Masters at Work, The Ailey-Ellington Connection

When producers Kenny “Dope” Gonzales and Louie Vega formed Masters at Work in 1990, they proceeded to create a catalog that contains some of house music’s most recognizable classics.  Such is the case when two great creative minds come together to collaborate.  It seemed that from the time Alvin Ailey hit the streets of The Big Apple in 1954, he and Duke Ellington’s paths were destined to meet.  Both he and Ellington were born in different areas of the country but had come to New York City to pursue their art, although by the time young Ailey had arrived, Ellington had already cemented his legacy as a jazz virtuoso.  However, it didn’t take long for Ailey to begin to carve a name for himself in the world of dance.  With pieces like “Revelations” and “Blues Suite”, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which was formed in 1958, quickly became a sensation in the modern dance scene.  Like Ellington, Ailey was known for a unique style infusing ballet, Horton, jazz and African dance  techniques.  Also like Ellington, Ailey lifted his art above the grouping of race which allowed his work to be recognized as an American art form the world over.

AAADT's Demetia Hopkins in Alvin Ailey's The River.  Photo by Paul KolnikIn 1970, Alvin Ailey and Duke Ellington’s paths finally met.  American Ballet Theater commissioned Ailey to create “The River”.  The ballet was the first collaboration between Alvin Ailey and Duke Ellington.  Ailey would again refer to Ellington’s music when he created “Night Creature” in 1974 and “Pas de Duke” in 1976.  For the 2013 season, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater paid homage to these late geniuses and their collaborations by premiering new productions of “The River” and “Pas de Duke” at the New York City Center.  Along with the first season’s performance of “Night Creature” and Ailey’s most seminal work, “Revelations”, the debut of these works was an evening of remembrance, revelry and appreciation for beauty, physicality and style in motion.

AAADT weaves athleticism and artistry so seamlessly that it takes the medium of dance to another level.  Visually stunning and always breathtaking to behold, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater never fail to provide its audience with the most soul-stirring shows they will ever see.  It is where perfection and performance meet.  This sentiment simply radiates through “The River”, a work that utilizes the entire company and is as moving, fierce and romantic as its namesake.   With the accompaniment of Duke Ellington’s score driving this piece forward, the love Ailey had for dance is truly exhibited.  The way in which he carefully blended classical ballet elements together with modern techniques is nothing short of masterful.    “The River” is energetic; it rolls and sweeps the audience in its majesty.  It is a living example of the brilliance of these two men.

AAADT's Antonio Douthit-Boyd and Linda Celeste Sims in Alvin Ailey's Pas de Duke.  Photo by Paul Kolnik“Pas de Duke” was first created for Ailey’s muse Judith Jamison and ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov. Black and white, modern versus ballet, Eve and Adam, “Pas de Duke” is witty, flirtatious, sophisticated and utterly charming.  Ailey must of thought of the song “Anything You Can Do” when he choreographed this piece.

Alvin_Ailey_American_Dance_Theater_in_Alvin_Ailey_s_Night_Creature._Photo_by_Krautbauer_2_As one of the children of the night, I have always had a fondness for those who skulk down sidewalks, saunter into nightclubs and compete with colored spotlights for the glory of a night filled with sweat and velocity. On many occasions, I have been one of them creating new realities on the dance floor.  Ellington said, “Night creatures, unlike stars, do not come out at night, they come on.”  I would say they come out to be alive, alive in a way they can’t be when the sun is shining.  Alvin Ailey’s “Night Creature” is overflowing with life.  The company slinks, leaps and struts with authority.  It defines the sumptuous nightlife that New York City is known for.

AAADT_in_Alvin_Ailey_s_Revelations._Photo_by_Christopher_DugganThere can be no better end to an evening with AAADT than “Revelations”.  It is the work that Alvin Ailey is most known for and definitely on the top my list. Seeing Alvin Ailey’s choreography paired with Duke Ellington’s music gave me a few revelations of my own.  There is no debate why the majority of their works are regarded as masterpieces.  I would liken the Ailey-Ellington collaborations to an artistic atom bomb – an explosion of epic scale whose far reaching effects have spanned over generations.

