Inside Rennie Harris's Year as Ailey's First-Ever Artist in Residence
When Rennie Harris first heard that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had tapped him to create a new hour-long work, and to become the company's first artist in residence, he laughed.
"I'm a street dance choreographer. I do street dance on street dancers," he says. "I've never set an hour-long piece on any other company outside my own, and definitely not on a modern dance company."
Yet Ailey artistic director Robert Battle sees Harris as the right dancemaker and hip hop as the right movement language to help the Ailey company mark its 60th anniversary.
"I was very aware of the statement I'm making," says Battle. Given the organization's significance within the black community, choosing hip hop "speaks to something fundamental in terms of African Americans' contributions to the cultural fabric of this country," he says.
And, he adds, Harris' work consistently belies the stereotype about hip hop being a throwaway social-dance style of the moment and the resulting "It's just hip hop" mentality. "Rennie always gives us the unexpected, always gives us some food for thought," Battle says.
Harris' role as Ailey's first-ever artist in residence ties together all of the parts of the vast organization. Harris not only created a new work on the main company, but throughout this year he is giving master classes and lectures on hip hop to the second company, at the school and in the Arts-in-Education programs, as well as teaching workshops open to the public through the Ailey Extension. He is also serving as an artistic advisor for Ailey's New Directions Choreography Lab, working as a creative mentor to choreographer Kyle Marshall.
"It gives everyone a sense that they're a part of what eventually happens onstage," says Battle.
Harris' new work on the main company, called Lazarus, marks another first: Ailey's first-ever two-act piece. Harris says Lazarus taps into what he sees as a sense of spirituality that permeates the Ailey organization, especially when company members talk about the founder, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1989.
"His spirit has never really left," Harris says. "Today, we see an incarnation of him through this generation of Ailey dancers and students and all those he has affected. With this piece, there's this idea of resurrection, of him being around and everything that's happening around his legacy."
Only after he started working on the piece did Harris realize that Lazarus was actually the completion of a trilogy that began with his Home for Ailey in 2011 and continued with his Exodus for the company in 2015: "Home is about life. Exodus is about transition, and now, with Lazarus, it's about resurrection and incarnation."
While Lazarus touches on the historical environment from which the Ailey company emerged, the work focuses more on the transition the company has made as it celebrates 60 years. "It's about Mr. Ailey's spirituality, his transition from one reality to the next and who we are now and where we've come to," Harris says.
Harris' appointments are confirmation that the Ailey spirit lives on. "Mr. Ailey was about how you use movement to give people a voice, and how you use that voice to look back as well as forward," he says. "That's why this company and this organization have lasted so long. They've never forgotten that mission."
For decades the name Alicia Alonso has been virtually synonymous with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the company she co-founded in Havana in 1948. Alonso died on October 17, just shy of what would have been her 99th birthday. In recent years, she had stepped back from day-to-day decision-making in the company. As if preparing for the future, in January, the company's leading ballerina, 42-year-old Viengsay Valdés, was named deputy director, a job that seems to encompass most of the responsibilities of a traditional director. Now, presumably, she will step into her new role as director of the company. Her debut as curator of the repertory comes in November, when the troupe will perform three mixed bills selected by her at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. The following has been translated from a conversation conducted in Spanish, Valdés' native tongue.
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.
New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns wasn't sure she was strong enough. A ballerina who has danced many demanding full-length and contemporary roles, she was about to push herself physically more than she thought was possible.
"I said, 'I can't. My body won't,' " she says. "He told me, 'Yes, it will.' "
She wasn't working with a ballet coach, but with personal trainer Joel Prouty, who was asking her to do squats with a heavier barbell than she'd ever used.
Her Dying Swan was as fragile as her Juliet was rebellious; her Odile, scheming, her Swanilda, insouciant. Her Belle was joyous, and her Carmen, both brooding and full-blooded. But there was one role in particular that prompted dance critic Arnold Haskell to ask, "How do you interpret Giselle when you are Giselle?"
At eight, Alicia Alonso took her first ballet class on a stage in her native Cuba, wearing street clothes. Fifteen years later, put in for an ailing Alicia Markova in a performance of Giselle with Ballet Theatre, she staked her claim to that title role.
Alonso received recognition throughout the world for her flawless technique and her ability to become one with the characters she danced, even after she became nearly blind. After a career in New York, she and her then husband Fernando Alonso established the Cuban National Ballet and the Cuban National Ballet School, both of which grew into major international dance powerhouses and beloved institutions in their home country. On October 17, the company announced that, after leading the company for a remarkable 71 years, Alonso died from cardiovascular disease at the age of 98.