Learning to Fly | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City Weekly

Learning to Fly 

Ailey II offers a training ground for young professional dancers.

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click to enlarge KYLE FROMAN
  • Kyle Froman

Look at some of the most lauded dance companies in the United States, and you might notice that many of them have secondary performing companies—a corps of young dancers rehearsing, training, performing and literally waiting in the wings for their chance to take a spot on the main stage. Ailey II is one such company—but don't make the mistake of thinking that a second company means second-rate, or anything less than exceptional young dance talent.

Originally called the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble, Ailey II was formed in 1974. This was 16 years after Alvin Ailey and his group of young black modern dancers first performed in their hometown of New York City as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Quickly making a name for themselves as artistic ambassadors, their first international tour was a 1962 excursion to Asia initiated by President John F. Kennedy's Special International Program for Cultural Presentations. By the 1970s, Ailey's dance school—which opened in Brooklyn in 1969—was attracting enough young talent that it seemed necessary to take the next step. The repertory ensemble was created as a second professional company for young dancers, giving them the training they needed to continue growing in their art form, while also allowing them to experience a full touring schedule, helping prepare them for the leap from studio to stage. Today, young dancers, mostly ages 21 to 24, still vie for the chance to work with Ailey II; only about a dozen young men and women perform with it each year.

The current crop of Ailey II dancers comes from around the country—Texas, Georgia, New Jersey—and as far away as France. Their résumés are already as impressive as professionals with twice as many years behind them, and include performing works by celebrated choreographers (Ray Mercer, Alexandra Damiani, Matthew Rushing), graduation from prestigious programs and training with dance companies like Alonzo King LINES Ballet, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, Joffrey Ballet and Dance Theater of Harlem.

When dancers are accepted into the two-year Ailey II program, they start an intense period of full-time, five-days-a-week studio rehearsals, along with a packed schedule of traveling and performing in the spring and fall. Although these dancers have already dedicated an impressive amount of their young energy and time to dance, Ailey II's Artistic Director Troy Powell Powell knows from experience—he danced for Alvin Ailey Dance Theater long before moving into administrative positions—that this two-year stint is where they really "get their feet wet."

"These dancers will eventually either go into Alvin Ailey Dance Theater or off to do other professional jobs on Broadway or in Europe. Or some become great choreographers and teachers," Powell says in a phone conversation during a quick international tour through France, Andorra and Spain before heading to the Rocky Mountains.

Throughout their term with Ailey II, dancers get a chance to learn some of the company's most recognizable works—including performing Ailey's 1960 masterpiece Revelations at this week's show in Logan—but the training company also has its own repertory collection distinct from that performed by the main troupe. Part of the training company's mission, Powell explains, is working with emerging choreographers. "We are working with choreographers who are more or less experimenting on the dancers," he says. "Some of the stuff they come up with is really cutting edge."

One of these innovative choreographers whose work is on display at the Utah performance is Jae Man Joo. Before becoming an award-winning choreographer—receiving the Princess Grace Award for Excellence in Choreography in 2009—this Korean-born artist was a principal dancer for Complexions Contemporary Ballet (and later associate artistic director) and a dancer with Ballet Hispanico. As a choreographer, Joo has sought to combine modern dance and ballet techniques with a fluid aesthetic that eschews virtuosic flourishes.

"I tend to focus on small details in the movement such as the relationship with the floor, eyes moving, body isolation," Joo explains in a behind-the-scenes rehearsal video. "Simplicity is always key for my work. I don't like to be overwhelmed by millions of steps." He created Circular for Ailey II in 2016, when it premiered at the Folly Theater in Kansas City. The company is set to perform Circular as part of the program in Logan, alongside Ailey's Revelations and Breaking Point by Renee McDonald.

"These choreographers come in and pull out the very best in [our dancers]," Powell says. Certainly, for this single evening, Ailey II promises to bring the very best of modern and contemporary ballet to this small mountain town.

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