Ulysses Dove, the brilliant choreographer and dancer, died from AIDS 25 years ago on June 11, 1996 at the age of 49. At the time of his passing, he’d already reached stratospheric heights as one of the world’s leading dance makers for ballet companies, including American Ballet Theater, New York City Ballet, Dutch National Ballet, Royal Swedish Ballet, London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet), Ballet France de Nancy, Basel Ballet, Cullberg Ballet, and Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal.
This despite spending his dance career not in ballet but as a modern dancer with Merce Cunningham Dance Company and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—the first and only person in history to perform with both of those companies. Beyond breaking through the elite ballet club door as an outsider, what makes his success even more tremendous is that he did so as a Black man at a time when the art form’s racism and exclusion were considerably worse than it is now.
In most instances, Dove was the first Black man in history to choreograph for any of the ballet companies where he was commissioned. Based upon his influence alone, had AIDS not stolen his life, it is likely that the art form would look radically different and more diverse than it does today. Famed classical ballet dancer Misty Copeland and numerous other Black ballerinas would have been appointed to principal ranks sooner, because the view of who was worthy of the stage would have shifted simply by Dove’s presence in the room.
In commemoration of Ulysses Dove, TheBody spoke with two of his protégés, the world-famous dancer Desmond Richardson and acclaimed choreographer Dwight Rhoden, as well as his brother Alfred, also a dancer and choreographer.
An Independent Streak
Dove was born on Jan. 17, 1947 in Columbia, South Carolina. As a child, his family moved to east Georgia, where his mother was a teacher for blind students and his father served as a pastor and ran his own upholstery business. According to his brother, Alfred, due to their parents’ busy schedules, Dove spent a lot of early years on their grandfather’s farm, where his “natural brilliance” was encouraged through reading and deep conversations.
In second grade, Dove’s dancing won a talent competition at his Catholic school. Unfortunately, said Alfred, “because the nuns and priests at that time didn’t think boys should dance, they wouldn’t give [Ulysses] the award.”
Alfred says that his brother responded to this by “acting out,” which resulted in his being placed at Boggs Academy, a Presbyterian preparatory school for Black children in Keysville, Georgia. In tandem with his prep school education, Dove also began taking dance lessons against his parents’ wishes. In a profile published in The New York Times in 1989, Dove said, “I have no idea why I wanted to dance. I just knew it was what I was going to do. I had nothing but parental disapproval.”
Acquiescing to their demands, after graduating from high school, he attended Howard University as a pre-med major, but, while there, quickly shifted his concentration to dance. Soon afterward, he transferred to the University of Wisconsin to continue his studies and then to Bennington College, where he obtained his degree in dance in 1970.
Almost immediately after moving to New York City, he began to work with the companies of acclaimed modern choreographers Mary Anthony and Pearl Lang, while studying on scholarship at the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which hired him as a dancer that same year. Three years later, the choreographer Anna Sokolow asked him to perform in her classic piece, “Rooms,” a performance that was seen by Alvin Ailey, who responded by asking Dove to join his company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
During his seven years with the company, Dove was quickly promoted to principal dancer and, under Ailey’s encouragement, began choreographing. Following his successful choreographic debut in 1979, Dove departed Ailey in 1980 to serve as the assistant director of Paris Opera’s experimentalist wing, the Choreographic Research Group. From there, his career as a freelance choreographer continued to blossom, leading not only to numerous commissions but to his choreographing the 1986 Robert Wilson and Philip Glass opera The Civil Wars.
Dove’s brother says that part of what made him so successful was his unique influences as well as his refusal to be categorized. “His time at Cunningham exposed him to another world, and he never forgot that perspective,” said Alfred. “[Ulysses] never adhered to the philosophy of being pigeonholed as a ‘Black dancer’ or ‘Black choreographer.’ You’re a dancer—it doesn’t matter what color you are. Can you do the movement?”
That perspective was what connected audiences to his work. “He gave them his life from having grown up on a farm in the South and told them a human experience,” Alfred said. “He got that from Ailey, who was such a father figure to him.”
Telling that human story through dance was also why Dove was able to work with so many white ballet companies, added Alfred. “Because he wasn’t ‘selling’ Blackness—he was giving the world dance.”
The Stigma of AIDS
Though Ulysses Dove was blessed with an incredible career, his brother says that Ulysses’ “sole regret was that the Ailey company didn’t give him the artistic director position after Alvin passed.” Alvin Ailey died on Dec. 1, 1989 from an AIDS-related illness. Prior to his passing, he asked that his cause of death be attributed to terminal blood dyscrasia so that his mother would not be shamed by stigma.
Alfred says that his brother was equally concerned about his family being affected by stigma. Dove was diagnosed with HIV in 1982, Alfred said, though he did not speak of it publicly. “He had a lot to say, but he said it on stage through dance,” Alfred continued. “That was all cut short because of his illness, but I don’t think he was bitter about it. He focused on getting things done and worked up until the time he died.” Dove’s final ballet, Twilight, premiered at New York City Ballet on May 23, 1996, one month before his death.
