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Two longtime dancers discuss the company's evolving repertoire
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater just kicked off its annual holiday run at City Center, a five-week gift to modern dance lovers showcasing the company's ever-expanding repertory. Yes, Ailey's beloved 1960 classic Revelations is still on the lineup, but artistic director Robert Battle has added six new pieces, from fresh productions of vintage work (The Golden Section by Twyla Tharp), to world premieres by up-and-comers (Ailey dancer Jamar Roberts' Members Don't Get Weary).
So how do Ailey dancers, who typically perform three different works on a program, master such wildly contrasting styles? Two busy company members, Michael Francis McBride and Samuel Lee Roberts (no relation to Jamar), have some insights. Both have been with Ailey for eight years and are performing about 15 parts this season, plus several roles in Revelations. And they're engaged -- though their jam-packed schedules don't allow much time to plan a wedding.
"It seems like the company is asked to do everything under the sun at this point," says McBride. "I don't think there's a style or technique that we haven't done. Regardless of a dancer's tenure, every time a new choreographer comes in, we're all asked to learn the phrases. They audition us and they cast us, every time. It keeps us on our toes, and also asks us to remain open and try to stay as versatile as possible."
"I think it's exciting," says Roberts. "Each season we wonder: what is the next thing that's going to come into the rep? I think that's why you get into a repertory company like Ailey. You have no idea what you might possibly do, and that's what is so thrilling."
McBride is performing in the world premiere of Victoria by Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano, set to Michael Gordon's "Rewriting Beethoven's Seventh Symphony," a riff on that seminal composition. "It's unlike any work that I've performed since I've been in the company," McBride says. "It has intricate, fast movement. His choreography is more about the feeling within your body and less about hitting specific shapes. He asks us to go as far as our bodies can go with lightning speed, so it's very challenging."
McBride also appears in Jamar Roberts' Members Don't Get Weary, which is set to music by legendary saxophonist John Coltrane. "Jamar has a very close connection with music -- specifically jazz," McBride says. "What I think is really beautiful about his piece is that you see the specific instruments when the person is dancing." Adds Roberts: "Every note that's played, you see in the movement. It's like he's playing the orchestration of the music with the bodies."
McBride and Roberts' work sometimes overlaps. They dance the same part in alternating performances of Ailey's elegiac Memoria, and different roles in separate casts of the Tharp. And they dance side by side in Battle's intense all-male The Hunt. "It's one of those pieces that you get done with and it just feels so gratifying to get through it," McBride says. "There's nuance to it, but it's definitely primal. Everything that's bothering you, you can just get out."
Both dancers especially appreciate performing in pieces that lean more toward dance-theatre, such as Talley Beatty's Stack-Up, a hard-edged work inspired by LA's urban landscape, which was created in 1982 but is receiving a new production this season. "That's a very theatrical work," says Roberts. "It's great to understand building a character and finding a through-line when you get onstage."
McBride and Roberts acknowledge that some transitions between disparate pieces are tougher than others, but that stamina and versatility help get them through. "I think managing exhaustion and working through that is another component to being here," says Roberts. Adds McBride: "By the time we've gotten into our performance mode, we've already rehearsed the same way. So you're switching gears already. It's built in. It's become so much a part of our daily life that I don't even think about it now."
Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages
Top image: Samuel Lee Roberts in Revelations. Photo by Pierre Wachholder.