Bringing Ailey Dances Back to Light

Classic Arts Features   Bringing Ailey Dances Back to Light
Masazumi Chaya, associate artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, talks about restaging Mr. Ailey's old dances and keeping them fresh.

Nothing defines a dance company like its repertory. That's why we return, to see dances that have once thrilled and moved us. But troupes don't have the time or resources to keep all their works fresh and ready for performance. Inevitably, many slip into a no man's land where all that remains of them are videotapes, choreographers' notes, and dancers' hazy memories.

Masazumi Chaya, Associate Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, spends a good deal of his time preventing this slide into oblivion by restaging old dances for the Ailey company and for other troupes that want Mr. Ailey's pieces in their repertories.

"When I restage Ailey dances," says the elegant Chaya, "I feel as if I am speaking with Alvin. I call the process 'visiting Alvin.' Dancers always ask me about him and by learning about him, they dance his works with more spirit. Dances are never solely about the steps, especially Alvin's. When they show their understanding in their performances, people experience the joy of his works. It makes me very happy."

Chaya has traveled far and wide performing this daunting service, to the Rome Opera Ballet, the Pennsylvania Ballet, the Royal Swedish Ballet, La Scala Ballet, the North Carolina Dance Theater, the National Ballet of Prague, and many others. For the Ailey company's current season at New York City Center, he oversaw the splendid new stagings of Ailey's classic The River and the witty Pas de Duke.

"The brunt of restaging lies in what Chaya remembers and what a memory he's got," says Judith Jamison, the company's Artistic Director. "Chaya loved Mr. Ailey for the person he was, in giving him a chance to become a member of this company and work beside him, in later years as his rehearsal assistant. He learned a lot and uses what he learned from the 'master' to great advantage. The dancers can't live on stage without his sure interpretation of the Ailey repertoire."

Though both of the new productions in Chaya's care have scores by Duke Ellington, they show Ailey in very different moods. The philosophical The River, which he choreographed in 1970, celebrates birth, life and rebirth. Combining modern dance, classical ballet and jazz techniques, it conveys the changes in a river on its way to the sea, a metaphor for how human beings change over their lifetimes. On a lighter note, Ailey created Pas de Duke in 1976 as a special gala piece for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Judith Jamison. The duet is as much a playful contest between two strong personalities as a showcase for virtuosic dancing.

Chaya begins the restaging process by looking at videotapes of the dance. Since he performed with the company from 1972 until 1989, when he became the rehearsal director, he already knows many very well, by virtue of what he calls "his Japanese computer brain." He learned five ballets in his first two weeks with the company by memorizing everyone's parts.

"The River is unusual," Chaya says, "because Alvin used curving arms and contractions of modern dance for the dancers' upper bodies and the precision and speed of ballet for their lower bodies. He always believed in the importance of ballet training, and this is a dance you couldn't dance well without it."

Even though he performed The River, Chaya checked out the original version that was danced by American Ballet Theatre for ideas on the restaging, "I like seeing what different dancers have done with the choreography. This piece is a lot of fun to dance because of its gorgeous score. When William Carter from ABT came to Ailey to coach us in 1984, Alvin hung around to watch. He loved being around dancers. He wouldn't say too much — maybe just ask why you had your arm a certain way. But whatever he said, made a difference."

After studying videos of The River, Chaya selected enough dancers to fill five casts, the usual number for large Ailey dances performed during the lengthy City Center season. As he began teaching the dance, he could see who learned fastest and seemed most comfortable with the choreography. "I'm looking for the best combinations of dancers, not just the best dancer for a role. A lot of this piece is pure movement. To be effective, dancers have to discover who they are in the choreography in order to project its spirit. It's not like our story-telling dances, where to some extent you play a character."

At times, Chaya finds himself on the spot. "I was restaging The River for the Royal Swedish Ballet," he says, "and a dancer, who had seen a video, believed that in one section, her palms should be up while another said she felt much better with her palms down. A small point, one would think. But if a dancer feels better in one position than another, unless it's a major change, I let them choose. Alvin said it was okay to do that."

Chaya remembers how Mr. Ailey communicated his ideas. "Alvin always said, 'listen to the music,'" he recalls. "For The River, he told us to imagine how water feels, to think of coming into a huge, quiet forest and hearing the river splashing on rocks. He said to imagine the colors, the temperature, and the smells. He wanted us to use all our senses to dance — not only our bodies. It changed us. It's a full and beautiful way to dance. I try to pass that on."

Valerie Gladstone writes frequently about the arts.

Recommended Reading: