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."
Coming this fall to the ever-expanding Ailey organization is an intriguing new event: the Choreography Unlocked festival. From Oct. 12–14 and 26–28, the Joan Weill Center for Dance will host workshops, performances and panel discussions. It is an extension of Ailey's New Directions Choreography Lab, an annual residency fellowship for four emerging and mid-career choreographers, founded by artistic director Robert Battle in 2011.
Cameron McKinney working with students at The Ailey School through the New Directions Choreography Lab. Photo by Nicole Tintle, Courtesy AAADT
The festival offers a rare experience for choreographers to work collectively on their craft, and for students and public audiences to interact firsthand with the process of creating dance. "Choreographers tend to section off on their own, so I wanted to offer classes for them to come together and vibe off each other," says Battle. He also hopes to demystify the choreographic process for audiences.
In a sun-soaked studio in New York City, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater prepares for their 21-city North American tour beginning January 30. We caught up with artistic director Robert Battle to discuss his work Mass and how the tradition of modern dance has always been connected to social justice.
Some nights, you head home buzzing with energy. After last night's Dance Magazine Awards, we were dancing with it.
In 1960, America was in the midst of a social transformation. The Supreme Court had ruled "separate but equal" unconstitutional six years prior, but the country's response was slow and turbulent as desegregation incited violent responses. Surrounded by powerful civil rights momentum, a 29-year-old Alvin Ailey created an ode to the resilience of the human spirit: Revelations.
"Alvin was making a statement about African-American cultural experience, saying, 'Hey, this is who we are, we live here, we were born here,' " says Judith Jamison, artistic director emerita of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. "It was a brave action. Civil rights were roaring, and our protest was our performance."
For Dance Magazine's 90th anniversary issue, we wanted to celebrate the movers, shakers and changemakers who are having the biggest impact on our field right now. There were so many to choose from! But with the help of dozens of writers, artists and administrators working in dance, the Dance Magazine staff whittled the list down to those we felt are making the most difference right now.
Click through the links below to find out why they made our list.
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Judith Jamison was always going to be a tough act to follow. But in the six years since Robert Battle took the helm of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, he's launched a new era for the iconic troupe. Take last season: Battle revived Ailey's Masekela Langage, pushed the envelope with Kyle Abraham's new Untitled America and promoted one of the company's own voices with Hope Boykin's r-Evolution Dream—a combination of old, new and homegrown works tackling social issues with beauty and hope. Ailey hasn't lost sight of its storied past, and, under Battle's leadership, it's as relevant today as it ever has been.
Chalvar Monteiro saw his first Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performance at 12 and was smitten. Today, at 28, he's a lithe, elegantly understated member of the company. But he's experienced some happy detours along the way—namely as a dancer with MacArthur-winning choreographer Kyle Abraham, as well as Sidra Bell and Larry Keigwin. After a stint with Ailey II, he joined the main company in 2015. He has shown both sophistication and versatility: fearless in the "Sinner Man" section of Revelations and searing in Untitled America, Abraham's emotional exploration of how the prison system affects families.
Your first dance job can be exhilarating. And terrifying. Those initial few weeks especially can feel like an obstacle course of incredible opportunities and narrowly-avoided mistakes as you navigate the nuances of a company life. It's a process that many recent grads are just getting to know as companies rev up for their fall seasons.
A few months ago, I spoke to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater artistic director Robert Battle, who's a member of Dance Magazine's advisory board, about this for our August issue. I was only able to use one of his tips in the magazine, but he had so much great insight that I wanted to share the rest of it here.
Robert Battle, photo by Jayme Thornton
On the speed of rehearsals:
"The lack of time to rehearse can be a shock. A company—even if it's very family-oriented like Ailey—is a business. In school you have weeks to develop the character, the style. But in a company, it’s like, Boom! You just have to pick it up and then you’re onstage. You have to be efficient."
