How 5 Men Became Star Performers at Alvin Ailey Dance Theater

Classic Arts Features   How 5 Men Became Star Performers at Alvin Ailey Dance Theater
 
A quintet of Ailey’s strongest dancers reflect on their humble beginnings, plus their greatest challenges performing the works of the company at the pinnacle of contemporary dance.
Glenn Allen Sims, Clifton Brown, Jamar Roberts, Vernard J. Gilmore, and Yannick Lebrun
Glenn Allen Sims, Clifton Brown, Jamar Roberts, Vernard J. Gilmore, and Yannick Lebrun Kyle Beckley

Unparalleled in its long history of sporting a majestic contingent of the most ravishingly athletic male performers on the concert dance stage, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is the go-to company for glorious masculinity in motion.

Highlighting its male dancers, the company’s annual holiday season at City Center, running November 29 to December 31, includes a special performance on December 17, “Celebrating the Men of Ailey,” which honors the troupe’s senior male dancers: Glenn Allen Sims, Jamar Roberts, Yannick Lebrun, Vernard J. Gilmore, and Clifton Brown. This program includes classic works choreographed by Alvin Ailey (Night Creature, Love Songs, and Revelations) plus select one-night-only performances of solos and duets by Alvin Ailey, Robert Battle, and members of the Company. Throughout the season the men dance in 24 different works, including the December 1 world premiere of Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramírez Sansano’s Victoria, and Roberts also choreographs his first Ailey world premiere.

For tickets and information about Alvin Ailey’s season, click here.

While the five men’s backgrounds and personalities are diverse, more striking perhaps are their similarities. It is unlikely that any of them would be where they are today without a public school or government-sponsored arts program; they all find time to explore interests beyond their work as professional dancers; and, despite their years of experience, they continue to find enormous challenges in being an Ailey dancer.

(Left) Glenn Allen Sims in Alvin Ailey’s Love Songs; (Right) Clifton Brown and Glenn Allen Sims in Twyla Tharp’s The Golden Section.
(Left) Glenn Allen Sims in Alvin Ailey’s Love Songs; (Right) Clifton Brown and Glenn Allen Sims in Twyla Tharp’s The Golden Section. Paul Kolnik

Through a talent program at his public elementary school in New Jersey, Glenn Allen Sims discovered dance as an art form—he was originally a singer. “The school got a new dance teacher and all the guys thought she was cute, so my friends and I switched to dance. That teacher saw something in me and recommended that I study dance outside of school,” Sims explained. A certified floor-barre teacher and Pilates mat instructor, Sims is now an active dance educator himself: “I think it’s important to teach the younger generation how to work in a healthy way so they can avoid injuries and dance longer.” Preparing for what he considers his greatest challenge this season—the company’s new production of Twyla Tharp’s extremely athletic The Golden Section (1983)—Sims said, “I’ve been prepping myself with lots of cross-training. Last time I danced it I was 32, now I’m 42.”

Roberts also credits a school arts program for igniting his interest in studying dance. He saw a performance by fellow students at the arts magnet middle school he attended as a visual art major, and immediately switched to the dance track. Yet, he never stopped making visual art. Roberts draws, illustrates books, and has designed costumes for dance pieces, including Members Don’t Get Weary, his choreographic debut for the Company. Premiering December 8, Roberts’ piece, set to John Coltrane music, explores the blues. “Both in the musical sense and in terms of the feeling I was getting watching CNN,” he explained. “It has to do with the current state of the world. There are images of sadness, struggle, and uplift—a sense of hope that glimmers for a second before snapping back into that down feeling.”

