For the Greater Good

Ailey dancers reach for a higher glory in choreography

One of the major choreographers to emerge in America in the last decade, Ronald K. Brown has become renowned for his choreographic style, merging African and modern dance traditions in works that address social and cultural themes. His first commission for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1999, “Grace,” now in the repertory of his own company, evidence, is his finest work to date.

Ailey’s 2005 season opens with a gala performance featuring a new commissioned work by Brown, as well as the Ailey classic “Revelations,” performed with live music. Highlights of the company’s annual five-week season include a world premiere by artistic director Judith Jamison, a company premiere by Nederlands Dans Theater resident choreographer Hans van Manen, and a new work by company members Hope Boykin, Abdur-Rahim Jackson, and Matthew Rushing. While not the first time dancers have been invited to choreograph—Troy Powell and Lisa Johnson each made quartets for the 1998 season—it an extraordinary opportunity and a rare collaboration.

You might not think Ailey dancers would have time to make their own work, but Boykin squashed that notion. “We have all spent time creating for ourselves or someone has invited us to make work, for programs like E-moves at Aaron Davis Hall. We are often setting work on students. Ailey on Ailey, the Ailey dancers resource fund, also provides an outlet for us to set works on each other.”

“It’s another voice,” she added. “As a dancer, you have to express through other people’s ideas. This is an opportunity for us to express our own ideas and own vision.”

Collaborative choreography isn’t new—Pilobolus had four artistic directors for decades—but it isn’t common. With three choreographers does it ever get hairy?

Boykin said the trio “totally collaborate on movement, choreography, and costumes. I believe in their styles, we all understand core movement. We finish each other’s sentences, and continue each other’s ideas.” She attributes the smooth working relationship to a long history, a process that started with Rushing and then expanded to include Jackson. The youngest—and newest—of the three, Jackson remarked, “the whole environment is very nurturing. [Associate artistic director] Masazumi [Chaya] was present at every rehearsal, without smothering us. We had two weeks and Judy came in at the end of the process to give us feedback. It was all very helpful.”

When asked about having their work performed alongside those by Jamison, Brown, and Van Manen, Rushing, who joined the company in 1992 and has the longest tenure of the three, responded judiciously, “You don’t feel pressure because of this. We have accomplished what we set out to do with each other and our peers—however it’s received.”

The dance is entitled “Acceptance In Surrender” and features an original score by Philip Hamilton. Rushing elaborated on the work’s themes. “A woman at the lowest point in her life calls on help from God. Three angels—Abdur sees them as the Holy Trinity—are sent to help get her on the right path. At times in the ballet she is set back on two feet, she becomes almost too comfortable, ahead of herself, arrogant. She finds herself in the same place, a spiritual low, and calls again for help. The three who never left come to her aid once again. They get her onto a narrow path at end—it’s not meant to represent death—and they focus her on right direction. She learns she cannot do anything on her own power.”

The subject matter reflects the faith these dancers have, on earth and beyond. Boykin concluded, “Dancing is our job. When it fills our spirit, and when the work is something we want to do, it is a joy. It reminds you why you are here.”

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