Celebrating the Artistry of Ailey’s Matthew Rushing
By Susan Reiter
Matthew Rushing the dancer is well-known to Ailey audiences who have experienced his uniquely insightful artistry for over two decades.
Whether interpreting Ailey classics such as Revelations or The River—where he brings his focused intensity to every phrase—or embodying the highly contemporary and diverse moves of today’s leading choreographers in works such as Grace or Home, Rushing is a riveting figure onstage. He performs with spontaneity and magnetism, employing his majestic technical ability with quiet eloquence. When he dances, you don’t notice individual steps but rather the deeply personal expression that exists in the moment.
Since 2010, Rushing has worn two hats at Ailey, and in the studios his fellow dancers know him not only as a colleague but as the Rehearsal Director who guides them in learning and preparing the many diverse works in the repertory. The vast experience, knowledge and perspective the Los Angeles native has accumulated since joining Ailey as an 18-year-old make him a natural for this position. Appearing as a Guest Artist but still a company mainstay, he has managed this graceful balancing act. He’ll spend much of the rehearsal day focusing on the other dancers—taking notes, demonstrating and correcting movement phrases or musical timing— only to shift gears and work alongside them, turning the focus back to his own dancing.
He became Rehearsal Director while Judith Jamison was still Ailey’s Artistic Director, as the transition to Robert Battle’s tenure was getting underway. “Originally, I wanted to stop dancing here at Ailey because I wanted to commit all my time and energy towards taking on that responsibility. It was so new to me that I felt like I just wanted to focus on that,” Rushing said in late August, speaking in his cozy Ailey office. It was still morning, with a full day of rehearsals ahead, but he had already been to the gym and taken class.
His original intention to set performing aside in favor of his new position was soon called into question. “A lot of it is Robert’s fault,” he joked, referring to the works and choreographers that Battle has brought into the Ailey repertory. It began when Rushing, having just made his decision, learned that The Hunt, Battle’s fierce work for six men, would be danced by the Company. Rushing had admired the work when it was in Ailey II’s repertory and joked with Battle that he wanted just one chance to perform in it.
“The next thing I knew, he brought it into the Company. I thought, ‘I just retired! Are you kidding?’ I said, ‘Please, I just need a couple of performances.’” And suddenly, a Guest Artist was born. “That instigated everything—me wanting to perform The Hunt.” Associate Artistic Director Masazumi Chaya persuaded him, once he was already getting onstage that season, also to perform his signature roles in Revelations.
Since then, Battle has shown a knack for inviting choreographers whose work matters so much to Rushing that he feels impelled to be part of their casts. And, of course, they are all too happy to work with this distinctive performer. Thus, he has created memorable roles in Rennie Harris’ Home and Ronald K. Brown’s Four Corners. This season he’ll be dancing in those as well as returning to his original role in Brown’s powerful 1999 work Grace, and performing in Ailey’s The River, Revelations, and A Song for You. A special program on Tuesday, December 17 will celebrate his renowned dance artistry, with Rushing appearing in excerpts of Home and Ailey’s Pas de Duke, as well as in performances of A Song for You, Grace, and Revelations.
Rushing spoke intently of the challenges and rewards of his demanding dual role. “I’m finding that still being a dancer is actually grounding me, and giving me insight into my job as Rehearsal Director that I would never have if I weren’t a dancer,” he said. “I am still connected with the dancers, and I still understand what they go through—their insecurities, and their gripes and concerns, their needs. I take that information and apply it to my role as rehearsal director.”
He said the new position has given him a whole new perspective on the Company and has jolted him out of his comfort zone.
“I knew the ins and outs of being an Ailey dancer—knowing this organization for so long, coming up through the School and Company,” he said. “And even though I’m still in the same environment, my whole life feels like it’s changed. I am learning all aspects of the organization— things I didn’t realize as a dancer. I feel like I’m being stretched in every way. I’m trying to be open and giving. I’m still trying to maintain my instrument as a dancer—physically, mentally, and spiritually. I feel like I’ve never grown this much in my whole career.”
For this season, Battle again commissioned a choreographer, Aszure Barton, whose work proved too tempting for Rushing not to join in as performer. The piece, called LIFT, is set to an original score by Curtis Macdonald. Unlike Brown and Harris, Barton was not someone with whom Rushing had already formed a creative connection on earlier works. He had seen only a few pieces by her own troupe before she arrived for Ailey rehearsals. But as he worked as Barton’s rehearsal director, he soon found himself more than intrigued.
“I never knew how intricate and how detailed and scientific her process is—and it blew me away. Actually, it intimidated me. She works in an almost mathematical way. And the way I work is the exact opposite. I don’t like to count. But working with Aszure, I had to—there was no escaping it. In a production meeting, I found out she wanted me to be a part of the piece. The reason I agreed was that it felt like something I need right now in my career, if I’m going to continue to grow.”
Rushing said he ended up enjoying the process, in spite of—or perhaps even because of—the challenges and frustrations. “I’m so glad that she asked me to be in the piece, because I would never have volunteered!” he said with a knowing laugh. “I can say it’s going to be one of the highlights. I am so impressed with her process, and what she came up with. I feel it’s going to show the dancers in an entirely different light.
“Actually, this whole season is going to show another side of the dancers,” Rushing said enthusiastically, mentioning the other new productions—Wayne McGregor’s Chroma and Bill T. Jones’ DMan in the Waters (Part I). “I’m so excited about it, and so grateful for Mr. Battle’s vision. He is really stepping into who he is as a director. His vision and ideas for the Company are especially apparent in this season—versatility, pushing the dancers to their extreme, pushing the audiences to their extreme. I haven’t been this excited about the season in a while.”
Susan Reiter is a frequent Playbill contributor
whose articles on the performing arts appear in the
Los Angeles Times, Dance Magazine and many
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