When the dozen dancers in the Alvin Ailey II troupe take flight on stage at the Minnaert Center next Tuesday, it will give South Sound audiences a chance to see stunning movement in exciting new choreography.
But for the young Ailey II dancers and choreographers, it’s a chance to spread their wings, learn the craft of the professional contemporary dance world, and develop themselves as artists before moving onto either the full Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company or to other opportunities.
Developing dancers is the core mission for Troy Powell, a long-time Ailey dancer who stepped into the artistic director position in 2012, becoming just the second director since the group began in 1974. Powell began dancing at age 9, when the New York-based Alvin Ailey school offered him a scholarship. After high school, he joined Ailey II, then toured with the main company for 10 years before moving on to become a teacher, choreographer and associate director for Ailey II.
Powell spoke on the phone with The Olympian about being at the Ailey II helm, life in the company and how the Olympia program showcases the best of dancer-choreographer inspiration.
Question: You’ve programmed four works: “Alchemies,” “Cuore Sott’olio,” “Wings” and “One Forgotten Moment.” How do you choose the repertory for each show on the tour?
Answer: We travel with about 18 ballets in our repertory. Each program lasts for just under two hours, and I like to mix up the programs so the dancers are not doing the same thing each night. I choose different pieces for different cities, too. For Olympia, it’s mostly new work — I wanted Olympia to see the new work.
Q: Ailey II is known for pairing up-and-coming dancers with up-and-coming choreographers. What’s the learning process, and how does that new talent affect the energy of the show?
A: Yes, that’s the company’s main purpose: Allowing emerging choreographers to work with young dancers. Me being an emerging choreographer myself, I know this: It helped me enhance my creativity to work with dancers who are very intelligent, who help you with the process. And the choreographers challenge the dancers, too. In “Wings,” the choreography challenges their improvisational skills — a lot of the work is the dancers’ input and improvisation. It challenges the dancers conceptually as well; they talk to the choreographers about what they have in mind, and there’s my expectations as well. We learn three new works a year.
Practically, the choreographers get three hours every day for three weeks with the dancers. So they spend 45-plus hours with the dancers — it’s intensive, active, really a part of the process. It’s definitely a positive learning environment for both.
Q: One of the works you’ll do in Olympia — “One Forgotten Moment” — has several on-stage spotlights close to the two dancers. What’s the artistic vision behind that?
A: Originally the choreographer (Malcolm Low) wanted the dancers to move the lights around and to give the piece more dimension. That didn’t work, for technical reasons. But he wanted to place the dancers in this beam of light that was like a horizon … more intimate (than the usual stage lights).
Q: It seems as if many of the works in the program are narrative-based: “One Forgotten Moment” is about a relationship, “Cuore Sott’olio” (“Heart in Oil”) is about one woman’s journey through life. “Wings” is about the presence of angels. Is narrative making a comeback in contemporary dance?
A: I think it is. The first piece (“Alchemies”) is very abstract but what makes it so different is an underlying story in the movement itself. It uses these gestures as interaction: There’s lots of partnering, a lot of upper-body movement. (Choreographer Adam Barruch) wanted the dancers to look at them not just as steps but as interaction … when they touch, to really feel the muscles, not just the skin. It’s all about kinetic energy.
And “One Forgotten Moment” is about a relationship where the guy is very vulnerable, and the girl is like his heart, working to pump energy back into him. The two are really connected, not just in a loving way, but energetically and spiritually.
Q: All the dancers in Ailey II are in their first or second year, and you are too, as artistic director. What’s the average length of stay for dancers, and where do they go after they leave?
A: Ailey II is a two-year commitment: enough for dancers to get their feet wet and think about the commitment. Some stay three years, if we feel they’re not ready to move on just yet. Most of them go on to the main (Alvin Ailey) company, some go on to other companies in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Washington … or to form their own companies, or be choreographers or teachers. There’s definitely a path for them after they leave here. They don’t just learn how to dance — they learn other things. It’s a very profound training ground.
Q: And how about you, now into your second year as Ailey II’s second director — how are things going for you? Do you have any big plans for the company?
A: I’m always planning. I love to see growth, I feel like I always want to challenge the dancers, to give them more opportunities: to teach, to choreograph, to work with choreographers, to learn about the professional world and about themselves.
And I’m having a great time doing that. They get to find out all these other things that they may not have known they could do. That’s my motto, my journey, my vision.
Q: How has Alvin Ailey shaped your own life?
A: Being here for so long, it’s like a home (for me). You see yourself grow from a 9-year-old boy to doing the best thing you’ve ever done; and then it becomes work but you still enjoy doing it.
Ailey II: The Next Generation of Dance
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 25
Where: The Minnaert Center for the Arts at South Puget Sound Community College, 2011 Mottman Road SW, Olympia
Tickets: $35 for adults, $25 for students and seniors — plus a $3-per-ticket fee. SPSCC students, faculty and staff are eligible for one free ticket with ID.
Information: 360-753-8586, washingtoncenter.org; alvinailey.orgRosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 email@example.com