Mentors that move

“All the world’s a stage,” penned Shakespeare. And while the Bard certainly wasn’t referring to modern dance, for members of the Ailey II troupe, his famous words are hardly mere rhetoric: They’re reality.

While most dancers don’t feel they live on stage — and that’s despite the long hours they put in, and the intense rehearsals — members of Ailey II literally grow up in the spotlight.

That quality, among others, makes the junior troupe of the acclaimed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater particularly suited to the intense community involvement that distinguishes them.

“This is a company that has an aesthetic that audiences gravitate toward and respond to,” says Ailey II Artistic Director Sylvia Waters.

The junior troupe began in 1974, when Alvin Ailey decided to create a workshop setting where some of the most talented students in his New York City-based Ailey School of Dance could prepare for the transition from classroom to stage. The workshop, where dancers honed their performance skills and worked with choreographers, would be, in effect, a bridge to the professional world.

The new setting also gave Ailey the opportunity to work the kinks out of his own choreography. Classroom-rehearsal periods proved too short for that, plus the workshop setting provided Ailey with able-bodied dancers to bring his projects to life.

During that same year, Ailey was working on his “Ailey Celebrates Ellington Bicentennial.” Thanks to a grant from the Ford Foundation, he was able to get the workshop — known as the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble — off the ground in time to put 12 students in the spotlight for the Duke Ellington event.

Waters was hired as the junior troupe’s director in 1975, the year Ailey II became a company.

And while the new name was less weighty than that of its predecessor, the ideal behind the label grew even loftier.

“We were doing outreach for elderly people, for incarcerated people, and for all ages of school groups,” Waters recalls. “We brought dance to those who normally wouldn’t have it. This was a public that was deprived of this artistic experience. ‘Outreach and Uplift’ has always been a part of the Ailey experience.”

So, by hand-selecting the most promising students from the school’s scholarship and BFA programs (the latter in affiliation with Fordham University), Ailey II continues to provide dancers with a springboard to the world of professional dance. It also creates a bridge for underprivileged audiences to be impacted by the arts.

“[Dancers] learn about communicating through the expressiveness of art … to audiences across the board,” Waters explains.

In other words, the artistic director insists, an audience paying for plush seats in a theater is no more important to the dancers than the folks watching from folding chairs in a nursing home.

Not only is the Ailey curriculum concerned with bringing dance to the masses, but the school also aims to spread a message of multicultural heritage — which is still very much a focus of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

“Ailey II is really a multicultural company,” points out press contact Natalie Johnsonius from the troupe’s New York City office. While the senior company began as a predominantly African-American dance ensemble, the school now considers itself ethically and culturally diverse.

“This year one of the dancers is French,” Johnsonius reveals. “Sometimes they’re Asian-American or other nationalities.

“Ailey II,” she stresses, “is about promoting American modern dance.”

Of course, that broad genre is somewhat of a bridge itself. “Modern dance … draws on ballet, jazz and ethnic styles,” says Waters.

Ailey II dancers must come to the troupe with a core knowledge of both ballet and contemporary moves. Only high-school graduates are selected for the company, and some have college degrees, as well. Dancers range from 17 to 23 years old, and most perform with Ailey II for two years before going on to audition for the senior company or other major modern-dance troupes.

Besides being a jumping-off point for young dancers, Ailey II also gives fledgling choreographers a chance to emerge in the professional realm.

An evening’s performance may feature the piece by a new artist alongside a new dance by a famous choreographer — highlighted, as always, by Alvin Ailey’s signature work.

Both Asheville shows — Tuesday, April 15 and Wednesday, April 16 — will conclude with Ailey’s “Revelations,” a classic tribute to African-American cultural heritage that Ailey himself described as “sometimes sorrowful, sometimes jubilant, but always hopeful.”

Other than that, the Tuesday and Wednesday shows will be entirely different: Tuesday’s event will include Ailey’s “Blues Suite,” from 1958, a look at rural, Depression-era Texas; a solo dance titled “Journey,” choreographed by Joyce Trisler; excerpts from Judith Jamison’s “Divining”; and a company premiere of “The Hunt,” Robert Battle’s men’s ballet blending modern sports with the rituals of the Roman gladiators.

On Wednesday, audiences will be treated to “Fragments,” choreographed by Troy Powell, Ailey II’s resident choreographer. The piece is made up of dance solos, duets and trios set to the music of Richard Bennett, as well as a version of the Ave Maria. Finally, Francesca Harper’s “Sensory Feast” makes use of group work and mirror props to explore self-introspection.

Of the variety of musical styles exhibited throughout the repertoire, Waters observes, “There is a certain nostalgia for classical works and a current vogue for New Age electronics.”

Some things, however, don’t change. Though Alvin Ailey died more than a decade ago, his legacy — to maintain dance as a relevant and accessible form of art — continues to move through his students, in performance and via the group’s various outreach programs (which will include a dance workshop during the company’s local visit).

“Bringing dance to the community — to every community — is what Ailey II is all about,” Waters continues.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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