The man behind the troupe

Calvin Hunt: Tacoma native works behind the scenes for success of Alvin Ailey dancers

March 25, 2011 

When the curtains open at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theater on the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater tonight, there'll be one man behind the stage who's been making it all happen - the tour, the stage crew, the schedule, even the payroll. He's a guy who started off as neither a New Yorker nor even a dancer, but as a track and football star in Tacoma who discovered dance while recovering from surgery.

In his years at Franklin Pierce’s Washington High School in the early 1970s, Calvin Hunt had set track records and had one of the longest interception returns in high school football history. When he enrolled at the University of Washington, he was invited to join the football and rowing teams – and then injury struck. After knee surgery, the track coach suggested ballet as part of the recovery process – and Hunt was hooked.

“It let me work on flexibility, isolation,” Hunt recalls. “I found it extremely difficult – standing on one leg while holding the other high in the air, for instance – but I enjoyed it. I had been an athlete my whole life, and this was the hardest thing I’d ever done. It turned into this passion.”

Hunt, now 56, danced with Tacoma ballet teacher Jo Emery for two years, and went to every local dance performance he could find.

He auditioned, and was accepted into the North Carolina School of the Arts, graduating with a dance degree and a desire to make it in New York. But within a few years, Hunt realized he would “probably starve if (he) tried to make a living out of dance” – so he moved backstage, working for Dance Theatre of Harlem. In 1982 he was hired by Alvin Ailey himself.

One of the first African American dance directors, Ailey founded the company that bears his name in 1958 and went on to become one of the country’s most popular choreographers.

His mission of bringing dance to the people continued with multiple national and international tours, presidential recognitions and awards, all of which helped changed the face of American dance.

After Ailey’s death in 1989, dancer Judith Jamison continued Ailey’s work with the company, and is now finishing her final year as artistic director.

“It’s a wonderful company,” says Hunt, who has a sister who lives in Tacoma. “It always felt like family there. I learned so much from Alvin and Judith, traveling the world with choreography that shows the tapestry of this country.”

As technical director, Hunt oversees all the production details of the first- and second-level companies and school performances both in New York and on tour.

This involves managing the stage crews, touring needs, schedules, even pay – “the details people don’t think about,” says Hunt.

The shows themselves are a reflection of the company’s message; mixed repertory that includes signature pieces such as Ailey’s “Revelations,” now 50 years old and using traditional spirituals to explore African American heritage; tributes to Jamison such as “Dancing Spirit” and “Anointed”; and a new piece by artistic director designate Robert Battle, “The Hunt,” choreographed for six men.

“It’ll get people jumping right out of their shoes,” says Hunt.

Even though Tacoma’s a long way from New York, Hunt says he learned the Ailey philosophy way back in his Jo Emery days.

“Jo’s completely inspiring,” he says, “an unbelievable mover. And she thought like Alvin, that dance should be entertainment, should be delivered back to the people.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

IF YOU GO

What: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

When: 8 p.m. today and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: 5th Avenue Theater, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle

Information: 206-625-1900, www.stgpresents.org, www.alvinailey.org

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