There are plenty of opportunities in New York City to become a dancer or choreographer — but remaining one is the challenge. In a survival-of-the-fittest world, an artist needs a network of support. The Ailey organization has evolved to become such a resource, accommodating the development of dancers and choreographers through all stages of their careers. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT), Ailey II, the Ailey/Fordham B.F.A. program, and The Ailey School all provide nurturing atmospheres. In addition, the strong vision and constancy of the late Alvin Ailey's leadership have played key roles in the tandem development of the organization and its artists.
Judith Jamison has been artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since 1989, the year of Ailey's passing at a sadly young 58. For those of a certain age, it seems like the day before yesterday when Jamison — one of the most powerful dancers to ever grace a stage — was eliciting cheers and tears from a packed City Center. And while we rue her absence onstage, her influence is keenly felt in all areas of the Ailey organization, as is that of Sylvia Waters, director of Ailey II since 1974, and Denise Jefferson, director of The Ailey School since 1984. In addition, Sharon Luckman has been executive director of Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation since 1995, and AAADT's associate artistic director Masazumi Chaya celebrates his 35th anniversary with the company this year in a special December 18 performance. All are significant tenures by any measure, and all are factors in Ailey's success at each level.
A glance at this season's lineup of choreographers reveals strong Ailey heritage. Company alumnus Ulysses Dove (1947-1996) choreographed three works in the schedule, and Fredrick Earl Mosley, Camille A. Brown, and Robert Battle all attended The Ailey School. Mosley, whose Saddle UP! receives its premiere this season, has watched the company grow since it was still at its old theatre district location. He performed with the junior company and, urged on by Waters and Jefferson, began to teach and conduct choreographic workshops. "I had no idea that I had a knack for teaching or choreographing, but they both encouraged me to go for it," Mosley says. "At first, I was nervous about accepting the challenges that came along with standing in front of a room of so many eyes looking at you for help, knowledge, and inspiration." But he clearly managed, and now Mosley is on the faculty at The Ailey School.
"It really feels like a home base," declares Brown of choreographing at Ailey. Her premiere this season, The Groove to Nobody's Business, is composed of scenes — some hysterically familiar — set in the subway. "I started as a student in the junior division when I was in high school," Brown remembers. "To be nurtured as a dancer, and now as a choreographer, is so encouraging." She is further gratified when current students learn that she's an alumnus of The Ailey School. "It gives them a sense of real encouragement when you can be an example to them."
Also part of this season's repertoire is Unfold, a duet choreographed by Battle, who has a substantial body of work that has been set on his own company, Battleworks, and on Parsons Dance, with whom he has danced for years. "One of Ms. Jamison's and the company's goals is to nurture young choreographers," he notes, "not through just one piece, but with a body of work. Knowing how difficult it is for choreographers to get companies to do their work — part of the solution is to become a part of this family, to come and create."
Both Brown and Battle have choreography in the repertory of Ailey II. "The second company still does two of my pieces," he says, "and I sometimes set things on the school. So I feel really integrated into the fabric of the organization. I feel I'll always be around, which is a good feeling in this day and age of modern dance."
Courtney Brené Corbin, who joined AAADT in 2005, agrees that the company is like a family. "We need the positive feedback and energy that you receive from family," she says. "You begin to learn people's strengths and weaknesses in that kind of work environment, and this teaches patience. This is one of the factors that makes this company so strong." Corbin is a graduate of the Ailey/Fordham B.F.A. program and was a member of Ailey II. "The B.F.A. program and Ailey II served as stepping stones to the Ailey company. They made me realize Ailey's importance on many levels. It's an honor to live a dream in such a highly prestigious organization."
Susan Yung is a New York-based freelance writer specializing in dance and art.