Three Ailey Graces: Boykin, Graf, and Smallwood

April 25, 2007

“Alvin used to call the dancers gods and goddesses—when we did something right,” says Judith Jamison, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. During her performing career, Jamison certainly exuded a goddess-like aura. It isn’t a stretch, then, to see that the dancers she has hired and coached look like they’re doing something more than right. You can count on them to turn the stage into their own Valhalla. Three of those goddesses grace the stage with their own individual styles: Hope Boykin, Alicia J. Graf, and Dwana Adiaha Smallwood. Representing Ailey’s anti-cookie cutter ethos, they look, think, and dance differently. But they all share the Ailey vision that Jamison says demands “technique, commitment, courage, power, and lust for life.”

When she dances, Hope Boykin feels every step. She can act as a one-person artillery unit onstage, hurling her body like a cannonball, but in Jamison’s new Reminiscin’, she exudes a softer, more emotional side. First cast in the central duet with Clifton Brown, her deeply visceral performance moved some audience members to tears.


Boykin’s mother swears that her 4-year-old daughter exited the theater ferociously fanning herself after seeing her first Ailey performance in Durham, North Carolina. Mom saw it as a sign. (She was right.) Today, Boykin is never happier than when she’s the pivotal girl smack dab at the head of the wedge of dancers in the opening section of Ailey’s Revelations.


“Hope is like quicksilver,” says Jamison. “She’s fast on her feet, has a true sense of musicality, is a good turner, and is very conscious of where her body is in space,” adds Jamison, pointing out that too many dancers fling themselves around without awareness. Boykin developed that spatial sensitivity as a youngster, taking dance classes and competing in state-wide gymnastics on the vault and floor exercise routines. But dance won out, especially when the proximity of the American Dance Festival allowed her to meet and study with Tally Beatty, Donald McKayle, Ronald K. Brown, and Pearl Primus.


Because of Boykin’s full-figured body, some teachers tried to steer her away from dance. “People did tell me not to dance, and I am OK with being the poster girl for dancers with unconventional bodies,” says Boykin. “I never realized I was unconventional,” she adds. Joan Myers Brown, founder and director of Philadanco, believed in her talent, but wouldn’t let her perform until she got her weight down. (Eventually she became a powerhouse performer and won a “Bessie” award in 1998 for her work with Philadanco). For those passionate dancers whose bodies don’t fit the “norm,” Boykin says, “Look at Hope and say, ‘I have hope. It didn’t stop her and it won’t stop me.’ ”


Since joining the Ailey company in 2000, Boykin’s irrepressible dancing has stood out for her bittersweet sassiness in Ailey’s Blues Suite and her unfettered rage in Ulysses Dove’s Vespers. Offstage, she also teaches and choreographs. Last year Ailey premiered Acceptance in Surrender, a collaborative work choreographed by Boykin, Abdur-Rahim Jackson, and her closest friend, Matthew Rushing. “She’s a one-woman beehive,” says rehearsal director Ronni Favors. “It’s all about her love of dance.”

When Alicia J. Graf enters the stage, you can’t miss her. With a single battement a la seconde, she hits the audience a la ka-boom. The paradox of her 5’10” frame (in bare, Pavlova-arched feet) and her vulnerable face makes her mesmerizing. “Alicia came to us already assembled,” says Jamison, referring to Graf’s former ballerina status with Dance Theatre of Harlem. “But she still has to learn her Ailey chops.”


Graf’s mother ran a modeling school in Columbia, Maryland and enrolled her daughter in modern and ballet classes at the age of 3. Graf’s great aunt, Fan Bakst (a niece of the great Ballets Russes designer Léon Bakst), was a dance critic who sent her publicity photos of dancers like Jamison, Virginia Johnson, and Cynthia Gregory—tall women she could emulate. After several summer intensives at the School of American Ballet and American Ballet Theatre school, the gifted teenager joined Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1996. Graf literally became the DTH poster girl when a photo advertisement featuring her eye-popping line in Arthur Mitchell’s Manifestations was plastered all over the New York subway cars. Then, after a performance at the Kennedy Center in 1999, her ankle and knee swelled up, and her career came crashing down.

