Q&A: Sylvia Waters

Artistic Director Sylvia Waters. Photo: Eduardo Patino

The Artistic Director of Ailey II discusses the company’s roots and Alvin Ailey’s legacy.

The Ailey II Company has been entertaining audiences for nearly 40 years and on Feb. 20 it will be coming to Bass Performance Hall in a show presented by Performing Arts Fort Worth.

Ailey II will perform three works, including Reference Point, Boulevard and Echoes. Newly appointed Artistic Director Designate Troy Powell combines ballet, jazz and contemporary styles with music by Mio Morales in his new work Reference Point. Mina Yoo’s Boulevard is an athletic piece containing contemporary dance and percussive sounds by Michel Macias, Hugues Le Bars, Rene Aubry and Greetje Bijma. Thang Daio’s Echoes depicts haunting memories and is a repertory favorite.

TheaterJones talked to Artistic Director Sylvia Waters, who will be retiring this June after 37 years with the company, about the public’s attraction to Ailey II, the company’s international success and how it is preserving Alvin Ailey’s legacy.

TheaterJones: What can viewers expect from the Ailey II dancers?

Sylvia Waters: The second company of dancers is comprised of young men and women who are emerging artists. They’re all selected from the body of the school. Some of them have been on the fellowship program and some have been with the Ailey Fordham BFA Program. They are very highly skilled, very inspired, very disciplined and very professional. These are dancers who very much want to make their livelihood in the professional dance arena. And when they are with Ailey II they are learning repertoire, working with a number of choreographers with different styles and really honing their performance skills and preparing for the next step.

Was this Alvin Aileys goal when he asked you to lead the company almost 40 years ago?

Yes, he wanted to provide a way for dancers literally to make that leap from the classroom to the stage.

Ailey II in Troy Powell's Reference Point. Photo: Eduardo Patino

To what do you attribute Ailey IIs staying power?

Well, I think the dancers’ willingness to understand what it takes to be a professional and their commitment and focus on that. Not just going through the motions of being a dancer, but really investing in themselves in being a dancer. And what we do is really tough because they are rehearsing from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday during a two-and-a-half month rehearsal period. In the summer they have to take their classes and they don’t have time for very much else. So, they have to be aware that all of this is essential. It comes with the territory. They’re learning to learn, absorbing so much information and learning how to use this information. And their artistic potential is constantly being developed.

Do you think that commitment is lacking in many dancers today?

I don’t think the commitment is lacking. I think the expectation is, you know, “I want it now.” And there is a lot that has to go into it and a lot of time so there is a certain impatience. And there is a certain “I want it yesterday.” There’s no shortcut.

What is Alvin Aileys legacy and what role does Ailey II play in it?

Well, Alvin had a tremendous vision. First of all he wanted to celebrate the African-American heritage and the modern dance tradition. In doing that not only did he choreograph, but he invited other choreographers to set works on dancers in his company thereby providing a range of experiences for his dancers and dance audiences.He really exposed audiences to, I guess in many ways, a reflection of themselves. He really was an advocate of the human condition. That was very important to him. And audiences responded to that. He never felt that dance was a high art. He’s also quoted as saying dance came from the people, it should be given back to the people.

So, in any Ailey dance performance you will see a variety of dance disciplines and styles as well as musical styles. And even in his own choreography he became a very hybrid choreographer. He had a mix of Horton technique which was his base, classical ballet and elements of jazz. And it was really a seamless blending. And as a result it was a very powerful dance and a tapestry of movement and music.

With todays dance trend being all about contemporary ballet how does Ailey II adapt to new trends?

Ailey II in Thang Dao's Echoes. Photo Eduardo Patino

Trends are not long lasting. The current trend of ballet and the things that are happening in dance today depends on the choreographer. I select choreographers that first of all are going to be interesting and innovative, that will have a personal voice and that will challenge the dancers. And who will really put in their talents, artistry and value. So it’s your aesthetics that will inform your choices.

We work with a lot of emerging choreographers and they have very wonderful, beautiful and original ideas. You want to keep pace with what is going on because that’s what dancers want to do. So you try to find choreographers who have a sense of the presence and maybe a vision of the future. We also work with seasoned choreographers and we also do Ailey works too. So that’s all very important for the education and development of the dancers. And they embrace it all.

What makes the Ailey II Company stand out in the dance arena?

His path was very clear. First of all he was one of the few if not only early on who thought a modern dance company should be a repertory company. That was common in the ballet field, but not in the modern field. The modern choreographers were usually a single choreographer company. Not Ailey’s. Very early on he invited other choreographers to flush out his repertory. He described his dancer as the total dancer. A dancer who’s proficient in all of these dance disciplines and styles, including classical ballet, modern, jazz and the ethnic dance form. He would say he wanted a dancer with a ballet bottom and a modern top. And you will see elements of these styles in the company’s performance.

This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.


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