When the first and only artistic director of a nearly 40-year-old dance company retires, she leaves the successor with big shoes to fill. Luckily for Troy Powell, the new artistic director for Ailey II, he's spent much of his life preparing for this role, whether he knew it at the time or not.
Powell grew up attending an inner city New York school, and was offered the opportunity of a lifetime at nine years old, when Alvin Ailey discovered him and offered him a scholarship.
"Growing up, I always listened to music and danced around my living room, but before that point, I did not think you could formalize dance," Powell said. "I discovered that I could do something I love and express myself in front of thousands. I knew that this was what I wanted to do."
Under Powell's direction, Ailey II will perform an All-Alvin Ailey program at the Vilar Performing Arts Center on Friday, kicking off the Vilar Center's 15th Anniversary season and paying homage to the brilliant choreographer and philanthropist who founded Ailey II to give young dancers a place to grow from student to professional.
The first piece of the evening was also Ailey's first - named "Blues Suite" and choreographed in 1958. Ailey's work is known for telling stories people can relate to and evoking a powerful emotional response and "Blues Suite" is no exception. Set in the fields of Alvin Ailey's southern childhood, the piece demonstrates Ailey's own struggles growing up on the edge of poverty in depression-era rural Texas. He masterfully balances humor, sorrow and humanity through heartfelt blues hymns and displays his signature theatrical choreography.
Foremost a storyteller
Moving through the program and thus, through Ailey's own life, Ailey II will perform excerpts from "The Lark Ascending," "Hidden Rites" and "ISBA" before featuring two favorites of Powell's - "Escapades" and "Quintet." Choreographed in 1983 for the Aterballetto - Centro Regionale Della Danza of Italy, "Escapades" is the most recent of Ailey's works in Ailey II's Friday evening repertoire. "Escapades" is a love story told through modern/jazz music and technique, in a suite of four dances known for the grace and effortlessness with which the choreography is presented.
"Quintet" on the other hand stands out among Ailey's works, if not for its explosive delivery, then for the tight dresses, spike heels and blonde wigs the five women wear to represent a disguise from the bad memories and emotions they've had to endure. "Quintet" covers all of the stages of emotion in life, with humor, communicating, in the words of The New York Times, "overlapping exultation and sadness with astonishing authority." Though one of Ailey's lesser-performed pieces, it remains one of his most memorable.
That is, until Friday evening's closer. His most performed, praised and remembered piece - "Revelations" - is famous for a reason. As Powell explains, Alvin Ailey was first and foremost a storyteller, and his genius existed in his ability to tell real life stories that people can relate to, through the art of dance. That was his goal - to reach people emotionally and spiritually.
"I love all of Ailey. I've performed most of his work and it has made me who I am today as an artist," Powell said. "That said, 'Revelations' is my favorite. It does something to you."
Told in three sections, "Revelations" is a journey through the grief and joy of the human soul, narrated by song-sermons and gospel/blues that have a powerful effect on the artists and audience alike. Those who have performed it say they could do so time and again and still feel transported into a different place. For the audience, whether you're witnessing "Revelations" for the first time or the hundredth, it's a piece that will move you out of your seat, singing and dancing from the opening notes through the triumphant finale.
'Connected with people'
This is an experience familiar to some people in the Valley who witnessed excerpts from "Revelations" this past summer at the Vail International Dance Festival.
"'Wading in the Water' was one of those moments during the dance festival - it didn't matter if it was one of our seasoned fans or someone experiencing dance for the first time, this performance connected with people on a spiritual level. The music and movement, in combination, elicited a sentiment that people carried with them out of the amphitheater that night," said Martha Brassel, festival manager for the Vail International Dance Festival.
Artistic Director Powell wants audience members to make no mistakes in their presumptions of what this dance company brings to the stage.
"Ailey II was started by Mr. Ailey to give artists between 'student' and 'professional' a training ground, but the fact that this is a young company does not mean this will be a recital type of performance," he said. "These young dancers are hungry and ambitious. Every time they perform, they are reaching for a goal, and approaching their performance at the highest professional level. It's exciting to watch."
Ailey II will perform Friday night, along with two STARS (Supporting the Arts Reaching Students) performances that day, allowing Eagle County students the opportunity to experience a curriculum-based, world-class performance at the Vilar Center.
"Bringing dance where dance is not accessible was Mr. Ailey's mission, and it remains close to my heart," said Powell. "Between the two community shows and the performance on Friday night, I hope that this community enjoys us, and I'm quite sure that they will. It's a wonderful chance to get to know who Alvin Ailey is and what he was all about."
Kate Peters does marketing for the Vilar Performing Arts Center. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.