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Interview: Michael Jackson, Jr. of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Ailey dancer Michael Jackson, Jr. talks inspirations, anticipations, and coming back from COVID lockdown in advance of the company’s first tour stop in Philadelphia.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Michael Jackson, Jr., posed with arms crossed over a bare torso, gazed directed at the camera.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Michael Jackson Jr. Photo by Andrew Eccles

A two-year tour intermission comes to a close this week for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, which performs in Philadelphia at the Kimmel Cultural Campus' Academy of Music this weekend from Jan. 28 to Jan. 30. In anticipation of the company's first stop, contributing editor G K Schatzman spoke to company dancer Michael Jackson, Jr. Mr. Jackson first joined the company in 2011 after working with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, and Philadanco.

You spent some time in Philly while dancing with Philadanco from 2008 to 2011. How does it feel to come back to the gritty city?

It feels nostalgic and great and it's so much love. You know, they say it's the "city of brotherly love." For me, it's the city of everybody love. So many people that I love are there. I was younger, in my early 20s, when I came to Philly, so returning is kind of putting me back in my younger self and reminding me of how much I've grown. I also always look forward to seeing Joan Myers Brown, who is the [former] artistic director of Philadanco.

Houston had been on the tour schedule, but it looks like that's been kicked back to February. Does that make Philly your first stop?

Yes, Philly is our first stop, and then Washington D.C. and then the Kennedy Center.

What pieces can we look forward to seeing you in during the upcoming show?

This year we're celebrating Robert Battle as our director. This year is his 10th year as artistic director. We're having a 'Battle Night', and I'm doing a solo in the middle of a work called Love Stories. It was choreographed by Judith Jamison, our old artistic director, and Robert Battle and Rennie Harris, who's a house choreographer. It has three sections, but thank god we're not dancing all three sections!

And Revelations, of course. Going to a city like Philadelphia, where black dance is central, and the black church experience, you feel like the audience really knows what you're doing.

Aside from Revelations, which many theater-goers will be anticipating, what piece should we be excited for?

I would have to say Holding Space. It is a work by our resident choreographer Jamar Roberts. I was fortune enough to dance with Jamar, who just left the company last year. He choreographed it during quarantine. It was filmed during quarantine, because we weren't performing. They decided to bring that work to the stage, and we premiered it this past December at City Center. Now we're taking it on tour. I think that it's a different vision of Ailey as a company, and I think that audiences are going to converse about it.

It looks like Holding Space won't be performed in Philly, unfortunately, though we'll be able to see it online.

Oh, then I do want to change my answer! Reflections in D. It is a solo choreographed by Mr. Ailey to the music of Duke Ellington. I started dancing in Washington, DC, at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and this is kind of my first big solo in the company, so I feel very personal and in touch with it. For my career and my history, it feels right.

You said this is your first big solo?

I've done solos before, but many are parts of larger works. Reflections in D is just one solo, so it's a big deal. I'm feeling very, very honored. I don't think it's been done since I've been here, and I've been here for ten years. So, it's time. It's time to have a new voice on this older work.

Any words on the recent retirement of resident choreographer Jamar Roberts?

I miss him. Other than being a mentor, he was just a great energy to have in the studio. I am quite playful in the studio. I'm always cracking jokes, and he was my joke buddy, so I miss my joke buddy. But I am just so proud of him and very, very happy for him. I'm looking forward to seeing what else he has up his magnificent creative sleeve.

Word is you have a great barre routine. How did that hold up during the pandemic?

My barre routine left me, honestly. I struggled, as many dancers, with the Zoom classes and all of the Zoom dancing in my little apartment in my New York City studio apartment. I just feel like it was more about this internal growth than the physical strength. I hadn't had a break in so long, and I really rested, and lived in not having to show my body on stage to thousands of people every night.

I'm experiencing a little push or nudge to venture out to other styles of dance, and I'm hoping to get the chance to explore that.

Covid has been a huge disruption in most folks' training and performance routines. As Ailey comes back on tour in 2022, what's different for you?

I think there was a lot of time for reflection, personally, during quarantine, so I believe that my approach to dance and my art is totally different. It's coming from a different place. I feel older. We have so many new company members, so I definitely feel older, and with that comes this responsibility of telling the story more so than trying to have the perfect line

Normally, our longest time away from each other during the year is 5 weeks. During quarantine, it was the longest time I'd been away from these people in more than 8 years. It just has made my approach to this form and this time of performing come from a more vulnerable place.

Where is your dance coming from now?

Dance is starting to come from a place of silent protest. Along with Covid, there was so much cultural anguish, and being at the forefront of the Black community as this, like, top Black dance company, kind of representing Black dancers, I definitely felt the weight of that. Now, even watching my coworkers as they are dealing with so many personal things outside of dancing, outside of the dance studio, it feels more personal, more ... It's something for Black dancers. We are screaming through our bodies, wanting people to see us and understand our journey.

As ambassadors of the world, which is what they call Ailey dancers, we want to be a part of the change, and if that has to be onstage as a part of Revelations, we'll do that.

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