On working outside of "work hours":
"You’re on the clock during rehearsals, but this kind of work is not about the clock. You gotta do your homework to be prepared, whatever that takes. For students a choreographer will take the time to review the work the next day. But in a company that doesn't happen. They just turn on the music and see what you’ve got."
On getting to class:
"Nobody’s forcing you to take class anymore. After years of being told, You have to do this, You have to be there, dancing takes much more personal responsibility. It's both difficult and liberating. "
On keeping your job:
"You're still auditioning. Getting a contract can sometimes be a matter of luck: Maybe everybody else who showed up wasn't what the choreographer was looking for. Now you’re really being scrutinized. Most directors question their choices for awhile, maybe even a year. They’re reassessing, asking themselves, Did I make the right decision?"
On reading the room:
"Figure out who the director or choreographer looks to when they’re creating or problem-solving or just need the counts. Maybe that person deconstructs what the director's asking for. Or maybe that person is jovial and the director needs that when he's stressed. Try to imitate whatever that person has. That way, you'll quickly secure a place within the company that feels irreplaceable, you'll more quickly be able to read a director—because they are all insecure. That sensitivity from a dancer is golden. When I was working with David Parsons, I figured out that when giving a phrase, he wanted to see you adding to it, enhancing it in some way. If you have an inability to read the room, you'll just sort of be ambient sound to the choreographer."
On seeking a mentor:
"Find someone who’s been there a long time, who's level-headed, and ask them questions. I've always sought out someone who knows more than I do."
The first time Jacqueline Green auditioned for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, she was 16. She'd taken her first dance class just three years earlier—when teachers had to physically hold her foot to teach her a tendu. Yet when she and a couple of friends learned that Ailey's main company was holding auditions in Washington, DC, they shuttled down from Baltimore to try out.
The auditions were being run by Matthew Rushing—now the company's rehearsal director—and then-artistic director Judith Jamison. "After a couple of combinations, Miss Jamison said, 'I think some of you need to be auditioning for The Ailey School'—and my girlfriends said, 'I think she's talking about us.' "
It may have been the last time Green took anything in her dance career so casually.
Photo by Jayme Thornton.
Ailey audiences know the 25-year-old rising star for her impossibly long legs, her angular ferocity, her regal onstage presence, even her elegant braided hairstyles. New Yorkers got to know her this spring as the girl in a giant split leap on subway posters promoting Ailey's Lincoln Center run. But ask her colleagues about this Princess Grace Award winner and they focus not on her physical characteristics but her more cerebral ones.
“She's hungry, and she has great potential," says Ailey artistic director Robert Battle. “She still has room to grow, because she's so curious, so intelligent. That's a unique combination. You get a sense that she hasn't plateaued."
But Green's drive and determination alone don't explain what's been a meteoric career path. Although she was always dancing around the house as a child, she had no training until high school, when her single mother—focused on giving her kids an excellent education—sent her to audition for the rigorous Baltimore School for the Arts.
“I asked her, 'What am I going to audition for?' " Green says. “She said, 'Well, you dance.' So that audition was my first ballet class."
There were some 200 kids at the audition, which involved a short barre plus flexibility and musicality tests. Green was one of 22 students accepted into the dance program, and one of only two without training.
During Green's sophomore year, Ailey dancer and BSA grad Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, dropped in for a class. “She was just quietly in the corner," Green says. “She did a simple arabesque enveloppé to passé—and my jaw dropped. I stared at her for the rest of class. She was so perfect, so beautiful."
Suddenly Green had a path forward. She started researching dance careers in general, and Ailey in particular. After three years of taking classical ballet, she started training in Horton during her senior year, and set her sights on Ailey's joint BFA with Fordham University.
Photo by Jayme Thornton.
“In the audition process with young dancers, you immediately recognize those with extraordinary talent and ability," says Melanie Person, now director of the Ailey/Fordham program, who was one of the audition judges that offered Green a spot. “Jackie has a beautiful facility for dancing. She also exudes this energy of aspiration and determination. She has a real, sincere desire to dance."