Photos: Paul Kolnik, Christopher Duggan, Gert Krautbauer

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Truth Marches On

The 2011-2012 season of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater marked a new chapter in its vivid, far-reaching history when Robert Battle took the helm.  Battle, the second person to become Artistic Director for the company since the passing of its founder in 1989, officially began his tenure in July 2011 after Judith Jamison transitioned to the role of Artistic Director Emerita.   Previous to her 21 years of brilliantly preserving Alvin Ailey and AAADT’s legacy, Jamison had indelibly woven her spirit into the fabric of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.  As Ailey’s former muse and principal dancer, the choice to have one of AAADT’s most famous faces assume the position of Artistic Director was obvious, but Battles roots with Ailey also run deep.

Battle has been a periodic choreographer and artist-in-residence at Ailey since 1999.  The works he has choreographed include Anew, The Hunt, Juba, In/Side, Mood Indigo, Love Stories and Takedeme, with The Hunt, In/Side and Love Stories (a collaboration with Judith Jamison and Rennie Harris) included the company’s current repertory.  Like Ailey, Battle also possesses a southern background growing up in Liberty City, Florida.  He studied dance in high school before entering Miami’s New World School of the Arts and moving on to The Julliard School.  He joined the Parsons Dance Company, dancing with them from 1994 to 2001.  In 2002, he premiered his own company, Battleworks Dance Company, in Düsseldorf, Germany.  Along with the works he created for AAADT, Battle has also created and restaged ballets for Hubbard Street Repertory Ensemble, River North Chicago Dance Company, Koresh Dance Company, Introdans, PARADIGM, and Ballet Memphis. In 2005, he was the recipient of the “Masters of African American Choreography” by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Art and received the Statue Award from the Princess Grace Foundation-USA in 2007. 

Along with the changes Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s have experienced this season, the New York City Center, AAADT’s New York City performing home, has also undergone a reconstruction of its own.  This year marked the completion of the most extensive renovation project in the theater’s 70 year history.  The alterations included a video gallery located in the orchestra lobby and the restoration of the ceiling and mural designs.  The vibrancy that is felt in the new New York City Center definitely resonated on stage as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater passionately placed the exclamation point on Robert Battle’s inaugural season.

This season AAADT presents a intricate mosaic of works which includes the premieres of Battle’s Takedeme, a blistering progression of fast-paced movements and vigorous jumps set to the rhythms of an Indian Kathak dance and a jazz score, Minus 16, choreographed by Ohad Nahirin and Arden Court by Paul Taylor.  Along with these company premieres, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater also included the world premiere of Home by Rennie Harris.  Home, an inspirational homage to people living or affected by HIV set to gospel house music, was inspired by stories submitted to the “Fight HIV Your Way” contest, an initiative of Bristol-Myers Squibb.  Ulysses Dove’s Episodes, the late choreographer’s visceral tribute to the people that had passed through his life with AIDS, also appeared in this season’s repertory.

Ailey staples such as Cry, Night Creature, Memoria and Revelations also made an appearance this year.  Some people go to Paris for inspiration, others the Big Apple.  But me, all I need is my annual dose of Ailey.  For the first time since I could remember, I felt as if I was watching AAADT with a new set of eyes.  Robert Battle’s influence felt extremely tangible and refreshing.  I felt his exuberance in every performance I witnessed and especially in Revelations.  Each time I view it, another discovery shines through.  This time is was the joy; under the directorship of Battle, Revelations was more celebratory than it has ever been.  The waves of reciprocity between the company and the audience circle around the theater like a boomerang.  By the encore of “Rock My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” all I wanted to do was throw my hands up and say, “Glory hallelujah!”  The legacy of Alvin Ailey is in well deserved and capable hands.  I am excited to view Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s future with Robert Battle commandeering the most veracious dance company to ever exist.

