Celebrating Ailey's Women

Classic Arts Features   Celebrating Ailey's Women
Jacqueline Green remembers the first time she saw an Ailey dancer up close.

It was back in Baltimore, and she was a high school sophomore. Green hadn't been dancing too long when Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell stopped by her class at the Baltimore School for the Arts. "I was just blown away, in awe, and I wanted to know everything about her," says Green. "I thought she was beautiful as a mover, a person, a spirit: everything. And I found out she worked for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater."

That encounter was the start of a personal odyssey which led Green to the Ailey/Fordham B.F.A. program in New York City and eventually to the Ailey company, which she joined in 2011. Green will be among the featured performers in that glamorous crowd when the troupe returns to New York City Center for its annual holiday season, from December 3 to January 4. Today, Green says she models herself on the stylish yet capable women whose qualities first attracted her to dancing. "If you look at the women in the company, they don't look like young girls," Green explains. "There's a maturity and uniqueness about each of them."

"They look like they have experience, and they're confident in what they're doing," she says. "So I started looking at how I dance, and that made me want to develop who I am as a person. I want to make sure I give that same impression."

"I like to be a sassy, ferocious woman on stage," Green says, revealing that among her favorite pieces to dance in the Ailey repertoire is Wayne McGregor's Chroma, a plotless, contemporary work in which the dancers stretch ballet's classical vocabulary and morph it, sometimes violently, into unexpected shapes and angles.

Another knockout in Chroma is Ailey's Akua Noni Parker. This vivid performer never expected to become a modern dancer. When Parker was a child, it was nothing but ballet lessons and more ballet lessons, until one day Parker found herself audi- tioning for Ailey's then-director, Judith Jamison. "My body is pretty much structured for ballet still," Parker says.

Fortunately the repertoire also includes pieces like Ailey's Night Creature that show off Parker's chiseled line in arabesque. This season she will perform balletic roles in Chroma and in Hans van Manen's Polish Pieces, and she says the company has been tempting her by showing her fabric samples from the leotard worn by the female figure in Christopher Wheeldon's After the Rain (Pas de Deux). That piece, set to a moody and contemplative score by Arvo P‹rt, is among the new works entering the Ailey repertoire this season. "I love dancing adagio," Parker says of After the Rain. "It's classically based, but there are contempo- rary movements and transitions that make it really round, and I'm really excited to move like that."

"I've done ballet, and now I'm interested in how to evolve it from there," she says, adding that at the Ailey company, "We try to find out how much we can push it before it's too far. And we wait for someone to say, 'Okay, now you've done too much.'"

The men of Ailey are eloquent in their own right, but in this troupe men and wom- en have always shared power, evincing mu- tual respect for each other's abilities. That tone was set by Ailey himself, and was sustained by Jamison, a larger-than-life figure who directed the troupe with a sure hand for more than 20 years after his death.

This season, current artistic director Robert Battle asked choreographer and former Martha Graham dancer Jacqulyn Buglisi to set her dramatic piece Suspended Women on the Ailey women. He has also arranged a special program on December 16 titled "Celebrating the Women of Ailey." The evening will honor two revered com- pany veterans: Hope Boykin, who is in her 15th season with Ailey; and Linda Celeste Sims, who joined the troupe in 1996 and who was honored in October with a Bessie Award for Outstanding Performance.

"What I hear from dancers who used to be in the company is that Alvin really respected the women a lot," says Sims. "He respected them and he treated them well. Maybe it could be because he loved his mother so much."

Perhaps the most visible token of that love is Ailey's ballet Cry, a three-part solo that he created as a birthday present for his mother, Lula Cooper, and dedicated to "all black women everywhere - especially our mothers." Sims will perform the piece for one night only on December 16, on the same stage where it premiered in 1971.

"It's gratifying," she says of dancing the piece, which she learned first-hand from Jamison. "Whenever I do it, I feel like I've accomplished something," she adds. "It's like an athlete winning a race, except here you don't win anything: you just have that feeling of being fulfilled."

Cry is loving, but not light-hearted. The ballet alludes to the ordeals of slavery and its aftermath in a tragic scene where the female soloist scrubs the floor, in movements that signify the struggle of African American women. Sims says that before she dances Cry she spends the day meditating. "Whenever I do this ballet, I have to block everybody out the entire day," she says. "I can't let anybody in my head. I can't converse too much. I can't give too much of my energy throughout the day."

Sims is also a fan of the late African- American choreographer Ulysses Dove, whose Bad Blood she will perform this season. Describing the intensity of the central duet, she says, "I'm pushing him, I'm throwing myself at him, and, yeah, I'm the one who wears the pants."

Another Dove ballet, Vespers, will be on the December 16 program; and Hope Boykin can't wait to dance the lead. "When [associate artistic director Masazumi] Chaya told me what his plan was, I was in tears, because it's something that I've always wanted to dance," Boykin says.

"Any ballet of Ulysses Dove's is just a driving force," adds Boykin. "You don't have to add to it, because his brilliance is that his drama is in the movement, the timing, the rhythm and the dynamics. All you have to do is be true to the movement, and the piece works."

As excited as she is about Vespers, Boykin says she is even more thrilled to have the anchor role in ODETTA, a world premiere that choreographer Matthew Rushing developed with Boykin in mind. Created with the support of commissioning funds from City Center, ODETTA introduces audiences to the life and music of the late folk singer Odetta Holmes, who was also a civil rights activist and enduring role model.

"I heard in a sermon that 'encouraging' is actually pouring courage into a person," Boykin says. "And I think that's so beautiful, because Odetta did that through her music. She sang her issues. She sang her frustrations. She sang those trials out, and that's what I have to do as a person, as a hu- man, as a servant of the Lord, as a teacher. I have to dance out my truth, and I have to dance out my strengths and find my weak- nesses and continue to do this 'encouraging' thing."

Even as she takes inspiration from Odetta, Boykin herself is inspiring the young women of the Ailey company. "She push- es me," says Rachael McLaren, who will dance with Boykin in Vespers. "Ever since I got into this company, she basically put her hand around my shoulder and she's been a big sister to me. She's been a mother to me. She's been a friend to me. She's always encouraged me and pushed me to do more : to trust myself; to love myself; to give what I have to the audience."

Contributing to the diversity of the Ailey company are the dancers' varied backgrounds. When McLaren came to New York to study modern dance, she was fresh from a two-year run of Mamma Mia! in Toronto. Her musical theater experience makes McLaren particularly eager to tackle roles, like ODETTA, that allow her to create a character and tell a story. As Odetta and Harry Belafonte sing "There's a Hole in the Bucket," McLaren and her partner Marcus Jarrell Willis pantomime the lyrics while occupying two chairs, essentially dancing from the waist up. "It's just hilarious," McLaren says. "It's a great comedic piece."

ODETTA tells more than one story, however, and they aren't all playful. In her first season with the Ailey company, dancer Jacquelin Harris seems too young to have seen much of the world, but Rushing has created a role for her that belies her innocence. Harris dances to Odetta's recording of the Bob Dylan song "Masters of War," and she says, "I portray a young woman whose lover goes off to war." She adds, "There are numerous people, whom I love dearly, who have been out to war or are currently on deployment. So I have personal experience that I definitely can draw from."

Harris says that watching the more experienced women in the Ailey company - like Demetia Hopkins Greene - has taught her something about dance as an identity. She says, "It makes me understand that in order to do this job : in order to be a great dancer : you don't necessarily have to portray anything. You can just go on stage and be yourself, and there's a beauty in that as well."

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