Green was determined to make a career at Ailey. “You walk in the building and it's just like," she says, pausing to find the right word, “history."
“And beautiful people," she adds, then qualifies it further—“and beautiful people who look like me."
By junior year, she was apprenticing with Ailey II; as a senior, she was a full member of the second company, layering her academic coursework on top of company dance classes, school dance requirements and rehearsals.
The next year, Green auditioned once again for the main company. This time, she was prepared—as was Battle, who had just stepped into his new role. “I'd had my eye on her," he says. “I thought she'd be perfect for the main company."
Green has since taken on several of Ailey's iconic roles—including one originated by Jamison in Pas de Duke and the prominent “umbrella" role in Revelations, which she says has been her “favorite forever."
“Revelations is very heavy in the beginning, and she's the first glimpse of light and joy," Green says. “She's taking on the movement of the water....It's such a regal role. I'm trying to look at how other people did it," she adds. “I talked to Renee Robinson, to Miss Jamison. I'm still doing research."
To Battle, the umbrella role is just part of a range of work that shows Green's flexible talents. “With umbrella, she has within her movement that old-time religion—something in the lilt of the movement, the weight, that reminds you of our past," he explains. “It's got nothing to do with concert dance. But then she has this way, in Chroma"—a Wayne McGregor piece in which Green dances the same role often taken by Ailey star Linda Celeste Sims—“of doing something very futuristic. She can give you that contemporary style."
In a company that has been known to emphasize crowd-pleasing flair and showy theatrics, Green is notable for her internal focus and economy of movement. Even in humorous pieces—the “Bucket" routine in Rushing's Odetta, for instance—she delivers razor-sharp restraint, to delicious effect.
Green "gave a little sass" to Kyle Abraham's Another Night (here with Jamar Roberts).
Meanwhile, Ailey's diverse rep also gives Green an opportunity to challenge herself. “Anytime we have a choreographer coming in, I do a little research," she says. “If it's something I'm not used to, I just try to find something familiar that I can work with." For Rennie Harris' piece Home, from her first year, she dug into her Baltimore roots. When Kyle Abraham came in, she recalls, “the movement was very jazzy, but I knew he liked sass. So I gave it a little sass." It worked: Green had a starring role in his Another Night.
Or maybe it wasn't just the sass: Abraham praises not just the “otherworldly things she can do with her body," but also her collaboration during rehearsals. “She was very helpful with the other dancers in the room, teaching them the movements," he says. “It sets up a good environment for trust."
Even Green's elaborate hairstyles are deliberate—part of an effort to connect with the audience. “I like the braids because I had them in my head shot, so the audience can recognize me," she says. For Green, being recognized matters. “I want to do that for black girls who don't think they can be dancers," she says. “Dance was a gift, a blessing. I want to make people aware of the opportunities they have. I didn't know about them till Linda-Denise came and took class, and that changed my life."
This past spring, Green was looking forward to performing in her hometown, but Ailey had to cancel its performances due to Baltimore's unrest over the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered fatal injuries in police custody. “It would have been so beneficial for us to be there; dance is very necessary," says Green, adding that, “Politics is completely who I am. I was a black person before I was an artist. But I use my frustrations, go into rehearsal or onstage and vent through what I do. It's an emotional release."
And when she does go back home to Baltimore, she tries to share her outlet with others. “I want girls to think, Oh, wow; she's like me," Green says. “I want to show them it is a dream, but you can make it a reality."
Our cover story reveals Ailey artistic director Robert Battle’s thinking behind his choices, as well as the challenges that two of his most stunning dancers, Jamar Roberts and Rachael McLaren, face with these new works. In Kina Poon’s “The New Ailey,” you’ll get a sense of how much the company has changed, and yet how much the Ailey spirit has remained an anchor.