Photos: Andrew Eccles and Paul Kolnik, Nan Melville

Flex and Tension with The Ailey Extension

During the spring, most of us work like Rocky Balboa training for a prize fight in order to look desirable during New York City’s annual humidity festival, also known as the summer.   But as sure as The Empire State Building lights up in the evening, the temperature cools, making way for fall.   Bikinis, mini-skirts, sandals and halter tops are replaced with jackets, sweaters, corduroys and knee-high boots.  The quest to maintain that summer figure may become more difficult as fall gives way to winter.  New York City is filled with gyms, but spinning on a bicycle going nowhere, posing in yoga positions or doing repetitions on a weight machine are not the only methods to staying fit and agile.  Dancing provides all the sweat and none of the routine of regular workout and The Ailey Extension offers both.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre is best known as being the “Cultural Ambassador to the World,” but in New York City AAADT is an institution.  Founded in Manhattan in 1958, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and its creator changed the landscape of American modern dance.  One of Ailey’s signature ballet, Revelations, is considered to be the most often seen modern dance performance.  Each time I watch this extraordinary work, I sit in awe and sometimes believe that I can perform the choreography.  After my brief moment of delusion, I realize I can never move and accentuate my body like someone who has devoted their life to dancing and performing, but I can learn.   

“Mr. Ailey understood that people need to be engaged and connected in a way that they understand,” states Iquail Johnson, one of the instructors at The Ailey Extension.  And through The Ailey Extension everyone is able to partake in a piece of Alvin Ailey’s legacy, experiencing the opportunity to comprehend dance the way he understood it.  Created in 2005, The Ailey Extension offers over 80 dance and fitness classes each week in a variety of different styles and skill levels.  The teachers are all specialists in their field.  Iquail Johnson is a Philadelphia native that began his career in dance at 13 after being accepted to the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.  He continued his studies with PHILADANCO, Philadelphia Dance Company, and earned scholarships to attend The Julliard School, The Ailey School and The Paul Taylor School among others.  After receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Ballet from the University of the Arts and a Master of Fine Arts from SUNY Purchase, , Iquail has worked with dance companies including Ronald K Brown/Evidence, The Fred Benjamin Dance Company, and Subtle Changes.  He has also appeared on Broadway in Hot Feet, The Lion King, and Purlie and is the Founding Artistic Director of Dance IQUAIL!

Iquail began teaching Horton, the dance style Alvin Ailey used as the foundation of his choreography, at The Ailey Extension in 2006.   One might think that a dancer of his caliber would be climbing the walls trying to teach a roomful of nonprofessionals how to properly execute Locomotions, “Accented Runs,” “Hip Pushes” and “Leg Slices,” but Iquail enjoys working with the variety of students that pass through his class on a weekly basis.  “The most interesting thing is to see the development,” he says.  “You can see when they come in if they have no experience.  But no matter where [the students] come in, at what level, you can always see the growth that happens, you can see the ‘a-ha’ moment, when finally after taking classes for three months, six months or even a year they start to get it and their body starts to understand it. And that is the beauty of it.  When the body holds on to it, it is something that is undeniable,” 

As a trained dancer, Iquail physique is the embodiment of perfection, but he also believes that dance is a great alternative to traditional exercise regiments.  “Dance is a fabulous way to introduce people to movement.  No matter what kind of culture you are from, movement is a part of our everyday life, even if it’s a pedestrian walking down the street, he says.  “And the physical aspect is so integrated in dance,” he continues, “that its fun. You’re not thinking ‘Oh I have to do twelve more or I have thirty minutes.’  Also you are building cognitive skills, you’re developing comprehension skills, you’re coordinating your body, so at the end of the day you’ve developed your physicality, your mental state and your awareness of other people, and you packaged it with grace and elegance.  You can’t get that working out.”   When asked what technique he prefers and which technique should a new student learn first, Iquail jokingly replies, “Horton of course.”  “It is a fabulous technique for a lot of different reasons,” he says, “One, it wasn’t created with one person in mind. A lot of modern dance was developed for one person, the creator of that particular style.  Lester Horton decided not to let himself be the vehicle to express his technique, he used all the dancers around him, so that way he could make the technique work for no matter what body type you have.”  But if a student comes into The Ailey Extension taking Horton, they do not have to stick with it.  The staff and teachers at The Ailey Extension want you to feel connected to whatever classes you decide to take.  With that concept in mind, The Ailey Extension has an open door policy where students can go from one class to the next, trying them out until they find a class and teacher that works for them.

