As a welcome to Black History Month and celebrating its 65th Anniversary Season, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returns to the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami on Friday, Feb. 2 and Saturday, Feb. 3 for three dynamic and spirited performances. Including both former and present dancers, directors, and choreographers from Miami, it is always like a homecoming when Ailey makes its yearly anticipated stop in Miami.
Founder Alvin Ailey (1931-1989), an American icon and pioneer, had the vision to create a company that was inspired by the American spirit, honored the modern dance heritage and reflected the soulful African-American cultural experience. Initially drawing inspiration from his southern roots in Rogers, Texas, Ailey created works that used blues, spirituals and gospel songs and ‘blood memories’ from growing up that encompassed passion, sorrow, exuberance and spoke to African American life through dance. Ailey believed that dance could impact the world and created a company that continues to do just that.
An interview with Jacquelin Harris offered much insight into the Miami performances, and just what it means to be an Ailey dancer.
Harris is a seasoned artist with Ailey, having joined the company in 2014. She was an honors graduate from the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program in Dance in New York and spent one year dancing with Ailey II, the apprentice company, before joining the main company.
“I remember my first performance seeing Ailey. I was in the second row, and I was just blown away, flabbergasted. It was more than any book could ever capture,” she says.
As a young dancer joining Ailey, there were many original cast members whom Harris was able to watch in rehearsal and watch perform.
“It is a great honor to be a part of this legacy,” says Harris. ”When I first joined, I was dancing alongside artists like Matthew Rushing (present associate artistic director), Clifton Brown (assistant rehearsal director), Linda Celeste Sims, Glenn Allen Sims, Hope Boykin. I joined in the midst of so many legendary artists. Artistry that had been around for years. I got to see and watch and learn what it means to be an Ailey dancer.”
As newer dancers join the ranks of the company, coming straight out of school or who may have danced elsewhere and are coming to Ailey for the first time, Harris sees the biggest change over her time spent with Ailey is the passing down of artistic knowledge and the Ailey legacy. It is a responsibility and honor that the performing artists take very seriously.
“We still have many artists who had a personal connection to Mr. Ailey but it’s nice to see how that information is passed down as dancers transition to other roles within the organization. It’s a great opportunity; what it means to be an Ailey dancer when it’s word of mouth, an oral history, an oral legacy, the visual history and not so much experiential.”
It is one of the challenges of many dance organizations when the founder and, perhaps, main choreographer, is no longer present. The responsibility remains with the dancers and artists.
One of the main ways to pass this legacy down to future generations is through Ailey’s cultural treasure, “Revelations.” Closing almost every Ailey performance, “Revelations" has audiences crying, cheering, and singing along with the now familiar tunes of “I Been ’Buked,” “Wade in the Water” and the triumphant finale, “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.”
“When I first saw the company, 'Revelations' brought me to a place of nostalgia and awe, it showed me the history of our people, of African American people, but also showed me the potential. How resilient we are, how we can be superheroes in real life,” says Harris. "I think about that every time I do “Revelations.” I think about the power of our history, and what we’ve overcome, but also the possibility of what we can be. It never gets old.”
Harris says that as artists, they must continue to carry the integrity of the work, and it will always bring them to an enlightened moment inside.
With reverence, she says: “I don’t know how he (Ailey) did it, but he put everything into the choreography. Everything that you need to feel, it’s already ingrained into the work.”
That speaks to the next generation.
Harris says, “ The more you perform it, that magic is ingrained in you.”
Also on the Miami program is a new work, “Century.”
“Century” is a ballet created by Amy Hall Garner about her grandfather who just turned 100 years old. Hailing from New Orleans, where the spirited music and culture have impacted his history and life experience, Garner has created a piece with and for the Ailey dancers that celebrates and honors this man.
Harris is a featured dancer in the world premiere of “Century.”
“It was so great to work with her (Garner),” she says. “She allowed us as artists to explore and be part of the process. She really allowed everyone to be seen and to show their artistry, she encouraged us to express ourselves. I feel like we experience that on stage and the audience feels it - and it’s so fun to do.”
So far, audiences have loved “Century.” It is an opportunity to see the authenticity of the Ailey dancers as artists and performers. The music is a dynamic mix of Duke Ellington, traditional New Orleans jazz, Ray Charles, Count Basie, and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
“It’s a party from top to bottom, and it’s just so powerful,” says Harris.
Former Ailey dancer Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrish is choreographing her first work on the main company in “Me, Myself and You.” It is a duet about a lost love, trust and connection set to Damien Sneed and Brandie Sutton’s rendition of “In a Sentimental Mood.”
“I watched many videos of Elizabeth and I always could see her daringness. Just being willing to fly into her partner, her abandon. I see that in her choreography.” says Harris.