On the other side of the dance universe, I got to see the legendary Lyudmila Kovaleva teach class at the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg last June. Apparently, Kovaleva still, to this day, coaches her former student Diana Vishneva on certain roles. That gave me the idea to ask Vishneva, as well as other top dancers, about their favorite teachers, the ones who really made a difference. Read “They Taught Me To...” to learn who Ashley Bouder, Kathleen Breen Combes, Desmond Richardson, and Jason Samuels Smith cherish as the mentors who changed their lives.
Right: Rachel McLaren and Jamar Roberts in Barton's LIFT. By Jayme Thornton
While I watched class and rehearsals at the old Mariinsky theater, I was surprised to encounter a British dancer. I had no idea that Xander Parish had left The Royal Ballet and joined the Mariinsky. He guided me from one studio to another, and I soon realized that his story could be told quite nicely in a “Why I Dance”—which appears on our back page this month.
Lastly, this is my final “Curtain Up” because I have transitioned into a role as editor at large. As you will see in “DM Recommends,” a book of my writings has just come out, and it has opened up some new opportunities for me. I am leaving the magazine in good hands, those of the very capable Jennifer Stahl. I have enjoyed working on Dance Magazine immensely.
Wendy Perron, Editor in Chief
There isn't much that seems to pose a serious challenge to Jamar Roberts. At 6' 4", with the uncanny ability to shape energy to its most attractive or powerful or luscious impact, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer has given unforgettable performances of Alvin Ailey's lyrical Night Creature, Robert Battle's tortured tour-de-force In/Side, and Ronald K. Brown's fervent Grace. But, as he recalls, upon seeing Wayne McGregor's Chroma, his first thought was a panicked, “How am I going to do this?"
On December 4, Chroma will have its New York premiere at New York City Center—danced not by one of America's major ballet companies, or The Royal Ballet, for whom it was made, but by Ailey. For many audience members on the company's upcoming 23-city North American tour, it will also be their first opportunity to see the ballet, an epic assault of bodies stretched to their limit. Artistic director Robert Battle is sending a clear message: His dancers can do anything—their way.
“What I love about this company is that we all have something distinctive to give," says Rachael McLaren, a dancer of luminous clarity. Under Battle, the Ailey repertoire has branched out considerably. Battle's programming choices reveal how superb Horton technique and soulful theatricality, coupled with individual strengths—the ferocious energy of Ghrai DeVore, the elegant line of Antonio Douthit-Boyd, the regal self-possession of Linda Celeste Sims—illuminate the works of Jirí Kylián, Rennie Harris, Kyle Abraham, and Paul Taylor anew—sometimes several of them in one evening. The shift not only allows the different facets of the dancers' artistry to shine, but the works themselves—the musical phrasing, the group dynamics, the visceral impact—take on a new light.
In addition to the new rep, one third of the 30-member company has also been brought in by Battle. “The company is a lot more open, because younger people are like that—they're not so set in their ways," says Roberts. “And Robert is offering a rep where you have to be completely open to transforming yourself, which creates a really good energy."
Right: The company runs through Barton's LIFT; for five weeks, the company worked on phrases like "tornado" and "cry." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy AAADT.
For the 2013–14 season, which includes a return visit to Lincoln Center's Koch Theater next summer, Battle has also acquired Bill T. Jones' exhilarating D-Man in the Waters (Part I) and commissioned a new work from Aszure Barton, plus new productions of Alvin Ailey's The River, made for American Ballet Theatre in 1970, and Pas de Duke, Ailey's 1976 showstopper for Judith Jamison and Baryshnikov. The mix is meant to energize audiences and dancers alike. “Some of it is looking at how does this work with the history of the company—how does it work with it by sometimes working against it?" says Battle. “That contrast is interesting, where it's unexpected but totally right."
“It's great that Robert wants to push us as much as our audience," says McLaren. “And I trust him. He's able to see this bigger picture, the greater arc. It's funny, we're a repertory company and we're expected to be able to do so many different things. But it's kind of easy to forget how capable you are unless you're really pushed and pulled in these directions."
