Christopher Zunner came to the Big Apple in 1983 from up-state New York for a two-month temp job helping Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) celebrate its 25th anniversary. He ended up staying for 25 years and counting, holding a variety of posts, including administrative assistant to Alvin Ailey. A quarter-century later, as AAADT celebrates its 50th birthday, Zunner serves as PR director.
“On the first day, Mr. Ailey said, ‘Welcome to the family,'” Zunner recalls. “I was speechless. Coming into the organization on a temporary basis, it was a privilege and a surprise to move on to a variety of different positions – I think I'm on number nine now.”
Though Zunner didn't have a traditional PR background, management believed he was the perfect choice to lead AAADT's PR efforts.
“He understands every aspect of Ailey, from the artistic mission to the educational mission to the role the [dance] company plays in our culture,” says Bennett Rink, senior director, development and external affairs, for the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation. “To him, it's almost a personal mission to bring awareness of Ailey to as wide an audience as possible. I think we've found the job he was born to do. [He's] only been [PR director] just over a year and I could not have asked for anything more.”
In college, Zunner studied communications and dance and worked at a New York state art park. “You never know where life [will] take you,” he says, adding that he didn't imagine his college experiences would prove so synergistic. “As [dance] company manager, I coordinated local appearances with presenters and media. That was great training for PR and an opportunity to learn from different experiences around the world. Then I managed the $75 million Capital Campaign. I have great love for the organization. We're so excited about introducing Ailey to so many people this year because once you meet Ailey, you love Ailey.”
At the end of March, Congress declared Ailey “Cultural Ambassador to the World,” and the 18-month 50th anniversary celebration kicked off. The festivities include a 50-city global tour, 28 special events, and the release of six commemorative merchandise items – Hallmark cards, a Barbie doll, a calendar, a photo book, a Movado watch, and a children's book.
“The 50th is a time to break new ground in where Ailey is seen,” says Zunner. “The organization has always been about making dance accessible. We've done high-profile TV appearances, including Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance. And partnerships, such as those with Mattel and Movado, allow great opportunities to highlight the Ailey legacy in new ways.”
In August, free performances and classes, along with a street party in New York, helped showcase AAADT to the public and press. The dancers are currently preparing for a global tour that begins September 6. Later this year, a “1958 Night” performance sponsored by Target will make ticket prices accessible to many.
“[Our] dancers take audiences on a roller-coaster ride,” Zunner says. “Many days, I'm on a roller- coaster ride as well – there's such variety and always something new going on. Some of my favorite days are those when I've helped arrange opportunities for [artistic director Judith Jamison] and the dancers to tell their stories to the media.”
PR director, AAADT
50th Anniversary project director, AAADT
Assoc. dir. of development, Capital Campaign, AAADT