairs if anybody needs them,” she joked, further noting that the dancers would be visiting District schools this week “if they ever reopen them.”

“I expected a lot of empty seats,” volunteered WPAS President emeritus Doug Wheeler, commenting on the enthusiastic, nearly full house. “It shows the power of this company to overcome the elements.” He said WPAS first sponsored the company in 1970, including a less-than-successful two-week period in the late 1970s “when it snowed.”

The troupe’s popularity in the area is “a tribute to the investment the Ailey community has made here,” he remarked.

Martis Davis, director of media relations for AARP and a former principal of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, was an official with the National Park Service’s Washington region responsible for free summer-in-the-park performances at the Sylvan Theater on the Washington Monument grounds. When he introduced Ailey to local audiences for the first time back in 1969, he said, “They weren’t well-known then at all. They electrified everybody and absolutely caught Washington by surprise.”

The electricity was still apparent close to midnight, when the last of the celebrants departed.

Attendees included Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet; Finland’s Ambassador Jukka Valtasaari; government relations expert Anthony Podesta; and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.


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