School dance; Ailey II company teaches students about movement and more

01.27.10
Ailey II
The Chapel Hill News

By Dave Hart

CHAPEL HILL - Sixteen students -- 12 girls and four intrepid boys -- from Smith and Phillips middle schools lay flat on their backs on the floor of the gym at Lincoln Center.

With the Ailey II dance company's associate artistic director Troy Powell directing, company dancer Levi Marsman demonstrated the move, a brief section of choreographer Alvin Ailey's 1960 classic "Revelations." Marsman slowly and simultaneously lifted both his head and legs from the floor, arms extended, folding into a sort of unusually graceful abdominal crunch.

"OK, everybody, lift!" Powell called. The students obeyed, as best they could, quivering and giggling as they tried to maintain the rigorous pose. "Hold it. Stay, stay, stay... OK, back down."

The kids collapsed.

"How does that feel?" Powell called.

"Hurts!"

Powell laughed. "Yes, but I promise you -- you do 100 of those every day and you'll be able to lift this building."

Ailey II -- a company founded by Ailey in 1974 to pair promising young dancers with emerging choreographers -- came to town Sunday and Monday for a residency sponsored by UNC's Office of the Executive Director for the Arts.

The company met with members of UNC's scholarship program, held a master class, and, Monday morning, led the dance workshop for students in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools' AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program.

AVID is designed to help middle-performing students, many of whom come from families without a college background, prepare for college eligibility. Ailey II did a four-day residency with AVID students two years ago and returned this year for a single-day session.

"It's wonderful," said Jean Parrish, AVID district coordinator. "This gives kids the opportunity to experience learning through movement, and to see the potential in that. Some of these students might be interested in pursuing dance and the arts, but have never seen what a dance company actually does."

They learned in a hurry. Powell and the dancers told the students about the company and its rigorous touring schedule, and they led students through three separate workouts, each one a short segment from "Revelations."

"It's hard," said Karima Dean, an 8th-grader from Phillips. "You have to learn to be more flexible."

Perry Ramsey, also a Phillips 8th-grader, concurred.

"That's tough to do," she said. "I might want to dance, not for a living, but for fun."

Few, if any, of the kids at Lincoln Center Monday will go on to become professional dancers, of course. But that's not the point, Powell said.

"What we want to convey is that, whatever you do, it requires discipline," he said. "That's what it takes to dance, or to do anything else, if you want to be successful."

Still, you never know. Ailey II dancer Levi Marsman began taking dance classes at age 7 after being inspired by just such an Ailey company workshop, featuring Powell as a dancer, at his school in Boston.

"It was just like this," he said. "I loved it, and my mother took me to see a performance, and that was it. Now I get to do the same thing for these students.

"Whether any of these kids become dancers or not, one thing this does is show them that there are other options besides working in an office. There's nothing wrong with working in an office, but it's important to know there are other possibilities too. They see how much we enjoy doing this. It's about finding something you love to do."