When physical therapy and arthroscopic surgery didn’t alleviate the cartilage damage, Graf was left with psychic trauma. “I had no idea what my other interests or talents were, and I had no confidence I would find those things and enjoy my life from here on,” says Graf. She cried nonstop for weeks. And then one morning, an epiphany: “I realized, ‘This is good, because I can start from scratch. Outside of the dance world, nobody knows who I am.’ ” She enrolled at Columbia University, graduated with a major in history, and interned with a financial firm (see “Dance Matters,” Jan. 2004). With her focus on Wall Street, Graf nonetheless felt strong enough to try Milton Myer’s Horton technique class. He counseled her to consider an Ailey career and introduced her to Jamison.


Making the Ailey transition last year was challenging. “People in the dance world knew me from DTH and I was afraid they would scrutinize me. I was really nervous coming into the City Center season,” says Graf, giving the impression that she still hasn’t fully comprehended her talent. But in a marketing director’s dream, Graf’s photo landed on the front page of The New York Times, with a rave review of her performance by chief dance critic John Rockwell. He called her steamy performance in Jamison’s Reminiscin’ “an instant star turn” that “stopped the show.” This season, Graf is learning John Butler’s Portrait of Billie, coached by Carmen de Lavallade. Sounds like a hot ticket.

In rare fashion, Dwana Adiaha Smallwood combines earthiness with an ethereal quality. Her presence demonstrates a grounded authority, but her jump contains the grace and spring of a gazelle. She can handle Rennie Harris’ pop and lock moves in Love Stories and then melt into a poetic liquidity in Jamison’s Hymn. Smallwood has often been compared to Jamison. “I think it’s crazy,” says Smallwood. “People compare for the obvious reasons—the short hair, the dark skin, the long neck. It’s a heavy weight to carry, but it’s also a blessing.”


Smallwood, born and raised in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, studied African dance, modern, jazz, and ballet from age 3. During her freshman year at the LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts, she showed up at a dance competition wearing a white leotard and long white skirt. When told she resembled Jamison, Smallwood’s reply was, “Who’s that?” Once directed to The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, she says, “Watching videotapes became an everyday addiction. That’s how I became familiar with the company. Judith Jamison was here and I said, ‘Here I come.’ ”


Comparisons aside, Smallwood is very much her own dancer—down to her well-rounded versatility (classical to hip hop) and a quirky comic timing. “Dwana is unique unto herself,” says Jamison. “She has her own movement inflections and idiosyncrasies. She claims dances to be her own; she imbeds herself in the movement.” Smallwood admits that sometimes she goes overboard. At a recent rehearsal of Twyla Tharp’s Golden Section, Shelley Washington, the former Tharp dancer who staged the ballet, told her, “That was divine, Dwana. But it’s the wrong step, and the count is on 8.”


Smallwood is one of those rare dancers for whom energy is never a problem—and never has been since she began her high school days getting up at six and completing a marathon schedule that included acting lessons, Girl Scouts, tennis, and track practice. “I know how to manage my time so I’m alive—not just present, but really alive,” says Smallwood, aiming a Bed-Stuy glare with those enormous don’t-mess-with-me eyes. “Dance is alive. It’s gotta be oozin’ out of you.”


That fearlessness gives her the courage to take on Jamison’s signature solo Cry and own it. (She’s performed the role for a decade—longer than anyone except Jamison). “You can’t hold back, you can’t be afraid of your audience, afraid of the steps, the ballet, the history of the ballet,” says Smallwood. “This is the story and this is how it’s told. If you don’t like it, don’t listen.”

In the Ailey company tradition, says Jamison, “Alvin is the ancestor, and I am the mother.” The three women profiled here often work in the studio with Jamison, but Ailey’s tragically premature death in 1989 deprived them of face-to-face time with the legendary choreographer. For the Ailey dancers, however, a spiritual osmosis always seems to remain in play. By dancing Ailey’s ballets, those who know the man only from black-and-white films and cherished stories imbibe his essence through his choreography. Ailey revered women and knew how to choreograph for them. If anyone is placing bets, odds are that he’d be thrilled with all three of these goddesses.

Joseph Carman is a Contributing Editor to Dance Magazine and the author of Round About the Ballet (Limelight Editions).