Dallas- For almost 50 years Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) has been captivating audiences with its raw magnetism, relatable themes and exciting blend of ballet, modern and African movement styles. Since its first performance at the 92nd Street Y in New York in 1958, AAADT has performed for more than 25 million people across the United States and abroad as well as millions more through television broadcasts, film screenings and online platforms. Alvin Ailey always said he was driven to make work that celebrated the uniqueness of the Africa-American cultural experience and that preserved and enriched modern dance in America.
There is no better example than Ailey’s Revelations (1960), which was inspired by his blood memories of Texas and features the blues and gospel music he heard in church. AAADT will be performing this trademark work alongside Robert Battle’s Awakening (2015), Mauro Bigonzetti’s Deep (2016), Johan Inger’s Walking Mad (2016), Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain (2005) and Billy Wilson’s The Winter in Lisbon (1992) at the Winspear Opera House, March 31-April 1, as part of the TITAS 2016-17 season.
Before his death in 1989, Ailey named Judith Jamison as his successor and in 2011 Jamison handed over the reigns to Robert Battle. It was during this most recent transition that Texas native Sean Aaron Carmon joined the company as one of eight dancers hand-picked by Battle. Over the last five years Carmon has performed in major solo roles, including Mikhail Baryshnikov in Ailey’s Pas de Duke as well as featured roles in ballets choreographed by Battle, Wayne McGregor, Aszure Barton, Ulysses Dove, Matthew Rushing and Christopher L. Huggins, just to name a few.
Carmon began is dance training under the late Bonnie Cokinos at her School of Dance in his hometown of Beaumont, Texas. Under her guidance he began competing nationally with Dance Masters of America. In 2006 Carmon was awarded the Bill and Melinda Gates Scholarship which afforded him the opportunity to attend New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts on full scholarship. He later transferred to Fordham University where he graduated from the Ailey program with a B.F.A. in dance in 2010. During his senior year Carmon was a member of Elisa Monte Dance before playing the role of Phaedra in the 2010 Tony-award winning revival of La Cage Aux Folles. He has also performed in the Broadway production of The Phantom of the Opera and has appeared as a guest artist with the International Dance Association in Italy and with the Cape Dance Company in South Africa.
As a choreographer Carmon has created work for AAADT, the Youth America Grand Prix and METtoo, a youth dance company in Houston. He also teaches master classes in contemporary jazz and Horton-based technique and choreographs for dance conventions, high schools, colleges and universities across the U.S. and abroad.
TheaterJones had a chance to catch up with Sean Aaron Carmon and talk about his first time seeing AAADT perform, finding his place within the main company and the efforts Battle has made toward preserving and expanding Ailey’s legacy.
TheaterJones: Growing up in Beaumont, did you have many opportunities to see and experience dance?
Sean Aaron Carmon: It’s not so much that the opportunity wasn’t there, but that I grew up in a very sports and academic orientated family. My father played every sport imaginable so it was just natural that my sister and I would be involved in sports as well. My mother was our academic influence, but it was my father who used to say you can do whatever you want to do as long as you have taken care of what you need to take care of. My father is very by-the-book and all about facts and figures which is exactly how I am now. So, in terms of experiencing dance we did frequent Houston a lot which is our closest artistic hub and there were a lot of dance studios in Beaumont which is how I got started down this path.
Who or what encouraged you to start dancing?
To be completely honest Michael Jackson is the one who got me involved in dance and it’s because I would mimic everything I saw him do on TV to the point that my mom would actually have to take him away from me. I would record all his music videos on VHS, including “Billie Jean,” “Remember the Time” and his “Moonwalker” tape and memorize all the dance moves. I guess my mom realized I needed something to do with all that energy so she had me tag along with my cousin to her dance classes at a local studio.
When did you decide you wanted to pursue dance professionally?
It happened because I was a little more serious about dance than other sports. And when I say a little I mean a lot more serious and it just naturally progressed from there. I grew up in a small city where there wasn’t many boys who danced so I did receive some extra attention from my dance instructors for that reason. My teachers saw that I had a very large and passionate interest in dance and so they would go above and beyond to help me foster my abilities. So much so that by the time I was 15 years old I was trying to convince my mother to let me go to a magnet high school for the arts so I could pursue dance further. My mom wanted my sister and me to go to the same school, but I ultimately convinced her that this was the place I needed to be because this is what I wanted to do with my life.
What led you to New York City?
In high school I decided that I was going to move to New York City after graduation for dance and my mom said, ‘Ok! Show me! How are you going to get there? What are you going to do?’ And I told her that I was going to get a scholarship to the New York University Tisch School of the Arts and that’s what I did. My parents always encouraged my sister and me to take initiative and work hard to get what we want.
Can you tell me about the first time you saw Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform?
