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BWW Interview: Celebrating 50 Years of The Ailey School with Melanie Person

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BWW Interview: Celebrating 50 Years of The Ailey School with Melanie Person
Ailey School co-director Melanie Person
with students from the Professional Division.
Eduardo Patino; photagrapher

If you caught the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade telecast this year you were probably astounded by the sight of 100+ yellow-clad dancers rocking their souls in the bosom of Abraham. Those dancers are all students at The Ailey School, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The Thanksgiving Day performance is only one mark of how the school is taking its victory lap. Students from the professional training division will also join Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at City Center on Tuesday, December 10th performing in a revival of the Ailey classic, Memoria.

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BWW Interview: Celebrating 50 Years of The Ailey School with Melanie Person
Co Directors of The Ailey School
Tracy Inman and Melanie Person
Eduardo Patino; photographer

Melanie Person, a former ballerina with The Dance Theatre of Harlem, has been a steward of The Ailey School's continued success for over two decades. In addition to chairing the school's ballet department, curating choreographers for Robert Battle's Choreographer Lab, and running the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, she also co-directs The Ailey School alongside Tracy Inman, a former AAADT dancer and choreographer for Pose. Yesterday, Person took a moment to speak with me about the institution's grand vision and approach to education.

"Mr. Ailey had this notion that a dancer needed to know or understand multiple techniques and styles," she explains. "I think he was ahead of his time in that regard. Without realizing it, he was thinking about the future of dance and what one might need to know."

It may sound unthinkable today but there was a period when dancers, contrary to the vision of ballerinas sashaying through jazz class in the movie Center Stage, stayed in one technical lane. The rationale was, studying different forms might muddy one's stylistic purity. Ailey struck against that rigid line by insisting that his dancers immerse themselves in a panoply of movement forms.

"I think he was well aware that a dancer couldn't be one dimensional or only understanding one thing," Person continued, affirming that when it comes to success, "the more knowledge you have in your toolkit, the better off you'll be. You may land in a modern dance company but I guarantee you there's going to be some point where you'll need your ballet technique or some understanding of a contemporary style. With that in mind, the Ailey School has always been at the forefront of thinking about what a dancer needs to know."

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In recent years that has meant expanding beyond "the foundational techniques"--Ballet, Lester Horton technique, and Graham-based modern--as well as Ailey's traditional focus on West African dance, Jazz, Hip-Hop, and the Dunham technique to include studying numerous contemporary modalities. As Person puts it, "We bring in choreographers who have very different aesthetics from what students may think traditional codified modern dance techniques are. We try to give them a broad view of the field so that they have an open mind about what is possible. "

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It's a concentration on how large the dance world is through the lens of diversity. This embrace of "inclusion" has been part of the Ailey institution from day one, manifesting at every level throughout the organization in terms of the look of the company, student body, faculty, and staff. For the past two decades that outlook has expanded to include a focus on what happens after a dancer leaves the stage or decides that they want more from their education. It's something Person herself faced after she departed Dance Theatre of Harlem.

She relates that, "when I danced professionally in the late 70s and late 80s, dancers were not encouraged to go to college. Those who were doing so were taking one or two courses quietly without their directors knowing it. So after being off the stage and really thinking about it, I figured if there's a way that someone can train at that high level and pursue a degree, then I think it's a perfect match." The Ailey School's BFA partnership with Fordham University has found that match.

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The program began 21 years ago after Denise Jefferson, The Ailey School's previous director, struck up a conversation with Fordham University's former dean, Edward Bristow. At the time, Ailey's school was still located behind Lincoln Center at 61st Street and the two kept bumping into each other whenever they visited the neighborhood post office. Jefferson noticed that some of New York City Ballet's dancers were taking night classes at the university and determined that a BFA program geared towards dancers was necessary. It took a couple of years to launch, but it has been going strong ever since.

"We've made it possible and doable for those who want to enter the profession but who are not quite ready or are interested in pursuing a degree while continuing rigorous training. For our fourth year students, if they get a professional job, they are allowed to take it." Of course there is also the added bonus of being in front of the numerous talented choreographers and directors who pass through The Ailey School everyday. The star Clifton Brown was famously taken into the company after his first year in the BFA program.

"Miss (Judith) Jamison saw him and said, 'I want him for the company" and the rest is sort of history. I think that speaks to the high level of talent that comes into the program. Dancers who are accepted have already been training at a rigorous level, so we look at what else we can do to enhance that training to help them in the field." This includes placing students with choreographers who address something that they need.

"I reflect on what each class needs for their development. Some need to work with a choreographer who is more improvisational or exploratory to gain a stronger voice and sense of agency. Then I look for a person who can bring that into the equation. Quite often when I am introduced to choreographers I don't know, that's a way that I can say, 'I'd love to have that person here. I'm not sure exactly what they're going to do, but I think it'll be interesting for the students to work with someone who may be outside of their comfort zone.'" Again, expanding a dancer's toolkit of useful and employable skills.

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More than securing dancers jobs at leading companies or Broadway shows--which the school has an excellent track record of accomplishing--there is a secondary though equally important component to equipping dancers with college educations. "Quite often a dancer will think, 'What's next for me when my career is over?' This prepares them to think about the next step. We have dancers who double major because they truly have another interest and I think they are thinking about their future beyond dance."

Martha Graham once observed that, "A dancer dies twice; once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful." I've known many dancers who had no idea what they were going to do after retiring from the stage. It seems that Person's mission is to prepare her students for that eventuality so that it does not catch them by surprise.

Thinking about this put me in mind of a video I recently watched of Alvin Ailey responding to a question about why one should study at They Ailey School. He said, "Because it's a marvelous school. It's one of the best schools in the world."

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I decided to ask Person the same question. "Come to The Ailey School if you are interested in training or have a curiosity about discovering who you are- because it's about more than dance; it's about tapping into your humanity. That's what Mr. Ailey wanted: a place to discover and express who you are while bringing that forward and sharing it with others."

Students from The Ailey School will join Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre at City Center on Tuesday December 10th, 2019. For tickets, click here.

The Ailey School is currently raising funds for its scholarship program. If you would like to contribute towards its continued vision of equity and inclusion, visit: https://www.alvinailey.org/donate-ailey




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