The world-renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has made its way to Detroit, a stop along the theater’s 22-city North American tour. While in the city, the Ailey II division, the theater’s company of younger dancers and emerging choreographers, made a pit stop at the Detroit School of Arts to host a dance workshop for the students. 

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One Detroit contributor Daijah Moss takes viewers to the Ailey II workshop at the Detroit School of Arts for a look at the influential footprints the dancers left behind. Moss talks with Ailey II Artistic Director Francesca Harper and second-year dancer Meagan King about the importance of connecting with aspiring African American dancers and the opportunities the workshops provide to students.  

Detroit School of Arts student Lauryn Simmons dances

Detroit School of Arts student Lauryn Simmons dances during a workshop put on by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Ailey II dancers. | Photo by One Detroit

Plus, Moss talks with Detroit School of Arts student Lauryn Simmons about her experiences with the Ailey II dancers. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs in Detroit March 17-19 at the Detroit Opera. 

Full Transcript:

Francesca Harper, Artistic Director, Ailey II: Our job at Ailey II is to bridge the students to becoming professional artists. So, we take the most talented artists from the school and we nurture them. We give them professional habits so they can either join the main company or join another professional company after they’re finished. I work in conjunction also with Robert Battle because we are connected as Artistic Director of Ailey II, and he’s the artistic director of Ailey I. 

We talk and exchange ideas and think about, also to, the cohesion of the whole organization. What’s really exciting about us being here, we’re not only at DSA, but we’re also branching out and extending our outreach to high schools around the area, the Detroit area. We’re doing a series of workshops and masterclasses. And what’s so exciting about what we’ve prepared for DSA, is that the dancers from the company are actually become the leaders for the week. So, they are going and they are teaching classes. 

Meagan King, 2nd Year Dancer, Ailey II: It’s going to be a traditional warm-up in some modern and contemporary warming up. Just to introduce a little bit of the essence of what we do in our typical day. But we’re also going to be doing some across the floor, introducing some of our repertory. In conjunction with that, we’re also on stage doing the actual meat of the work, which is live performances.

And from then on, being able to bring students to those performances and interact with them after the performances. The company as a whole has a wider umbrella, wider range, and its vastness of who it reaches. But Ailey II really has the ability to do the micro scoping, the micro chisel of shaping young lives, being in schools personally. 

Lauryn Simmons, Student, Detroit School of Arts: I would have never thought I’d be able to say that I’d ever get to work with Alvin Ailey. That is something that– it really does remind me that this is a cause completely bigger than me. 

Francesca Harper: One of the things that’s important to me, and I talked about coming into the job, is legacy shaping the future. To witness growth and witness these young artists feeling more confident within themselves. To feel empowered, to feel nuanced, to feel graceful, to feel full, fully expressive is just– it’s the most wonderful experience for me. 

We don’t always get to express ourselves fully in the world that we feel when we experience racism or we experience inequity. So, to have a space that we can pour all of that truth into the work and have other people see it and experience it, it changes lives. We have people all the time that have seen our performances and it’s pivoted them into another direction, into a courageous direction.

Meagan King: I credit ‘Wade In The Water’ to me being here. I watched ‘Wade In The Water’, actually, in junior high school. It was part of our Black History Month dance history lesson, that segment that month. And I saw these beautiful black movers who looked like me, but me exemplified, magnified. So, I felt that I was always a petite little one in class. But then to see someone who was of my size, it was a small black woman moving as the Wade girl. But to see her move in her power inspired me to find that kind of grace and elegance, and maximize my voice in this world. 

Lauryn Simmons: It was like the breakdown of, like how the choir goes, “Wash the winds away / hallelujah’. They have like a little praising moment. When I saw the dancers do that, I was like, in that moment of energy where it was like, you have these dramatic pauses, and then the breakdown happened. And that moment, opened in my eyes, honestly, as a dancer. I’d never seen people have so much fun on stage like that. Having moments of intimacy with other dancers, that’s the biggest part of it all. 

Meagan King: We’re called as artists to reach the human spirit and be a mirror to the human spirit. I think that we have the ability to heal, to empower, to uplift. So, I’m able to connect with young people, the older generation like. We’re all one community and I’m able to see a wide range of ages, and that’s the meat of what Ailey II’s doing. 

Francesca Harper: The stage is the social platform for change. There is power in the collective consciousness that is exchanged between an audience and the dancers that are watching. Alvin would be so proud. To think about what he started and the power of art and this seed that has now expanded into this moment of full recognition and inclusion is probably beyond what he dreamt. 

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