The internationally acclaimed Alvin Ailey Dance Theater has been bringing its revolutionary performances to Boston for 45 seasons. This year’s shows, produced by Celebrity Series, run through Sunday.
But even after the Ailey troupe leaves Boston, its presence will still be felt. And seen. And embraced. Turns out there's a deep, give-and-take relationship between Ailey and local dancers, teachers, choreographers and school children.
'They See Themselves'
On a recent chilly winter afternoon, Hope Boykin and two other dancers from the New York-based Alvin Ailey troupe addressed a gymnasium full of squirmy kids at the Henderson Inclusion School in Dorchester. With colorful alphabet letter cutouts over her head, she launched into something of a mini Alvin Ailey history lesson.
"He was born in Rogers, Texas," she told the kids, then she quizzed them immediately on what she had just said. "What city was he born in?" In unison the young voices replied: "Rogers, Texas!" That was in 1931.
Boykin shared with the students how the pioneering African-American artist took his first dance class in high school, moved to Los Angeles with his mom, joined a company, then headed east to New York where he planted the seeds for his now famously innovative and diverse troupe.
Then, in a move brilliantly catered to her young audience's attention span, Boykin shifted gears and got the kids moving. She started with a warm-up of head movements and hand claps before the Ailey trio presented a sampler of the company's milestone dances.
"What do they learn from seeing this?" Cindy Archibald asked, repeating my question. She's been teaching performing arts at the Henderson School for 21 years. "They learn about modern dance. They see people that look like them, they see a really quality company that is accessible."
Belen Pereyra, another Ailey dancer, can relate to that. She was born in the Dominican Republic and says seeing the company's unique makeup and style during its Boston runs opened her eyes in high school. She grew up in Lawrence and this is her fifth season with Ailey.
On stage, Pereyra took the mic introduced the students to an excerpt from "Blues Suite" which Ailey himself created in 1958. It’s a meditation on his young life in Texas.
"It is the work that first introduced the world to Mr. Ailey and his genius," Pereyra told the students. "This ballet is set to blues music, and it tells the story of the hard times in the lives of its characters."
"It’s such a treat to see the little light in their eyes just kind of go on," Pereyra said. She says student outreach programs like this are an important part of Ailey’s mission to both entertain and educate as many people as possible.
"They see themselves, they see that they could do it, and that’s where he got his vision from," the dancer continued. "The inspiration of bringing out the best in people — and the fact that we have all types of racial backgrounds and body types — it just allows children to see that you could do it too, you could be whatever you want."
The Boston Connection
Pereyra was inspired by that energy when she was first introduced to Ailey. As a student at the Boston Arts Academy, she received one free ticket to see a show each season.
"It was very magical," she recalled. "The bodies were incredible, they were so strong, and there was a certain beauty that I hadn’t seen ‘til that moment."
At the Henderson Inclusion School, Pereyra performed a portion of "Grace" by choreographer Ronald K. Brown. The piece blends modern dance with West African styles and music by Duke Ellington.
The Alvin Ailey dancers also teach master classes in Boston along with school visits and the annual ticketed performances. Kay Bourne has seen many of those. And covered them, too. She says she's been writing about black presence in the arts for the black press since 1966, and has followed Ailey since Celebrity Series first brought his company to Boston decades ago. Times were different back then, Bourne recalled.
"I was pleased to see a black artist performing downtown to an audience that was from every neighborhood in Boston. And Ailey spoke to everybody, and he was written about in the mainstream press," she said. "This was not the case for most black artists no matter how superlative their work."
Bourne traces the Ailey-Boston connection back even farther to 1966 — when the founder hired Cambridge dancer Consuelo Atlas who ultimately led a series of classes at Radcliffe. There's a family tree-like trickle-down effect that's also been symbiotic. Teachers with Ailey connections work in the area's public and private schools. Ailey dancers perform with local companies or maybe even form their own. Work by Boston-area choreographers have been made part of the Alvin Ailey repertoire.
"The importance of these Boston choreographers and Boston dancers is that they expand his vision," Bourne said, by influencing the Ailey company's style.
"What is style for a dancer, what is style for writers?" she said. "Style is your point of view about the world — so you have a narrow world or you have a broad world — and his company has a broad world that includes, very importantly, the Boston perspective."
"There’s definitely a huge sense of connective tissue," said Robert Battle, the current artistic director of Alvin Ailey Dance Theater.
Creating Socially-Relevant Work
Battle told me the company’s namesake, who died in 1989, wanted his dancers to get off the stage and into people's neighborhoods with socially relevant pieces like "Revelations." That iconic Ailey-choreographed 1960s work expresses in movement the hate and bigotry African Americans have had to overcome. Battle calls it, "living history."
"That is the blood that runs through the company," he said. "And so I think that’s what’s represented in our dancers when they go out into the community."
Boykin and the other dancers brought "Revelations" to the Henderson School.
"What's the name of the piece?" Boykin asked, testing the kids again. "'Revelations!'" they responded. "Say it loud," she said. And you know what? They did.
Then they sat mesmerized as their eyes focused on the dancers’ lithe, powerful bodies telling Ailey's beautifully crafted, wordless story. Third-grader Aliayna Alas said the different dance styles she learned about and saw really surprised her.
"Because I never knew there was that kind of dancing. I thought there was just like ballerinas dancing and tango and other stuff," Aliayna said.
When asked if seeing Alvin Ailey's dances and performers in action made her want to do it too, she said it did. Then she made a confession. "Sometimes I go in my sister’s room and dance for no apparent reason — but there’s no music. She gets really mad at me."
Well, no one got mad at the third-grader for shaking it in her school’s gymnasium when the Alvin Ailey dancers put on music to get her and her classmates moving.
This article was originally published on March 18, 2016.