Jamar Roberts and Rachael McLaren in Johan Inger’s Walking Mad.
Jamar Roberts and Rachael McLaren in Johan Inger’s Walking Mad. Paul Kolnik

Although he finds Johan Inger’s Walking Mad (2001) exhausting—“we’re constantly moving this wall around the stage so you have to play dancer and tech crew at the same time”—it’s Revelations’ “Wade in the Water” that Roberts identifies as his current challenge. “It’s difficult because I’m trying to find a subtlety in it that I naturally don’t embody as a dancer. I tend to approach moving with strength, power, and intensity, but here I have to capture the feeling of wading, which involves a certain degree of pressure and undulation. Often I get frustrated and come offstage saying, ‘That wasn’t a good one, I was splashing in the water.’”

Born and raised in French Guiana, Lebrun participated in international dance competitions sponsored by France’s National Confederation of Dance. “The late Denise Jefferson, who was the director of The Ailey School, was often one of the judges. She noticed me as a little boy and invited me to study as a fellowship student in the Ailey summer program. Then she gave me a two-year scholarship to the School, so I left home in 2004 and moved to New York,” he explains.

Yannick Lebrun in Robert Battle’s Takademe.
Yannick Lebrun in Robert Battle’s Takademe. Andrew Eccles

While he misses the tropical environment of his homeland, New York and its offerings inspires Lebrun. “I’m a very social person,” he said. “I like going out and enjoying the New York City nightlife and all kinds of art.” While he loves doing theatrical pieces that involve acting, dancing the lead in the company’s new production of Stack-Up, a gritty 1983 Talley Beatty piece set in a crowded disco, is Lebrun’s main challenge this season. “You have to invent your character, be real, and be honest, while at the same time dancing choreography that’s technically difficult. That’s not easy to do.”

A Chicagoan, Gilmore fell in love with dance at a performing arts high school where he was a television major. “I went there to study behind-the-scenes TV work. But I was mesmerized by the discipline the dancers had to have in order to express themselves without words. I wanted to try and see if I could do that,” he says. An experienced choreographer, whose La Muette (The Mute) is being performed on the special men’s program, Gilmore hopes ultimately to be an artistic director, but focuses now on choreographing. “I’m passionate about being in the studio and creating. There’s nothing better than directing dancers, getting them to hear your voice, and then to see your voice through them.”

Billy Wilson’s The Winter In Lisbon.
Billy Wilson’s The Winter In Lisbon. Paul Kolnik

Gilmore dances in Robert Battle’s The Hunt (2001) and does a solo that was created for him in Mauro Bigonzetti’s Deep (2016), but the work he gets most nervous about performing is Billy Wilson’s The Winter in Lisbon (1992). “It has to be very direct and clear, or else it gets lost, and my role has a lot of tricky movements that you have to be very focused to do.”

Though Arizona-born Brown studied dance at a performing arts high school, it wasn’t until he borrowed an Ailey video from the public library that he really began to understand modern dance. “Before that I had a sort of conservative idea of what modern dance was. I just thought it was odd,” he said. Brown joined the Ailey company in 1999 and left in 2011 to experience a change from the repertory-company model and to dance with the single-choreographer companies of Lar Lubovitch and Jessica Lang, for whom he served as rehearsal director.

Upon re-joining Ailey in 2017, Brown observes, “The lines have blurred in the way choreography is identified. We used to be able to say we were doing a jazz piece, a Horton-technique piece, or contemporary ballet. Now it’s rare for pieces to be identified with a particular technique or style. The movement vocabulary is very much of the individual choreographer. As a dancer, it’s hard to translate the nuances of that into something you already know. For every step you have to figure out ‘How do I remember this idea?’ It’s not as easy as tombé, pas de bourée. Instead it’s feeling-of-thick-environment, cyclone-with-the-arms.” Yet when asked which piece he most enjoys dancing, Brown said “Jamar’s,” meaning his Members Don’t Get Weary, one of the season’s newest works.

Without question, embracing challenges is what keeps these veteran dancers moving.

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Watch this exclusive look inside Ailey’s rehearsals for Victoria:

LIVE from inside Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater studios

Posted by Playbill on Tuesday, November 14, 2017
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