After my brief conversation with Iquail, it was time for me to see him in action as he taught his Wednesday evening class.  As I walked through the halls to the classroom the richness of spirits that have passed through this hallowed dance institution was almost tangible and completely entrancing.  In fact, as soon as you step through the doors it is as if the weight of day drops at your feet.  The more you walk, the more negativity is removed until you feel as clean as a newly christened baby.  I like to think of myself as a spirit dancer, also known as a free-stylist.  I hear the beat, and whatever comes out, comes out.  I thought I could pull the journalist card and sit back and watch the class, but Iquail would have none of that.  Of course having no formal training, I initially got tripped up by the terminology and stiffened up with the knowledge that was not dancing in a dimly lit room with strobe lights bouncing off the walls, but Iquail’s patience allowed my muscles to relax so that I could receive the dance.  Iquail is no Debbie Allen banging the floor with her dance stick, but he is not Mr. Softee either.  He pulls every inch out of you, making sure that you are extending and giving all you can to the movements.  By the time my hour was over, I realized I had sweated just as hard and felt just as sore as if had ran a few miles or had danced for five hours.  I left the class with a soul as rejuvenated as any time I danced a 10 -hour marathon at Club Shelter.  As I walked out, I thought about something Iquail said about the legacy of Alvin Ailey, whose presence could still be felt in the building.  “I think it has to do with taking dance away from dance.  It has to do with the fact that [Mr. Ailey] touched people.  And that everything he did was as a result of selflessness and generosity, and people gravitate to that, unbeknownst to them.  His generosity was so strong that people can’t explain why when they go see Revelations, that it is something they have to return to see over and over again for the last fifty-two years.  Now when you go see something fifty-two times, you’re like ‘Ok, now I’m tired,’ but to see something over and over again for fifty-two years, it becomes something that is transcendent. And I think that is why [AAADT] is such a global brand, because it is not about the dance.  Dance is just a vehicle to tell people we are all connected. The dances are the same steps; it has something to do with the spirit.”  What I learned is The Alvin Ailey Extension is more than just a place to learn dance steps or lose weight; it is a sanctuary to refresh your soul.  The perspiration is just a bonus.  

To learn more about The Ailey Extension, click

Photos: Gabriel Bienczycki and Kyle Froman

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Blazes New York City Center Stage and Passes the Torch

The first time I saw Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform I was 11-years-old, my parents had taken me to Symphony Hall in Newark, NJ.  Watching these powerful, magnificent performers’ radiate boundless energy and emotion left a distinct imprint on my brain cells that still remain.  Viewing Revelations, Ailey’s most recognized ballet, scratched my soul.  It spoke about the Black experience in a way that I had never witnessed before or after.  It spoke about my parents’ and grandparents’ experience.  It spoke about me, the legacy of triumph and struggle that I had inherited from past generations and would be responsible to pass on to the generation that followed me.  It spoke about my Sundays spent in church, the ability of a people to build a history without a full comprehension of where they came from and the sense of pride we carried throughout our journey.  After seeing Revelations, no one can walk out of the theater and not know what it feels like to be Black in America; it touches every fiber of the Black experience and can still make tears swell in my eyes.  The exquisite beauty of Alvin Ailey Dance Theater’s dancers and choreography still beckon to me.  As an adult I make sure to make a pilgrimage to what I consider to be the dancing Mecca of the world at least once a year.   

The roots Ailey planted when he first formed the company in 1958 have extended to touch the hearts and souls of citizens around the globe.  It is no wonder the company is called the “Cultural Ambassador to the World.”  There is one reason why Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has sustained such a high level of accolades and success, they are artistry of movement set to music personified. Revelations and all of the works that Ailey and others have choreographed for the company are rich in spirit, motion, music and drama.  After Alvin Ailey’s untimely death in 1989, Judith Jamison became the Artistic Director.  For me, Judith Jamison was the epitome of a female dancer. Her long, liquescent limbs made me pray (to no avail) for longer legs.  She brought a sense of regality with her on stage, a presence that still can be seen today.  Watching footage of her performing Cry will provoke the action to fall from your eyes. “Cry is a dance for all black women everywhere, especially our mothers. Dancing Cry, I was to be a woman who did the most servile of work but was never defeated by it. I didn’t even know about the special dedication until he (Alvin) showed me the program the night of my first Cry performance,” Ms. Jamison noted.  “It took eight days for Alvin to choreograph it.  I learned Cry in sections and Alvin gave me images of powerful women to use to express his vision. When performing Cry, you have to dig down deep, be venerable, use your dignity and of course passion! Looking back, Alvin gave me this dance and it’s a priceless gift.   I’ll always have it, along with the wisdom he passed down to me and that I pass down to women who perform Cry now.” 