“Solo” is one of Harris’s favorite pieces. It’s a solo choreographed by Hans Van Manen, of Dutch National Ballet fame, that has been divided among three men. Created to Johann Sebastian Bach music, “Solo" is a witty, difficult, no nonsense work that showcases daredevil technique of the Ailey men.
“In 'Solo,' to see the humor, mixed with the technical prowess, and the connection that the dancers have with each other on the stage, and adding their own personality and individuality, it just amplifies everything so much more,” she says. “It is so challenging and beautifully done.”
First choreographed for Ailey in 2009, Ron K. Brown’s “Dancing Spirit” celebrates Ailey Artistic Director Emeritus Judith Jameson and her influence over the Ailey company. Jameson, as a dancer, was a muse for choreographer, Ailey and she felt the responsibility to continue and to grow his vision.
Bringing it back now for this 65th Anniversary tour, as new dancers are hired and the company is in a transition between directors, shows that even though things may change, there are unlimited possibilities which was Alvin Ailey and then Judith Jameson’s constant message.
“Of course, true to Mr. Brown’s work, it ends in a celebration. He wants us to be 100 percent human, to interact with each other, to be ourselves, “ says Harris. “It feels like we get to just relax but in a way that’s intentional.”
Miami native, Jamar Roberts, has revived “Ode” for this season. Roberts is presently the "it" choreographer in demand in the dance world.
Having been the former resident choreographer for Ailey, “Ode" was his first piece, in 2019, created on the company as resident choreographer.
Roberts started dancing with Ailey when he was 18. When he created “Ode,” he was very familiar with the dancers he was working with and had danced alongside many of them.
The piece was originally created for a cast of men and a cast of women as a statement made with love about gun violence. It is being revived for only women.
“It was a tribute to victims of gun violence, and to the families and loved ones that were left behind. A dance-poem.” says Roberts.
The music is by Don Pullen, an avant-garde jazz pianist from "back in the day" as Roberts says.
“I think the music, for him, had to do with the killing of Malcolm X. The title is called 'Suite (Sweet) Malcolm (Part 1: Memories and Gunshots) .' It is reverent, there is beauty in the score, but there’s a reality to it. You hear the violence, the percussive piano, jagged sounds shifting left and right. I see it as having an arc, somewhat turbulent but then resolving very beautifully.”
Roberts has always been the costume designer for his pieces. The inspiration for the costumes for “Ode” were dried flowers.
“When you hang flowers upside down and they get this weathered, sort of withered look, but also are very beautiful. A kind of ombre look that’s darker by the flower and then brownish at the top, he says.
“I feel like “Ode” is a really solid piece that can stand the test of time,” Roberts said sadly. “Humans have been violent since the beginning of time, so there is no place where this piece will be irrelevant.”
Speaking of “Ode” Harris says, “I was in the original cast, and most of us had danced with Jamar, he knew us and we knew him. Now, we’ve really had to work, to come together to bring the piece to life. He really gave us the space, both then and now to do that.”
Part of what makes Ailey so special is the sense of community that the dancers feel, but that the audience feels as well - the exuberance, the spirit and the unity.
“We want to have artists that understand the balance between humanity and individuality, but also add to the work,” says Harris. “Mr. Ailey said he wanted to hold up a mirror to the audience and show them themselves. So yes, I do think that’s a part of what he created, a part of his intention.”
Harris concludes with, “I hope Miami welcomes us home and feels the power of us working together. “ She pauses. “And sees that there are always possibilities.”
AAADT has two different programs.
- Friday, Feb. 2 and Saturday, Feb. 3 at 2 p.m.: “Century,” “Me, Myself and You,” “Solo,” and “Revelations”
- Saturday, Feb. 3 at 8 p.m.: “Dancing Spirit,” “Ode,” and “Revelations”
Before the Friday night performance on February 2, the Arsht Center will celebrate the extraordinary legacy of Alvin Ailey and the African American cultural experience through a pre-show activation on the plaza in partnership with BOMA (Black Owned Media Alliance). Beginning at 6:00 p.m., Step Into Dance – A Tribute to Black History Month will feature a Revelations Celebration workshop where the community can learn choreography from the masterpiece followed by performances from the Florida Memorial University marching band, dance and step teams. Admission to the pre-show activation is free with a ticket to that evening's performance.
- 6 p.m. – Revelations Celebration Community Workshop – Led by Ailey Arts In Education & Community Programs Master Teacher and former Ailey dancer, Nasha Thomas
- 7:15 p.m. – Step team performance – Florida Memorial University
- 7:25 p.m. – ROAR Elite Marching band performance – Florida Memorial University
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Ziff Ballet Opera House
1300 Biscayne Blvd, Miami, FL 33132
Friday, February 2 at 2 p.m. and Saturday, Feb. 3 at 2 and 8 p.m.
Tickets: $25, $45, $65, $79, $95 and $125*