Ailey II's Courtney Celeste Spears in Jamar Roberts' "Gemeos." Photo by Eduardo Patino, NYC

Movement making

Text Stephen Fox

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.

Superb technique 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 dance.

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 archipelago.

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.

Ailey II Artistic Director Troy Powell leads a class for Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls students. Photo by Joe Epstein

Summit (S): Why did you choose to go into dance?

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 kids.

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 main company?

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 tell them?

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.

Ailey II in Ray Mercer's "Something Tangible." Photo by Eduardo Patino, NYC

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.

Ailey II's Troy Powell. Photo by Eduardo Patino

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 celebrates life.

Ballet 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


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