I believe that dance came from the people and that it should always be delivered back to the people.
— Alvin Ailey (1931-1989)
In the history of America’s most kinetic art form, no one has conjured or presented works with more personal and democratic style than Alvin Ailey.
Born to a 17-year-old single black Texas girl, raised in dignified poverty but encouraged to rise above his station, Ailey did so much more than simply succeed in what was then a white, European-focused dance world.
He transformed it.
By the time Ailey died at 58, he had put his distinctive stamp on choreography, music, and accessibility. Today, his multiracial company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, continues to produce new and innovative choreography based on a world’s worth of dance traditions performed by some of the most exciting dance artists alive. His successor was the great dancer/choreographer Judith Jamison, who stepped down a few years ago. Today, Robert Battle and Masazumi Chaya hold the reins of the busy 53-year-old company.
It has served for decades as both domestic and global ambassador for the arts, won every accolade created, and prepared and inspired two generations of dancers through schools, camps, and other outreach.
When Alvin Ailey II, the Triple-A team of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, makes its Toledo debut Saturday for the Valentine Theatre Gala, it will illustrate how racial, cultural, and economic barriers seem to dissolve in the drama and beauty of dance.
And for Sylvia Waters, artistic director of Alvin Ailey II, it will be more of what has kept her involved at the very core of the company for 37 years.
"Your awareness of what a company is, and the workings of it, become really in your blood," she said in a phone interview.
Waters began as a lead dancer with Ailey’s main company but soon was tapped by the great choreographer to develop and run what he had started as a student company.
"We were developing dancers and preparing them to make that transition to the arena, preparing them for the job market," Waters explained.
"In the beginning, we were really doing community outreach, performing in correctional facilities and senior centers, not even doing full programs. When Alvin invited us to be part of his Ellington Festival, that was a major step for me."
Waters was empowered to invite choreographers to create music for Ailey II. "We presented them in a season of our own. That was our testing ground," she said. Ailey even selected some of those works for his company to perform.
Today, Ailey II is a full-fledged professional ensemble with its own touring schedule and programming. Rarely do the main company and Ailey II appear in the same city. But they share works from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s huge trove of choreography — including the 79 pieces the founder created.
Although Waters cautions that Ailey II is not a company with a completely separate identity, it performs sophisticated works at an astonishingly high technical level.
Of her dancers, who range in age from 18 to 23, Waters says: "They do rise to the occasion. They are engaging and energetic."
Many go on to join the first company. Armon Miller, who started dancing with the Toledo Ballet and is now back on its faculty, was a member of Ailey II.
On the program in Toledo will be "Shards," a work by Seattle choreographer Donald Byrd, performed to music by Mio Morales. "That is the first time Ailey II will do the work," explained Waters.
"Splendid Isolation," by choreographer Jessica Lang, will feature a solo female dancer performing to French choral music. In contrast, "The Hunt" — Waters calls it "a men’s dance, full of testosterone and primal energy" — by Robert Battle, will bring the entire company to the Valentine stage.
The grand finale will be "Revelations," the dynamic work that established Alvin Ailey as a force to be reckoned with. Set to spirituals and drawn from what Ailey called "my blood memory," it may well be the most popular and oft-performed contemporary dance in the world.
This will be Waters’ final season as artistic director; she will gain emerita status in 2012 while Troy Powell, an Ailey II graduate, takes over the reins of the busy company. On Dec. 11, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will present a tribute program to Waters at New York City Center.
But retirement is not on the vivacious dancer’s mind now. She is still in development mode, she says, "Looking for choreographers with a personal voice; looking for what challenges the dancers, and what stimulates their motivation to move and to think."
Waters, a Juilliard School dance graduate, has been a visiting professor at Harvard University and has an honorary doctorate from the State University of New York at Oswego.
While they are in town, Waters and her dancers will present a master class for area dance students at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Valentine rehearsal hall. Local dance companies were offered five slots apiece, as the class limit is 30.
Tickets for the Ailey II performance are $150 which includes dinner and a gala party after the concert. This year, to enable young dancers to attend, the Valentine also is offering $25 tickets in the loge and balcony for dance students, friends, family, and chaperones.
Reservations and information is available at 419-242-2787.
Contact Sally Vallongo at firstname.lastname@example.org.