Battle deflects praise for his expansive vision. “I don't know what else I would do," he says with a shrug. “This is the stuff I like. I can see or hear myself in Richard Strauss' Salome as much as I can in Thelonious Monk. That was always nurtured in me, and so I'm still sort of that young child, switching my soundtrack."
Relating his choices to the company, “it also goes back to Alvin Ailey himself," says Battle. “This is an artist, a genius who was trying to express something personal. He had to be a black choreographer because of the times in which we lived—that's the way he was looked at. As I say all the time: I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me. That's what he and so many other trailblazers were trying to say: We should only be limited by our imagination. In some ways, that struggle of perception still exists. But it also gives me a wonderful platform to express things that are 'unexpected.' And in that way, his legacy and Judith Jamison's vision are tied in with my vision—the sky's the limit."
With that mindset, Battle commissioned a premiere from Aszure Barton, known for her innovative, sometimes outlandish, choreography, whom he first met as the kid sister of one of his Juilliard classmates. Barton's LIFT, set to an original percussive score by Curtis Macdonald, shows off the Ailey dancers' rhythmic dexterity and dynamism, deployed to haunting effect. “She came in with a blank slate and we basically had to help her create this whole thing from scratch, which is really cool," says Roberts, who eventually became the work's central dancer. Over five weeks, the entire company worked, at first without casting, on phrases with names like “tornado," “cora," and “cry." Any dancer could be called upon at a moment's notice for Barton to see how a sequence would look on one individual or as part of a group.
Battle places casting decisions fully in the hands of the choreographers and stagers—although he and Masazumi Chaya, the company's indispensable associate artistic director, will answer any questions they may have. Between the dancemakers and the dancers, he says, “I try and create a happy collision, and then get out of the way and watch it unfold."
“I like that let's-explore-together kind of feel," says McLaren about Barton's creative mode. “It wasn't like, 'You need to get it right now, and if you don't get it, I'm going to be frustrated.' It was 'I see you and you are enough. Let's create.' I think the work of the professional is understanding that it's OK to be imperfect, to give yourself to the movement. Dancing is about allowing your vulnerability to speak in ways that audience members can see."
Left: Linda Celeste Sims and Antonio Douthit-Boyd in Chroma. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy AAADT.
The tension created by that duality of vulnerability and force is what makes the Ailey dancers so captivating. Says Barton, “Their bodies are absolutely insane. They're skilled, they're smart, and they're passionate—they have this sacred understanding of something much bigger. And they're a real community. They just opened their door and said welcome."
These characteristics are only enhanced by the amount of time the company spends together—this year, the company toured 15 straight weeks across the U.S., plus three weeks in South America. At home in their studios, with wall-to-wall windows overlooking the Manhattan skyline, the dancers take company class each morning, taught by different teachers from around New York City, before rehearsing from 12:00 to 7:00 (broken up by an hour lunch break at 3:00 and rigorously enforced five-minute breaks every hour). It's common for three casts of dancers to be run-through ready in a week and a half—which was the case for Bill T. Jones' masterwork D-Man in the Waters (Part I). The innocence, momentum, and supreme athleticism of D-Man (which the Ailey dancers possess in abundance) are belied by the tragic circumstances of its creation. (Jones carried dancer Demian Acquavella through the work during its premiere; when Acquavella died of AIDS a year later, he was not replaced.) “D-Man is intense, but there's joy and liberation in that struggle," says McLaren. “I think it's going to be one of those pieces that will keep our spirits up on tour."
During an early rehearsal, Roberts (in bright pink pants, one of the few dancers dressed brightly) is marking his solo in a corner, blocking out the organized chaos around him, as other dancers, including McLaren, work through the piece's lifts, many of which have the women supporting the men. Socks are the footwear of choice for most in the room (the piece will be performed barefoot)—sometimes, for especially high-impact pieces, the dancers rehearse in brightly colored sneakers. The music for Revelations drifts into the studio from another downstairs, and the dancers, for whom that piece must be like breathing at this point, smile at each other knowingly.
