Focus on Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater


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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. Photo by Paul Kolnik

How do you get such an amazing reaction with such a huge audience to play to?

Artistic Director Judith Jamison:
It’s very much to do with the dancers you see in front of you and our mandate.  Mr Ailey always wanted people on stage, not just dancers, he always wanted human beings with something to tell you.

Obviously they live their lives other than just eat, sleep, dance so the impact of that is wonderful because they are dancing from the heart, they are coming from another place, not an exterior but from the heart and soul and they really mean it.

They are giving you heart and soul and technique and a passion for what they re doing.  It has to be based on technique.  You cant just get up there and go through all those ballets that we did last night which are all different variations on a theme, from The River to Revelations to Twyla Tharp’s Golden Section.  That’s quite a shift and that’s what we’re known for but we’re also known for our humanity and our generosity as people and certainly as artists.

What kind of mental preparation and physical preparation you go through to keep that emotion, to keep bringing that out? Particularly when you are performing Revelations in every programme, how do you keep that emotion coming strong and fresh?

Dancer Renee Robinson:
We have a rehearsal period, we have rehearsal before the performance, we have a rehearsal period in NYC to learn new ballets and rehearse older ones, but I have to say it is built into the works, into the pieces we perform.

I don’t feel like its something separate that we do, I don’t feel like we learn the ballets and then we learn the rest on top because it’s all part of the ballet.  I would say it’s a natural thing that happens as part of the presentation of the work.

Dancer Matthew Rushing:
Not only is it built into the work but also the elements are built into the company.  Once you are a member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company it is more than being employed by the foundation and showing up to rehearsal and coming to perform on tour, it is a cultural nourishment.

There’s a nurturing that happens whether you like it or not.  It is almost like a whirlwind that you are caught up into and sometimes you cant help but be affected by the cultures that you visit on a tour, by learning and growing from the high standard that Miss Jamison and Mr. Masazumi Chaya expect so sometimes even if you don’t notice it you are caught up in this whirlwind.  Then the next thing you know you look back and you see how much you have grown, how much you have learned and we always say that Judith rises the bar but once you get to that bar she raises it even higher!

“We just caught up to this bar and you want us to go higher?”

So when its time to go on stage it’s already in you, you don’t even have to take a moment to think about it, it’s in your DNA, its just embedded in you because of the whirlwind.

Pick of the Crop

Judith Jamison and Masazumi Chaya talk about how each programme of work comes to fruition and the hard task of selecting the right dancers for each piece of repertoire.

Judith Jamison:
Chaya is responsible for making sure that the ballets that I dream about come to being, for example if there is a ballet that Alvin choreographed 30 years ago Chaya is responsible and lovingly reconstructs and restages these ballets.

This is the man responsible for putting everything together, I just sit there on the side saying I want that that and that.  It’s like I am in a candy shop which is wonderful because working with the Ailey dancers is like being in a candy shop!
Every choreographer we bring in acts ridiculous…..

Masazumi Chaya:  The hardest thing is to choose a cast because everybody is so special, everybody wants to use everybody, so it’s hard.  Each dancer has their own life they read a book, read a newspaper, go to museums or just walk around the city to see the people, what they do.  All those experiences, they use that on the stage.

Judith Jamison:  The company runs, when I am away the cats don’t play and I come back to see new and refreshing things.  The love of Alvin is evident in everything that Chaya does.

Chaya what goes through your mind when Judith says I want to see Pas de Duke or The River, what do you do?  How do you then bring the dancers into it?

Masazumi Chaya: My challenge is realizing what the choreographer originally intended.  Judith hired such beautiful dancers, how am I going to put the dancers into the ballet that shows each of their best?

They each have two legs and two arms so what is going to be special about what these dancers?  It’s about heart

That’s the challenge more than just creating steps, and then when they are tired they don’t want to do it but they can bring out the passion

That is the communication between the dancer and the audience, they are not only beautiful dancers but they have so much to say on stage.

Musical Tastes

Can I ask about the music?

Judith Jamison:
Everybody does. People think they are compilations you can buy but I put it together!  You can’t go and buy it, I did that!
Each choreographer comes in with their own music, which is a real treat sometimes.

When you come to a piece like Reminiscing, did you have a clear idea about the music you were going to use?
Judith Jamison:
I sure did, which is unusual for me!  I did because I wanted to celebrate jazz, I wanted to celebrate these great women and the tradition that is carried along by the younger artists so I went from Sarah Bond and Ella Fitzgerald to Regina Carter, Roberta Flack, Nina Simone.

I loved going in and out of that. The set was reminiscent of my father, a mechanic and carpenter and he used to make stuff like that set for real bars and cafes: It brought back beautiful memories for me

Does the music help you as dancers because some of it is so vibrant?

I think its part of the accessibility of the company, you can come to theatre and not only see images that exist within your own life but also hear music that you can relate to.

Mr Ailey was known for working with great musicians, the list goes on and on and its great for the dancers because there comes a point when fatigue sets in and the one thing that you can always rely upon is the power in the music.  In Reminisicin the last section is tiring but you hear Nina Simone screaming at the top of her lungs which can boost your energy as well, its part of it and it is very important.