Alvin Ailey was a pioneer—among the first African Americans to enter the world of concert dance performance. Unlike Donald McHayle, who came from the rich milieu of the Harlem Renaissance, Ailey began his career in Los Angeles, performing with the multi-cultural Horton Dance Company. Ailey passed away in 1989, but by that time, had established the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Ailey School, with additional performing groups like Ailey II for dancers on their way up.
and devastating emotionality characterize Alvin Ailey’s legacy and
dance lineage. The dancers are exceptional—screened from a constant
stream of hopefuls. Only the truly devoted last through the years of
arduous training needed to qualify for the world-class touring
ensemble. The Ailey II company appears at the Neal S. Blaisdell
Center on Valentine's Day, and at the Maui Arts and Culture Center on
Thursday, bringing the islands an eloquent glimpse into the future of
The group tours constantly, a popular
and highly respected company in its own right. The company’s
repertory lists well over a hundred choreographers including Ailey
and Powell, but Ailey II also provides opportunities for emerging
choreographers to work with elite dancers, and a workforce for
community outreach as they travel.
The current artistic director of Ailey
II is Troy Powell, himself a product of the Ailey school. He joined
the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at age 21, and performed with
the company for 10 years. In 2012, he became the second director of
Ailey II, following Sylvia Waters, who ran the company from its
inception in 1974. Powell spoke with
Summit by phone from
Washington state as the company tours its way toward the Hawaiian
Powell takes his role seriously, carrying the mantel of a major force in both American dance and the ongoing civil rights struggle. He advocates passionately for the company and his dancers, his voice brimming with obvious enthusiasm. His answers are at times lengthy, one topic spilling into the next. The conversation that follows offers a glimpse into Ailey II and its continuing links to Ailey’s dream, and provides some clues as to why this is a crucial show for dance lovers as we celebrate Black History Month.
Summit (S): Why did you choose to go
Troy Powell (TP): Dance really chose
me. Alvin Ailey himself came to my elementary school when I was
nine—I was in fifth grade—and auditioned kids for the Ailey
School. We didn’t know it was an audition. It was a workshop or a
master class; a residency he has been doing for over 60 years. He’s
reaching out to different communities. They had the funding, they had
the studio, they had the program built but they didn’t have any
His idea was to go into the inner
cities and hand pick kids that didn’t really have the means;
weren’t exposed to concert dance or to works like he choreographed
for his company. So he gave us scholarships and we studied at the
Ailey School. I was in the children’s program, then the junior
division, then the professional division. I danced with Ailey II
before dancing with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. I joined
the company at 21, and I danced with them for 10 years. It’s a
unique journey, and I’m one of the few dancers who took that
journey and are still with the company.
S: What differentiates Ailey II and the
TP: The dancers that are in Ailey II
are training to become dancers in the Alvin Ailey American Dance
Theater, or any other professional path. We’ve had dancers go on to
do Broadway or to dance with other companies. We have dancers that
have done film, we have dancers that do go into the Alvin Ailey
American Dance Theater, but the purpose is to train these young
dancers for the next step in their professional career, whatever they
choose to do. Some of them go off to choreograph; to teach; to start
their own school. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is the
professional company, much older dancers; more seasoned; a little
more experience and exposure in the concert world.
S: What should audiences expect from
Ailey II shows?
TP: These dancers are the next generation of dance. They go out there every day with so much heart and soul and passion; so much commitment and conviction. They are reaching for that next level, knowing that’s their goal. When the curtain opens, the audiences—their perspective is totally changed by what they see.
Mr. Ailey wanted his dancers to be human beings. He wanted us to dance in the most humanistic way possible. He did not want us to be robots. He really wanted us to express ourselves through the movements. Audiences should expect a performance that is entertaining, that's educating, that they can enjoy. He wanted his audiences to do that. And he wanted his dancers to exchange with the audience. So when you’re sitting there, you’re a part of what we are doing; you’re not just sitting there watching. You are going through the story and the movement and the production as well.
S: You must have a constant parade of
young people asking you for advice on becoming a dancer. What do you
TP: I work with young dancers that are 21 to 24, and they’re reaching for that goal. I encourage them to dream big; to be relentless at whatever you want to do. Don’t give up, and work hard. And the last thing is to enjoy every moment of it. We do outreach, and we don’t encourage these kids to only be dancers, but to dream big and work hard. Whatever it is that you want to be, just aim for that goal in the most relentless way possible.
S: Dance is hard and there are
injuries. How do you get very young dancers through that?
