Young dancers' mission includes community outreach

10.24.06
Ailey II
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Short careers, low pay, heavy travel and risk of injury come with a career in modern dance. Dancing demands self-sacrifice and discipline. It rewards the dancer with applause, the exhilaration of full physical commitment to motion and the joy of giving yourself to a larger work of art.

Such tradeoffs aren't for everyone, even for some who possess the skill required to succeed in the field.

Ailey II, in residence this week at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Brookfield, exists partly to give dancers a taste of life on the road and the stage.

"It's an incubator," said Sylvia Waters, A2's director. "A dancer learns here. Is this the way I want to make my livelihood, or not? Is this the kind of dance I want to do, or not?"

Waters knows about it firsthand. She toured Europe in 1964 in Langston Hughes' "Black Nativity," settled in Paris and free-lanced for television and other outlets. She danced with Maurice Béjart's Ballet of the 20th Century at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. She returned to New York, her hometown, and joined the late Alvin Ailey's troupe that same year. She danced with it through 1975, when she took the reins of the Alvin Ailey Repertory Company, better known as Ailey II.

In addition to helping dancers determine how they fit into the larger scheme of things, A2 exists to move them along to bigger things after three years, if not before. High school graduation determines the lower age limit; Waters won't take dropouts. The youngest she's ever had was 17. The current range is 19 to 23.

"They are inspired, inspiring and committed young people," Waters said of her dozen charges. "They begin to become artists in our company."

As if that weren't task enough, they are called upon to give educational workshops. During their three-day Brookfield residency, they will meet with dancers from Milwaukee Ballet II and the Ko-Thi Dance Company, and with children and younger teens in a leadership program at Milwaukee's Next Door Foundation. That program serves low-income Milwaukee children ages 6 to 14.

Laura Sear, education director at the Wilson Center, said that the suburban venue seeks to enlarge and diversify its audience, and Ailey 2 offered an opportunity to do that.

"Some artists enjoy outreach and are good at it, and that is certainly the case with them," Sear said. "The entire organization is about education."

Two of the current A2 dancers are about to finish bachelor of fine arts programs at Fordham University. The Ailey companies and the university have tailored a program to get young dancers through a degree program.

"Dancers need to have that other part, that life beyond dance," Waters said.

Beyond the Fordham campus, they learn by giving.

"Those lecture demonstrations we do are very important. They're intimate and informal, and the dancers have a chance to interact with the people," Waters said. "In many cases, they're dealing almost with their peers - the dancers aren't that much older. I love the way they participate, because this is a service to the field and a service to the community."

Still, their focus is more stage than classroom.

In Brookfield on Friday night, they will dance new works by Robert Battle, a former David Parsons Company dancer; by Darrell Grand Moultrie, who set an exciting piece on the Milwaukee Ballet last year; Jessica Lang (no, not the actress, the Juilliard grad and former Twyla Tharp dancer); and Abdel Salaam, who has his own company, Forces of Nature Dance Theater.

The finale will be Alvin Ailey's "Revelations," a celebration of Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American dance. It electrified New York at its 1960 premiere and made Ailey's young company an institution. The big company still dances "Revelations" at most of its concerts; A2 will dance it in Brookfield.

Waters said that she consults on matters of repertoire with Judith Jamison, director of the big company. About three-quarters of its dancers come through A2. Ultimately, repertoire comes down to Waters.

"Sometimes, it's about the development of the company, but sometimes, it's about an exciting choreographer that you just want to dance," she said.

The public image of both Ailey troupes: America's black dance company. Waters doesn't see it quite that way.

"People call it an African-American company, but it was diverse almost from the beginning," she said. "Alvin was strong and specific about being African-American, but he also wanted to be American."