On March 30, 1958, Alvin Ailey and Dancers debuted at New York’s 92nd Street Y. The 12 performers sharing the stage with the 27-year-old choreographer Ailey that night. The company members were all friends from appearing together in Broadway shows and struggling modern dance troupes. That night the response to Ailey’s “Blues Suite,” a distillation of the pain and anger associated with blues songs and his own African-American heritage, was ecstatic. “Blues Suite” was an instant classic, and Ailey’s company — in 1972 renamed the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre — was on its way.
Ailey died in 1989, but not before he had created a lasting body of work and a firm footing for his company. How would he react had he lived to witness the troupe’s 50th anniversary, an 18-month tribute currently underway with performances all over the country, a video installation, a specially issued Barbie doll, a series of Hallmark greeting cards, even a New York street dedicated in his name?
“We have an idea of what he probably would have wanted for the company, because his spirit is still very much around,” says Glenn Allen Sims, an 11-year member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, which comes to New Brunswick’s State Theater on Tuesday and Wednesday, May 6 and 7. At 32, the Long Branch native is too young to have actually known Ailey and how he might view the ongoing celebration. But Sims and his colleagues feel Ailey’s presence all the time. And that is no accident.
“We have people leading the company who worked with Mr. Ailey,” Sims says. “Judith Jamison, the artistic director, and Mayuzumi Chaya, the associate artistic director, knew him well and have taken his lead. They play a big role in passing on his legacy. So even if you didn’t know him, you get a sense of him, of his generosity and humanity. It is very much a part of what we do.”
Sims is the featured speaker on Tuesday, May 6, at a free pre-performance insight program being held at 7 p.m. in the United Methodist Church, across the street from the State Theater.
The Ailey company has performed in 71 countries, bringing Ailey’s choreography as well as works by other dancemakers in the company’s diverse repertory to a huge global audience. Last month a Congressional resolution named the company a “vital American Cultural Ambassador to the World.” That’s quite a figurative journey from Rogers, the southeast Texas town where Ailey was born. After leaving Texas, Ailey studied in Los Angeles with choreographer Lester Horton, taking over Horton’s company in 1953 after Horton’s death. But he soon headed for New York, where he studied with Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, and Charles Weidman and danced on Broadway and in the film “Carmen Jones” before striking out on his own.
If you have seen the Ailey company, you have probably seen “Revelations.” The intensely affecting ballet, created in 1960 and danced to a series of spirituals, is considered the choreographer’s signature work. In later years, Ailey frequently confessed to feeling frustrated by the endless success of “Revelations.” It was as if he couldn’t top it, no matter what he did.
For dancers, too, “Revelations” can seem like a burden — but only at first. “It’s one of those pieces we do a lot, and this is my 11th year,” says Sims, who recently joined the company in a pared-down performance of the finale on none other than ABC-TV’s “Dancing With the Stars.” “Honestly,” he continues, “it’s like, ‘here we go again.’ But by the time we go into it and you come out of it, it lifts you up, no matter what you’re going through in your life. By the end of it, those smiles on our faces are true. And when we see what a good time the audience is having, we smile more.” (“Revelations” shares the program at the State Theater with works by Jamison, Robert Battle, and Ulysses Dove.)
Sims was nine years old when he took his first dance class as part of an arts program in the Long Branch school system. He was raised by his mother, who is a clerk. He took to tap and jazz naturally, and his teachers suggested he audition for the School of Dance Arts in Red Bank. He was accepted and soon began taking ballet classes as well. Sims credits his teacher, Jennifer Church, with getting him on the path that led to his success.
“I wanted Broadway but she told me I had to do ballet, and that was right,” he says. “It was formal training, under the RAD (Royal Academy of Dance) syllabus and I passed with honors. It was excellent training that gave me a basis for everything else. I was able to change my frame of mind. I started going to see a lot of ballet. It was the motor for getting me into Juilliard and later the Ailey company.”
Sims spent three years in the dance program at Juilliard before he was offered a position with the Ailey company. Though he knew he was cutting his college education short, he took the job. “My time at Juilliard was a great time, but my main goal was to either get with Ailey or dance in Europe. It was one of those life decisions, and I decided to seize the moment.”
Dance is a notoriously insecure profession. Being a member of Ailey means not only a certain level of job security, but health benefits and world travel. It means a home base at a gleaming, glass building on West 55th Street that opened four years ago and houses 12 studios, a theater, a boutique, and space to relax. And it carries an expectation of a life about more than just dance.
“They make sure we have a life outside the company, which is what Mr. Ailey wanted,” says Sims. “It only makes sense for us to be able to touch you if we’ve experienced you. When you sit down for talks with Ms. Jamison and Mayuzumi Chaya, they ask you if you’re getting out and seeing things, seeing the sights when we tour, interpreting them and applying them. They make sure we’re doing our homework.”
Sims thrives on the repertory of the Ailey company, which is based on the founder’s works but includes ballets by many other choreographers. “It’s another reason I left Juilliard to join the company,” he says. “A repertory company is what I wanted, because you’re doing a wide range of things from classic to modern. You’re never bored. You’re constantly challenged in a sense where you wouldn’t be challenged in a ballet company. And there is no hierarchy whatsoever. You’re getting a chance to challenge yourself.”
Judith Jamison’s recent announcement that she will step down as artistic director in 2011 was momentarily jarring, Sims says. “It was hard when we first heard. There is a sense of not knowing,” he admits. “But 2011 is a long time from now. When Ms. Jamison took over, the road map was already laid out for her. Hopefully, the road map will be laid out for the next one as well.”
Jamison has taken the company to the next level by bringing in superlative technicians and extending its educational outreach programs. “That’s what Mr. Ailey wanted,” Sims says. “Dance should go back to the people, because it came from the people. That’s the hallmark of the company. That’s the whole mission of the company.”
Sims and his wife, Ailey dancer Linda Celeste Sims (seen in striking mid-leap on current posters for the company), live in New Rochelle, NY. When the company is not on tour, they drive into Manhattan most mornings to take a ballet class, then spend the rest of the day rehearsing and performing if the company is appearing in the city. Incredibly, they also find time to cross train — swimming, doing Pilates, taking spinning classes and free weights.
There is also time for Sims’ other passion: baking. “Sweet Simsations,” his fledging baking business, is in its early stages.
“I come from a baking family,” Sims says. “Yes, I was a fat kid, I admit it. We bake everything from carrot cakes and cookies to muffins and all that good stuff. I sell to my friends outside the company, or to the dancers at the end of a tour or the season. It’s not that big yet, because I’m never home to do it.”
Sims also muses about selling real estate when he retires from the stage. Better yet, he and his wife want to open their own workout studio — with a twist. “It would have a gym in back and a bakery in front,” he says. “So people can come in, eat cakes, and then go in the back and work it off.”
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Tuesday and Wednesday, May 6 and 7, 8 p.m., State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Pre-performance insight at 7 p.m. $40 to $60. 732-246-7469.