How the vibrant Alvin Ailey troupe looks from the inside
"Have tights -- will travel" could well be the motto of an Alvin Ailey dancer. Although the company spends three weeks each fall and spring at New York's City Center, the major portion of performance time is spent in theaters on the road. The New York engagement (through May 24) is the climax of a February-May tour which included stops from Boston to Houston, with one week bookings in between in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Palm Beach, Fla.
One of the company members with the most labels on her luggage is Mari Kajiwara who doubles as rehearsal assistant and leading dancer in such company works as "The Lark Ascending," "Later That Day," "Les Noces," and the Ailey signature piece and grand finale, "Revelations." Kajiwara, who also has choreographed a work in the repertory of the Ailey second company, has been with Ailey for more than a decade. She joined the company soon after her graduation from New York High School of Performing Arts.
Kajiwara says the "look" of an Ailey dancer cannot be characterized. "There is no Ailey dancer profile. Sometimes as rehearsal director, I look at the company and wonder how somebody six feet tall can do the same thing as someone five feet tall. But there is an energy having more to do with a dancer's approach to the kinetic aspect of dance.
"That is what Alvin sees and appreciates. He deals with people on a one-to-one basis so it is natural that the company is formed of strong individuals, not so much a body type or a technique type."
Kajiwara has performed in countries around the globe and set Ailey works on a number of foreign companies. She spent part of September and October 1980, in Copenhagen to teach "Memoria" to the Royal Danish Ballet. Ailey joined her there for opening night when the normally reserved Danish audience stamped their feet in approval of the alternately lyrical and jazzy piece.
Exuberant audiences are nothing new for Ailey works, but Kajiwara felt especially happy about the reception for Ailey's "Phases," premiered last fall in New York. "Phases" was the first new work by Ailey in a year, and marked his return to the company after a period of personal difficulties. Kajiwara remembered, "It felt the audience was ready and the dancers were all up. It was one of those occasions when everything meets. . . . Alvin is very much back with the company. He is busy changing all the double pirouettes to triple pirouettes."
Kajiwara described the hectic company schedule as a reason for both making the 30 dancers of the company so close, and for causing the turnover of dancers. "Our workload is tremendous. We are notorious for short rehearsal periods. In five or six weeks, we learn two new ballets, revive a third, and keep our repertory of 24 ballets in shape. That is an enormous workout. When you compare it the Royal Danish Ballet, they have a three-hour workday with the option of turning down overtime.Our rehearsal day is six hours with unlimited overtime. Sharing that kind of schedule naturally brings people close together."
Commenting on the exodus of dancers who have made their reputations with the Ailey company. Kajiwara said, "The company tours so much and works so much that many people find a problem in trying to sustain some personal life."
Among those who have scattered are Judith Jamison on leave of absence while she appears in "Sophisticated Ladies" on Broadway, Ulysses Dove in Paris as assistant director of the Paris Opera, and Clive Thompson on Staten Island with his school. Although Kajiwara remains with the Ailey company, the tours separate her from her husband, Israeli-born Ohod Naharim, formerly a dancer with the Bejart company and the Martha Graham company. The couple, who met while Kajiwara was in Israel setting and Ailey work, will perform their own works at the New York Riverside Church Dance Festival in June.
In addition to finding dancers in auditions, Ailey moves up dancers from his second company. He takes an active interest in the school, which now enrolls 5, 000 students.
"Our school is in a period of growth and development. Alvin is concentrated with the faculty and the schedule so that it is most eclectic, to expand the school curriculum. Noe we have dance history and music history, artists in residence, and a Christmas course. In addition a program called Arts Connection brings in children from the public schools for classes."
After the current season in New York, it will be business as usual for the Ailey company members as they pack their bags to leave for a South American tour. Since 1962 when the company appeared in the Far East, Australia, and London, the Ailey-style, according to Kajiwara, is "dance as a celebration of whatever people are." It has been one of America's favorite exports.