Both McLaren and Roberts mention Ronald K. Brown as another choreographer whose works they find rejuvenating—“there's always something to grab onto because you know what each individual step means," says Roberts. Ailey's works are also favorites—McLaren hopes to perform his Masekela Langage someday, while Roberts says, “I don't remember a time when I didn't love to do Revelations." Both want more Ohad Naharin and Gaga. “Gaga classes are about exploring. How far can you go?" says McLaren. “How big is your mind? I like that idea of taking off your skin, opening yourself up, and seeing what you're really made of."
Right: Taking Ailey in fresh directions: Artistic director Robert Battle. Photo by Jayme Thornton.
As for future additions to the rep, the possibilities are endless. Roberts cites Akram Khan and Pina Bausch as choreographers whose work he would love to dance. McLaren picks Hofesh Shechter, and Roberts himself, who has been quietly working on his own choreography.
That these wishes fall squarely in the realm of possibility for the Ailey company comes back to Battle's understanding of how interconnected the dance world is. “There are choreographers who have been such a part of the legacy of modern dance—trailblazers who are imitated and emulated—that I feel are so important to now. Maybe, in the future, they will be right. I'm very much excited by history in that way—how are we repeating it, reinventing it, repurposing it. In some ways, I'm trying to create the space for things to happen that maybe I can't even imagine."
Through her innate sense of line and her spellbinding eyes, the radiant Rachael McLaren draws you deep into her performances. The Manitoba native began ballet at age 5 at the Royal Dance Conservatory in Winnipeg before moving to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School at 11. Despite auditioning several times for RWBS' professional division, she was never accepted. “Unfortunately, I don't really have that ballet aesthetic," she says. Upon high school graduation, McLaren auditioned for Mamma Mia! in Toronto and booked the gig. However, her teacher at RWBS, Jacqui Davidson, encouraged her to also audition for Ailey's summer program. She was accepted and, in her words, “my mind was totally blown." That feeling stuck with her during her two years with Mamma Mia!, so she returned to The Ailey School afterwards—and has been with Ailey ever since.
McLaren, 27, adapts her routine outside of the studio to the current demands of her rep. “You totally have to shift your focus and get into a different frame of mind." She loves to cook—as a pescetarian, she eats a primarily plant-based diet supplemented with a daily multivitamin and probiotic.
This season, she's taken up swimming—“for strength, flexibility in my joints, and stamina"—in addition to yoga, which she practices religiously. “I try to wear many hats," she says, “so I can express myself in a genuine way."
“I do have a lot of energy. People are always like, What are you on?" says Jamar Roberts. In solo roles, he often manages to Jamar-ify them, dominating the stage, no matter how wild the musicality, the movement texture, or sheer physical demand. His natural instinct for movement lives in “musicality and sensual things that I try and grab onto." Robert Battle calls him a gentle giant (which happens to be Roberts' Instagram bio, too).
Born in Miami, Roberts trained at the Dance Empire of Miami and the New World School of the Arts. “I never thought I would be a dancer—I didn't know what that was," he says. “I didn't have much money, but I wanted to go to dance class. I think I was so in those classes, so focused, that I couldn't see what was ahead of me."
At 18, after less than a month at The Ailey School, he was invited to join Ailey II and then, the following year, the main company. He took two season-long hiatuses from Ailey—the first in 2004, to pursue fashion design at Fashion Institute of Technology and then another in 2011. Once outside the studio, he says,“I try to get out of that dance space. I'm reading, I'm drawing, I'm painting, I'm going to museums." He continues, “You have to do whatever you need to do to get through. You go to whatever extremes for a decent performance—it sounds really crazy but it's true."
Portraits by Jayme Thornton.
Kina Poon is a dance writer and former Dance Magazine associate editor.