TP: The body is a very sensitive temple. It’s a very sensitive instrument. You have to take care of your body. I was fortunate to not have very many injuries. I always tell dancers to eat right, and to continue to build their technique and their training. Because dance is hard. We do 40 to 50 performances a year, and it can be a bit grueling on the body. Luckily we have physical therapy and the intelligence to know what we need to take care of our bodies. Warm up your body properly and move from one step to another, and all of that is basically from class.
S: Do you like directing, or do you like being the dancer? Do you itch to get back out on the stage?
TP: I love dancing. That was my
passion. I love expressing myself, and I love telling my story
through dance, and I just love moving and being on stage with other
people. The music is stimulating your body and the choreography is
racing through your veins, and I just love that type of energy when
the curtain goes up. I love it even more than being a director. But
I’m still fulfilled through the dancers. I think this is a great
opportunity for me as a director to watch these young dancers be in a
place where I was 20 years ago, and to exercise their brain and their
passion and body and spirit and soul.
S: As a choreographer, how do you
approach creating a choreography?
TP: Each choreographer has different
tools. I happen to love music and to move to music. So my way of
approaching choreography is first finding great music. Music that I
want to use through the movement. Secondary would come the story. And
sometimes I’ll get the story out of the dancers; get the story out
of the vocabulary of the movement, and then piece the piece together.
I think these days a lot of the
choreographers that work with Ailey II are interested in what the
dancers have to bring to the movement. That’s definitely what Alvin
Ailey was about because he choreographed works based on real life
stories and storytelling. These days things are a little more
contemporary, a bit more abstract, a little more improv-based. Some
choreographers would come in and have no music; maybe ask the dancers
to do something—to improv—and then evolve on that. Each
choreographer has a different approach.
S: I’m sure you’ve heard the new
administration is trying to dissolve the National Endowment for the
Arts and other public funding sources. In these days of dwindling
resources, why is dance important? Why are arts important?
TP: I think arts—in particular
dance—touch people deep down inside. It really brings out the
vulnerable heart in people, where they will feel at ease. We are at
such a high political climate right now; it’s very heated and
there’s a lot of negativity in the world. Be it politics, art,
agriculture—there are a lot of distractions. We dance to heal; we
dance to bring that positive energy to ourselves and the world.
Back in 1958, when the same things were going on that are going on today—facing poverty, facing racism, facing political change, facing all of those distractions—he created a company that could break those barriers; a company that could celebrate African American heritage and the modern dance tradition. And he wanted everybody to understand his story, no matter what you believed in, no matter what your economic status or age was, no matter what your race was. He wanted to bring everybody together and to create a movement in the most positive, humanistic way possible.
S: Now we are facing discrimination and even vote suppression again. How do you put that strange situation into dance?
TP: It’s very easy: We have these
issues that are going on in the world today, and the only way to do
it without being ridiculed is by dance; by doing it through movement.
Because our voices are obviously not heard. So, in order for
ourselves to feel at ease—to feel a sense of healing—we put those
things on stage. That’s what Alvin Ailey did. He put all of those
blood memories, all of those things he went through back in the early
'30s and '40s as a child—he put those things on stage. To make it a
celebration of life! He never fell into the negativity of the racism
and the poverty. He turned it around. He created a company that would
celebrate his African American heritage and the modern dance
tradition, and bring everybody together as a people in celebrating
their lives as well.
There is nothing like going to a
theater and seeing someone’s stories. We read books and watch TV
and movies, but it’s nothing like going to a theater and watching
live dance. It’s so brave of him to put their stories on stage. A
lot of them are the blood memories; the bad memories he had growing
up in Texas. And dance was the way of him telling his story.
S: How has dance affected your own
sense of identity?
TP: I’m very proud of my heritage and
my culture, and I couldn’t be more proud of being with a company
that has a social statement; a political statement as well that was
created 60 years ago. And it’s still thriving, and it will continue
to thrive into the future for the next 60 years. I couldn’t be more
proud of being part of an organization that stands for humanity; that
Hawaii: Ailey II // Neal S. Blaisdell Center Concert Hall, 777
Ward Ave., Honolulu, HI 96814 // Feb. 14, 8pm // $30–75 //
Tickets and information // 800-745-3000
Ailey II // Castle Theater, Maui Arts & Cultural Center, One Cameron Way, Kahului, HI 96732 // Feb. 16, 7:30pm // $35, 50, 65 // Tickets and information // 808-242-7469