D Kevin McNeirLifestyle

Ailey Dancer Talks About the Joy and Pain of Stardom

In some ways, I may not be the best person to review the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater — or perhaps it’s just tough to remain objective.

After all, I have seen the company perform well over 20 years, first under Judith Jamison and most recently under the direction of Robert Battle, a talented choreographer who I met just before he became the artistic director while we were both doing our thing in Miami.

This year’s performances were brilliant and engaging including a few that I particularly enjoyed: the D.C. premiere of “Members Don’t Get Weary” choreographed by one of my favorite Ailey dancers, Jamar Roberts — his first choreographic work for the company, set to the sounds of the legendary John Coltrane; and two pieces choreographed by Battle: “Ella” which pays homage to Ella Fitzgerald in celebration of the centennial of her birth; and “Mass” which illustrates Battle’s signature ritualistic choreography, set to the haunting rendition of Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind.”

As they have established for decades, each performance ended with Alvin Ailey’s classic “Revelations.” In truth, I was not as pleased with the interpretation of Ailey’s signature piece as performed by this year’s dancers.

Alvin Ailey
Alvin Ailey (Photo by Eric N. Hong)

My issue came not with the quality of the dancers but rather the flow and chemistry, or lack thereof, between the performers in several portions of the entire work. I must admit, I enjoyed “Revelations” more when Jamison was at the helm. It seemed that she chose much taller dancers, particularly in the opening section when hands reach to the skies or are stretched wide in syncopated rhythms. Still, seeing Ailey’s “piece de resistance” brought tears to my eyes.

Dancers from the greater Washington area included: Ghrai DeVore and Jermaine Terry, who joined the company in 2010, Samantha Figgins (joined in 2014), Daniel Harder (joined in 2010) and Jacqueline Green (joined in 2011).

Here are comments from DeVore, a D.C. native who moved to Chicago during at the age of 5 and then to New York City at 16. (We’ll share words from Jermaine Terry in a future story in which he’ll share his love for the DMV).

DeVore: “I grew up in Chicago’s ‘Deeply Rooted Dance Theater’ with my mother who was a career dancer and now teacher in D.C. as the Suitland Dance Mistress (ballet) and a father figure who was a longtime artistic director. I danced out of love and necessity. Mom was a single parent and always in the studio or theater. I was there too since we couldn’t afford daycare. But it gave me discipline that has carried over into every aspect of my life.”

“My greatest challenge? Keeping my authenticity. Being true to who I am and bringing that into all of my work with the company. I always try to have the audience see me as well as the lineage of those who came before me in the company and in my personal life. I never feel a weight or burden as an Ailey dancer. I’ve had such a rich foundation to stand on. When I think back to Mr. Ailey or the times he and others came through, it’s a true blessing to stand on their shoulders. Still, it’s hard to pay them the homage they deserve. For nine months, we’re in front of audiences bringing dance back to people. That’s a real learning experience and a real joy and honor. It also shows me how strong and I am.”

“Many don’t understand what happens long before our performances. It’s hard to explain. No one is ever in the studio with us; they may think it’s easy. But they don’t see the blood, sweat and tears. In many ways, the performance is the easiest part. It’s just two hours after months of work. The two hours is the culmination.”

“Some dancers like the performance aspect but I like the prep work where I can test my limits. Those times teach me who I am as a person and a woman — a Black woman. Still, I have down time and besides enjoying my fiancée — she’s a dancer too — I love movies, musicals, psycho thrillers, documentaries and yes, westerns. You know, shoot ’em up, bang bang.”

“And I love to travel where there’s plenty of sun, sand and water. I love the beach. And I’m an avid reader too.”

“I encourage youth people who think they want to get in this business to learn who they are as early as possible. Be prepared for the hardest work you’ll ever do. Work on themselves all the time. And keep pushing because as they’ll soon discover, only a few of us really have the strength needed to endure.”

Ghrai DeVore began her formal dance training at the Chicago Multicultural Dance Center and was a scholarship student at The Ailey School. She has completed summer programs at the Kirov Academy, Ballet Chicago, Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre and Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet. She was a member of Deeply Rooted Dance Theater 2, Hubbard Street 2, Dance Works Chicago, and Ailey II. She is a recipient of the Danish Queen Ingrid Scholarship of Honor and the Dizzy Feet Foundation Scholarship and she was a 2010 nominee for the first annual Clive Barnes Award. She joined the Company in 2010.

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D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Award-winning journalist and 21-year Black Press veteran, book editor, voice-over specialist and college instructor (Philosophy, Religion, Journalism). Before joining us, he led the Miami Times to recognition as NNPA Publication of the Year.

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