Every December Alvin Ailey has its New York City Center season and during my first year at NYU a group of us were able to get some opening night gala tickets through the Tisch School. I mean we were the highest row in the balcony and I had to squint to see the stage, but it was a great experience. This was the first time that I had seen people that look like me doing things that I didn’t think we had the facility to do. I was always told that I had bad feet and no turnout so I was never going to be a ballet dancer; maybe I should look into modern dance and Alvin Ailey America Dance Theater because that’s really the only place I will possibly be able to dance. To be honest, just hearing this kind of turned me off to Ailey because I don’t like being told what I can and can’t do. But seeing the company live it was like an immediate switch. That evening a seed was planted that I needed to transfer to Fordham University and get into the Ailey program.
What ultimately convinced you to transfer to the Ailey program at Fordham University?
I actually had a friend in the B.F.A. Ailey program at that time and she invited me to their annual spring concert in May. So, I went to the concert where the company performed Christopher L. Huggins’ Enemy Behind the Gates and it was literally that day that I went and turned in my transfer papers. I did this without talking to my parents and without thinking about the finances. I just knew this is what I needed to do with my life and I was prepared to do whatever I needed to do to make this happen. Call it serendipity. Call it having God on my side. I don’t know what it was, but my scholarship transferred and I was able to join the sophomore class. That was in 2007 so I am coming up on my 10 year anniversary with the Ailey organization.
You joined the company around the same time Robert Battle took over the reigns as artistic director. How did that transition affect you personally?
Well, the first time I auditioned for the main company I made it to the final two men, but I wasn’t invited to join and that was Judith Jamison’s last year. We knew it was her last year and that Robert Battle would be taking over. I’m not going to lie, at this point some of the luster of the Ailey Company had worn off for me because all I wanted to do was be one of Ms. Jamison’s dancers because she was directly connected to Mr. Ailey. Of course my viewpoint changed the next year when I was selected as one of the eight new dancers that Mr. Battle asked to be in the company. After this, there was a huge energy shift in the company because you had your more seasoned members who were witnessing eight 21 to 24 year olds stepping into these new roles.
It was a confusing time for me specifically because I didn’t know how to act around these people that I’d been watching on stage for years. Looking back I should’ve just been focused on the work, but at the time I was just so worried about trying to impress these people. I went above and beyond what was asked of me which actually worked against me because the choreographers would look at me and wonder why I was doing that. But in my head I thought it was something that was necessary to do and so I had to be scaled back. I literally had to go from 100 percent to about 80 percent and that’s what I had to do to solidify my place in the company. Matthew Rushing, our rehearsal director, really helped me scale back my energy. I was invited to learn some of his old roles and because he knew how to approach these roles and saw that my approach probably wasn’t going to yield the results I was looking for he then pulled me aside and really talked me down. He told me I only needed to give about 75 or 80 percent because my 100 percent was overwhelming. I am a facts and figures kind of guy so his words really made an impact on me and my dancing.
The company will perform Robert Battle’s Awakening in Dallas this weekend. What is it like working in the studio with Battle?
By the time Robert created Awakening I had been working under him for about five years. He can be quite intimidating because he is so large. He is over 6 feet tall so when he walks into a room you definitely take notice. And it’s a different kind of notice because when Ms. Jamison enters a room she doesn’t walk; she floats. So, when she glided into the room everyone sat up straight because you knew you were in the presence of dance royalty. Robert has more of an unassuming energy because he is such a laid back guy. Robert is not really a literal choreographer so the movement for Awakening is very abstract. He never knew Mr. Ailey so the piece kind of starts right after his death which is symbolized through the horns in the music and the running and the chaos you will see on stage.
What contributions do you believe Robert Battle has made toward preserving the Ailey legacy?
The biggest one has to be his willingness to step outside what is going to please the Ailey audiences. And by that I mean his choices for repertory. I am a firm believer that audiences need to be challenged. You can’t just pander to you fan base. If you’re not challenging your fan base then you are not doing your job and that’s just how I feel. Robert has really taken some risks over the last couple of years. He has called in the audience favorites and the people who have done successful works on us before. But he also has taken some risks with people like Kyle Abraham, Camille A. Brown and Johan Inger. Inger especially is not someone you would typically think of seeing when you come to an Ailey performance. This is a Swedish choreographer who danced with Nederlands Dans Theater. Most people wouldn’t think that we would be doing a Walking Mad which features a large wall and abstract European-style choreography. And it’s mostly because when people see Revelations they assume that’s all we can do and that’s what they want to see. But Robert is challenging this notion by showing audiences that we can do it all and we can do it well. We really are a company of versatile dancers that can get on stage and switch hats at the drop of a dime and that’s what you have to do in this company.
The Company will also be performing Ailey’s trademark work Revelations. What does this dance mean to you?
Revelations is my favorite dance to perform! It’s just a powerful, fluid and poignant work. I notice whenever I am having a bad day I just need to perform a section of Revelations to help me reset myself. I mean when we are out there on stage and you hear the applause at the top of Revelations there is no better feeling for an Ailey dancer.
» Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kddance.wordpress.com