Judith Jamison’s tenacity for preserving Alvin Ailey’s vision is one of the reasons why Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is the most beloved modern dance companies ever – an unyielding force of nature.   When asked her feelings regarding AAADT’s 50th anniversary in 2008, Ms. Jamison stated. “We’re living in his resonance, and in his vision that dance is for the people and should be delivered back to the people. We’ve performed worldwide and brought in many spectacular choreographers. For 50 years we’ve grown and expanded his goal.  Ailey II, The Ailey School, Ailey extension, and Arts in Education program are just a few examples of how AAADT has achieved Alvin’s goal.  Alvin Ailey will always be the root of this magnificent tree and his spirit will always be living through it.”

The 2010-2011 season for AAADT is bittersweet, this is Judith Jamison’s final year as Artistic Director as well as the 50th anniversary for Revelations.  In April, Ms. Jamison announced her retirement and named Robert Battle as her successor.  Currently he serves as Artistic Director Designate with Ms. Jamison until she assumes Emerita status on July, 1 2011.  In a press release Judith Jamison stated, “Robert has his own company and is a maverick in his choreography. He’s edgy and forward‐thinking, very talented and savvy—a lovely, intelligent person who in many ways reminds me of Alvin. He also has a worldview and is capable of taking this company in new directions, while at the same time understanding our traditions. Choosing Robert Battle is the giant leap I want to take to ensure that this company stays vibrant in the future.”  One of those traditions will be performing Revelations.   Each time I see Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform I wait with bated breath until the curtain rises and “Pilgrim of Sorrow” begins.  I exhale and inhale this brilliant work, but I know that I am not the only one in the audience doing this. Although Revelations speaks to the Black experience, there is a cord running throughout the piece that everyone can connect to.  Everyone knows what it is like to feel down-trodden and experience pain, yet somehow transcend the tribulation and still project pride and exuberance.  When asked about Revelations universal appeal and longevity Ms. Jamison said, “The dancers have fully given themselves to this piece and I believe audiences can see and feel that, and that in itself touches them. We all want to leave the theater, being touched, inspired, or feeling something. Revelations always closes Ailey performances and audiences always leave the performances with more than just smile, they leave with their spirits raised.”

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will end their season with five weeks of performances at the New York City Center.   The company is pulling out all the stops with three premieres,  Anointed (choreographed by Christopher L. Huggins), The Hunt (choreographed by Robert Battle) and The Evolution of a Secured Feminine (choreographed by Camille A. Brown) as well as new productions of Cry, Three Black Kings and Mary Lou’s Mass, all originally choreographed by AileyFrom December 15 through December 19 Winton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will join AAADT.  Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock will join Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in a special rendition of Revelations on New Year’s Eve.  Celebrating Judith Jamison on January 2 will be their season finale. 

On December 2, Target and AAADT gave New Yorkers an early holiday gift by reducing the ticket price to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Revelations.  The vibe in the audience exuded the atmosphere of church – everyone knew someone and some came in groups.  The air of family carried on stage as the dancers performed Matthew Rushing’s Uptown – a pulsating multi-media extravaganza that celebrates the Harlem Renaissance in its entirety, Ronald K. Brown’s  Dancing Spirit – a must-see for anyone who has the soul of a dancer and Revelations.  As I sat in the audience, I did not feel as though I was looking at a group of performers, instead I felt like I was watching members of my own family cut up at a gathering.  I also felt the presence of Alvin Ailey and Judith Jamison.  While these talented disciples of Ailey’s dance style continue to entertain and inspire, his spirit is there looming like a proud father watching his child grow up to do great things.  I look forward to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s future with Robert Battle at the helm and am positive that he will continue what I believe is AAADT’s true legacy – producing art at its highest caliber.

Photos: AAADT in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations by Paul Kolnik, Judith Jamison by Max Waldman and Andrew Eccles,  Judith Jamison and Robert Battle by Andrew Eccles,  AAADT in Robert Battle’s The Hunt by Paul Kolnik, AAADT in Ronald K. Brown’s Dancing Spirit by Christopher Duggan