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Alvin Ailey: Take Them to Church
This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 7, 1999. All rights reserved.
In the bright early light of the 20th century,
artists turned their backs on the aristocratic elitism of classical
ballet to forge a new, humanistic and democratic art form they called
"modern dance." Now, in the century’s twilight, few modern
dance visionaries have succeeded in fulfilling the form’s founding
promises as completely as Alvin Ailey, celebrating its 40th
year. Ten years after Ailey’s death, huge audiences around the world
continue to be thrilled by the company that bears his name.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, now led by Judith Jamison,
returns to McCarter Theater for its 17th appearance Monday through
Wednesday, April 12 to 14. The three-day engagement in the 1,000-seat
house is itself evidence of the company’s enduring popularity. Its
signature and rapturous work, "Revelations," an Ailey
that dates back to 1960, two years after its founding in 1958, is
promised on all three programs.
Monday and Tuesday’s programs include Ailey’s 1970 work
set to the music of Miloslav Kabelac, and "Ascension" by Troy
O’Neil Powell, to music by Michael Wimberly. Also on the Monday and
Tuesday programs is "Letters d’Amour" or "Love
a brand new work by the North African-French choreographer who goes
by the single name, Redha. The dance that premiered in December has
been described as the company’s most striking, and perhaps most lurid,
acquisition of the decade, a moving tableau that "comprises
with a hefty element of S&M, mysticism . . . and a ceaseless stream
of images that might be provocative photos for the glossies given
the fluid continuity of film."
Wednesday night’s program features the now-classic "Night
(1974), from "Ailey Celebrates Duke Ellington," and
(1971), a solo dedicated to the strength and fortitude of black women.
Also featured on Wednesday is Jamison’s latest composition, "Echo:
Far From Home," a 1998 episodic and autobiographical work that
traces the charismatic Judith Jamison’s life in dance from her
childhood days to her status as celebrated star. Her story is both
an individual’s unique experience and a metaphor for the many ways
women of African ancestry have found their way in dance.
Solange Sandy Groves, an member of the Ailey company since 1994,
Jamison’s career path fraught with pitfalls. Yet this artist has been
single minded in her educational and professional path. Born and
in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, the dancer went by her maiden name of
Solange Sandy until her marriage last year to Michael Groves. With
a new name as picturesque as her voice, she and her husband, who
a security systems company, live in Arlington, Virginia. Her father,
a colonel in the Trinidad & Tobago regiment, is currently assigned
to Washington, D.C., as military attache to the U.S. government. Her
mother is also a long-time government employee. At 27, Solange is
the eldest of their four children.
"At six I was dancing around the house a lot and both my parents
decided to send me to dance school," says Groves, who began her
dance training at the Caribbean School of Dancing. "My brother
was four and my first sister was two at that time — and my parents
would be trekking me back and forth three days a week. I cannot tell
you the amount of time and the patience and the amount of love that
took. Some parents would say, `I need a life, and besides, I have
three other kids!’ But their quiet perseverance and support was so
important. They told me I could do anything I wanted to do."
By 12 Groves was "serious" about dance, although
she had plenty of other interests, including art and singing, which
she still enjoys. Her high school art teacher encouraged her to keep
dancing. Her dance teacher, Patricia Roe, counseled her that she would
have to go to London or New York to work professionally, "but
to get an education first."
The summer after her high school graduation Groves traveled to New
York with her mother for one single purpose: to audition for and gain
admission to Juilliard, arguably the most prestigious dance and music
school in the U.S. Here her experience was significantly different
from the other young dancers she met there.
"The other dancers kept talking about all the other places they
were auditioning. But I had never even thought of auditioning anywhere
else. I packed all my things up to audition in August for the academic
year that began in September. I never went back to Trinidad."
Groves was 16 years old and her mother went back to Trinidad without
her. "The city seemed so much bigger than me. I was very cautious.
And I was so focused on dance. It was a very maturing process,"
she recalls. "At Juilliard we studied ballet and modern equally,
as well as tap, Spanish, Indian, jazz, and improvisation. But the
more I became exposed to modern dance the more I discovered how
it was. It suited my personality — and it suited my body."
Groves’ first look at the Alvin Ailey company came by way of a
But it was a transforming experience. "That’s it, that’s the
that’s the one," was her response. And when the company performed
"The Stack-Up" by Talley Beatty, she even identified her role.
"And that’s me right there, I said. That’s the part I want to
By the time she attended her first Ailey concert, which include Lar
Lubovitch’s "North Star" and "Escargot" by Louis
"It was like a dream," she says. "I felt like it wasn’t
real. I was totally transported by it."
Audiences agree that Ailey’s work has the ability to transport them.
Born in Rogers, Texas, in 1931, Alvin Ailey was introduced to dance
by performances of the Katherine Dunham Company and the Ballet Russe.
