The legacy of Alvin Ailey, celebrating the company's 60th anniversary

In 1958, dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey created a home for dancers to explore identity and self-expression through their art and the dance theater remains a culture institution.
6:52 | 12/29/18

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Transcript for The legacy of Alvin Ailey, celebrating the company's 60th anniversary
Reporter: With performances that blend both joy and pain, the Alvin Ailey American dance theater has become a cultural institution. Over the years performing for a diverse audience of more than 25 million people around the globe. In an escapist culture, the Ailey company makes you think and feel. With work often inspired by race in American society, sometimes it's heavy. And then as if knowing your limits, it lifts you up again. In 1958, dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey created a home for dancers to explore identity and self-expression through their art. That legacy continues to this day as America continues to confront its own history with racial violence. You go, aahhh. That propels you out of your body. Reporter: Hip-hop choreographer Rennie was commissioned for the ballet "Lazarus" which celebrates the company's 60th anniversary. It's raw and unapologetic, a reflection of the African-American experience in Ailey's life. He said, my work is about blood memories. I thought, man, that's crazy. How do you address these complex issues like racial inequality through dance? My attempt was to be to sort of present these sort of sounds and movement that would then give you a reflection or make you think of a certain time or a moment. Water scene for the protest. Everybody was at the same level like this. So we lost all shape. I thought it was interesting to really delve into the idea of his life as it related to all black and brown folk. Then later realizing like, oh, this is not all black and brown folk, this is all folk, all humans, right? Reporter: At times you see hands clasped as if praying. Then for a moment dancers crawl on hands and knees, a reference to the great migration. Heads hang as if lynched. Then there are scenes that reflect riots. Then bloom into vibrant moves, perhaps suggesting the unbreakable spirit within. To understand the dance you have to understand what was happening politically, economically, socially. Because movement is the last manifestation of your reality. It's what you do that confirms who you are. Hopefully I will get to be on stage. Reporter: In the studio in upper Manhattan, actor Jacqueline Harris sees herself as a storyteller. An energy exists here that's special. It's really magical. I feel Mr. Ailey cultivated a community that's so hopeful and diverse and inclusive. That's something that people love and that's something that people celebrate. What does it mean to be a black woman and be empowered to live that truth on the stage? Mr. Ailey had a special place in his heart for black women. To be able to be a black woman and share that story with every audience that we encounter around the world so I can show my strength and I can show my beauty and I can show that I am not to be put in a box and I'm not to be labeled. So empowering. Our audiences expect excellence. That's what we deliver. Reporter: Robert battle is the company's artistic director. Alvin Ailey started this company at a time of discord. ?????? Reporter: One of the company's signature pieces, "Revelations," created in 1960 by Ailey during the height of the civil rights movement. When he created "Revelations" in 1960, his masterpiece that's the sweetest spiritual is expressing experiences of African-Americans in this country and how we overcame a lot of the atrocities of hate through faith, which turned out to be a universal message of hope. ?????? This program belongs to Alvin Ailey. Reporter: Mr. Ailey used his talents and intention to create opportunities for dancers and promote arts and education. We're moving toward becoming, I hope, an institution that our younger people have to know where they've been in this country in order to know where they're going. ?????? Reporter: Some of those truths shine through in pieces like "Rainbow round my shoulder." It's a ballet about seven guys on a chain gang. ?????? Reporter: Ailey choreographed his signature solo "Cry." As a birthday present for his mother. It was just a little tribute to the tenacity and the strength and the beauty and the poetry and the power of black women. Reporter: In 1989, at just 58 years old, Ailey died of AIDS. But nearly three decades later, he's still revered by the black community and beyond. If you spend enough time at the company, you're bound to meet veteran Jamar Roberts. Word on the street is you're the old man around here, man. I'm one of the older men, yes. There's some older ones. But I got a couple grays. ?????? Reporter: Blending size and grace, Robert's style has been described as poetry in motion. I do this until 11:00 at the latest. Tug. It gives me an hour to kind of be myself, feel out the space. ?????? Reporter: Jamar plays a prominent role in "Lazarus." I want to know about "Lazarus." A big deal, a big project. One of those things where you sit in it and you sit in it and you let it take you all the way through to the end. Sometimes it's -- sometimes it's good, sometimes it's really intense. Most of the time it's intense because of the subject matter, because of what it deals with. ?????? ??? I'm a black man in a white world ??? Dance is storytelling,storytelling. In this work there's a lot being communicated. Reporter: It's in these times a new generation of dancers bring their own stories and the story of America to the theater. For "Nightline" I'm Zachary kiesch in New York. The natnalour "Ali ending" begins in February.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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