Alfred acknowledges that the best way to know his brother was through his work, which was acclaimed for its erotically charged energy, high speed, and rigorous technical demands. One of his most popular ballets, Episodes, was created in response to a friend’s death from AIDS.
Testament to a Loving Mentor
Desmond Richardson, an award-winning dance star and former protégé of Dove who performed as a principal with Ailey, American Ballet Theatre, and Ballet Forsythe, said that Dove created Episodes during a time when the AIDS epidemic was very heightened. At the time, many of his friends were passing, and he had this idea about these episodes, or moments when you meet people that are fleeting. “But when you are really inside of them, they create an entire world—even though at the time you didn’t appreciate those moments for what they were,” said Richardson.
“Episodes is about losing people,” continued Richardson. “When Dove brought it to Ailey from Ballet de Nancy, we had already lost four people in the company. That’s why it was so palpable for us and the audience. Because he was giving us something that we didn’t know how to say in words.”
The experience was equally emotional for Dove, who Richardson said came backstage following the premiere in tears, “because it was a cathartic moment for him,” he said. “We didn’t know that he, too, was suffering at the time. That’s just what was coming out for him.”
During the years that he worked with Dove, Richardson was romantically involved with Dwight Rhoden, a fellow star dancer at Ailey who’d also performed as a leading dancer with Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal and Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC). Richardson said that Dove liked pairing them because “he liked our energy together.” The two would go on to found the leading dance company, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, which they co-lead to this day. Since then, Rhoden, much like Dove did after his time at Ailey, has evolved into an award-winning choreographer.
Rhoden, who worked with Dove at DCDC and Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal prior to joining Ailey, credits their time together with making him a better dancer. “I was new to dancing when we first met, but I grew exponentially under his guidance and influence because he demanded things from us,” said Rhoden. “He expected you to give your all and everything because he certainly was. It wasn't about it being perfect—it was about excellence and integrity in your approach.”
During their working relationship at Ailey, Dove workshopped a ballet that he was creating for the Royal Swedish Opera, Dancing On the Porch of Heaven, on Rhoden and Richardson. “We became a couple of his muses during that period, because he gravitated towards our chemistry,” Rhoden explained. “I won’t say it was the only reason, but Ulysses was one of the big reasons why we found a connection that has resulted in Desmond and my collaboration over the years, and subsequently the 26 years that we've been running Complexions.”
Rejecting Racism and Stigma
Rhoden sees Dove’s loss as one reason why the ballet field stopped investing in Black choreographic voices, as well as for “disrespectful and prejudicial” reviews of critics who refuse “to look at dance with fresh eyes, like Gia Kourlas”—a dance writer at The New York Times, who has dismissed his work as “monotonous in structure,” “clinical,” and epitomizing “the bland aggression of so much contemporary ballet.” For Rhoden, critics like Kourlas, who dominate culture desks around the country, refuse to see Dove for “the revolutionary approach he was taking to ballet”.
But even as Dove remained committed to developing his artistry, Rhoden said that it was clear that he was also concerned with passing on his knowledge. “When I got to the Ailey company, there were so many of my heroes in addition to Mr. Ailey who were dying off and succumbing to (AIDS),” he said. “Ulysses also obviously was not well and we knew that, but during that time people didn't talk about it. Also, it was unknown who had contracted this disease, but subconsciously I knew that my time with him wasn't guaranteed. I mean we used to go to dinner after rehearsal or grab a coffee, and just talk. But it was always about dance, or the new ballet we were doing, or how important it was that he give me his thoughts on the reasons for the movements.”
For Rhoden, Dove’s death was devastating, but he takes comfort in knowing that his passion for creating groundbreaking work that spoke of connection, pushing through struggle, and the potential for joy after so much pain remains with us. That’s why, said Rhoden, “he was a voice of the times and a true classic” whose work resonates now as it did then. Case in point, when Dove’s ballets are revived, they still send audiences into rapturous ovations—because they reach beyond clinical analysis to touch the human heart.
In tribute to Dove’s memory and in defiance of HIV stigma, which continues to haunt the dance community and the world at large, Richardson and Rhoden have committed themselves to never discriminating against a dancer who is living with HIV. “Discrimination is not Complexions at all,” Richardson asserted. “It’s important that we respect our dancers’ privacy, but if someone said, ‘I have HIV. Can you put that in my bio?’ We’d say, ‘Yes, absolutely.’”
Saying “yes” and “absolutely” is the way that Dove led his entire life. In celebration of that life, TheBody is beginning a new pledge: We are asking dance companies around the world to “Say No to HIV Stigma” and promise to never discriminate against a dancer because of their HIV status.
Complexions Contemporary Ballet is the first dance company to lead the way in this endeavor. We look forward to sharing with you about other dance companies who have also committed themselves to rejecting stigma and reviving the memories of those who were lost to a virus that took too many beautiful people, including Ulysses Dove.