His formal dance training began after his family moved to Los Angeles
and he was introduced to Lester Horton’s classes by his friend, Carmen
de Lavallade. Horton headed the first racially integrated dance
in the nation, and after his death in 1953 Ailey became its director.
In 1954 Ailey and de Lavallade were invited to New York to dance in
a Broadway show. The Ailey company was born on a Sunday afternoon
in 1958 when Ailey presented his first dances, performed by friends
for friends, at the 92d Street Y in New York, a venue that still lives
as a magnet for emerging dance artists.
The company is led today by one of Ailey’s most brilliant dancers
and interpreters of his work, Judith Jamison. "Half earthy big
sister, half towering shaman" is the way New York Times dance
critic and Ailey biographer Jennifer Dunning described Jamison at
the company’s 40th anniversary gala concert last December at New
City Center. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is also the principal
resident affiliate of NJ-PAC, Newark’s glittering new performing arts
Groves first auditioned for the Ailey company after her third year
at Juilliard and made it all the way to the last cut. Undeterred,
she finished her final college year, returned, and was accepted into
the Ailey Repertory Ensemble, the second company, directed by Sylvia
Waters, where she worked for two years. This transition, she says,
"You have the wonderful experience of being in the Ailey family,
and the nurturing of Sylvia Waters, who is an exquisite artistic
You’re becoming acquainted with the repertory and the versatility
necessary to become an Ailey dance. And she is such a nurturer, but
very real. She tells it like it is. And she wants the best for each
individual dancer. Sometimes the best isn’t the first Ailey company,
sometimes it’s Twyla Tharp, or Mark Morris, or even `Lion King’."
What Groves wanted after the repertory ensemble,
was not Tharp, Morris, or "Lion King" — but Ailey. Just
as she had focused on Juilliard alone, she set her sights on that
single goal. "I had no doubts. It was like going to Juilliard.
I knew what I wanted. I never really have that much of a fallback
plan. My eye is on that prize."
After two years in the ensemble, Groves was accepted into the main
company with whom she has danced now for five years.
With a repertory that extends far beyond the choreography of Ailey
alone, Groves performs works based on ballet, Horton technique, Martha
Graham technique, jazz, and African dance. "The movement’s fast
and huge," she says, "and you have to be a jack of all
"We’re truly an Ailey family," she says. "We live
we may tour anywhere from six to nine months a year. We share
bus rides, we take the train together, then we’re in rehearsal and
"We’re in such demand all over the world. We may perform on a
46-week contract. And you are needed and you are cast in every city.
You are expected to be there 110 percent."
"Ailey believed dance is for everyone," says Groves. "He
did his best to share his dream and his artistry with as many people
he could. Now Judith Jamison is continuing that legacy. Those were
some big shoes to fill — and she has done so."
Although Groves jokes about her age — 27 — as being advanced
for a dancer ("These bones are creaking!" she says), she
the artistic power that comes with maturity. "I feel really
artistically," she says. "I feel I can take many more risks
than I could before. Miss Jamison and [Masazumi] Chaya allow us to
be who we are. We interpret the choreography at every performance.
Nothing is ever the same."
An invaluable member of the Ailey "family" is Masazumi Chaya,
a native of Japan who joined the company in 1972. He spent 15 years
as a dancer in the predominantly African-American ensemble. In 1986
he became assistant to the rehearsal director and was named associate
artistic director of the company in 1991.
"He’s a very vibrant, wonderful positive human being, and his
job is endless," says Groves. "He was there when some of these
ballets were being made and he has a mind like a calculator. He
steps from way back, he remembers some of the things Mr. Ailey would
say, and why he would change a step for a certain dancer." Chaya
still stores these choices in his memory, and offers them afresh to
today’s dancers. Groves thrives on the repertory, including the
new "Lettres D’Amour" by Redha. "It’s a wonderful
of love — or lack of it — in different forms," she says.
"Certain ballets in the repertory allow you to live life through
them. They can be quite cathartic. This one allows you to be whoever
you want to be that night. Maybe you had a terrible bus ride."
"It’s a very, very tough life. It’s hard on the body and it’s
hard on the mind, especially when you tour a lot. You can’t do without
the support of your family and your loved ones. My husband, parents,
brothers, and sister support me. I couldn’t do this without them,"
"Revelations," the company’s signature work, remains timeless,
says Groves. "That is one ballet that I never get tired of. You
might be tired when you look up into the lights during the `I Been
‘Buked’ opening, but you’re lifted up and you forget all of that.
Alvin Ailey lives in that ballet, and you are energized to go on.
It’s a quiet, indescribable moment. Before the `Yellow Section’ Miss
Jamison always comes on stage and talks to us. She says, `Let’s take
these people to church.’"
"You transport these people, and you become transported also.
It’s magic really. Plain and simple."
— Nicole Plett
609-683-8000. $37 and $40. Monday through Wednesday, April 12
14, 8 p.m.
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