Remembering Alvin Ailey: Through the Eyes of Dana Hash-Campbell
Retold by Elizabeth McPherson, PhD
I entered the Ailey school as a scholarship student in 1986. It was very different then – smaller and more intimate. We were in the old Minskoff building. There were maybe 12 of us on scholarship. It was personal. Alvin knew everybody. He would stroll the halls and walk in, and sit and watch somebody’s class for a while, and then he’d get up and walk on. He would run up behind you and put his hands over your eyes, and say “Guess who?” He has a very distinctive voice, very deep, no mistaking him. So you’d say, “Mr. Ailey?” And he would walk on. He was notorious for walking around in his socks, and then at the end of the day you’d hear him say, “Does anyone know where my shoes are?” It was really like a family, maybe a dysfunctional family, but a family.
When I got into the first company in 1988, the average age was about 28, and I was 18. I was the baby. The first day of the auditions there were what felt like 600-700 women, however I was recently reminded that it was actually more like 250. I was coming from the second company, so of course all of us in the second company made the first cut. The dancer who had left, whose spot they were filling, was around 5 feet tall, so none of us taller women thought we would be chosen. At this time, the Ailey company had achieved a fair amount of success, however they didn’t have the kind of budget they do now, so they would really hire people to fill costumes – dancers that Alvin liked, but that fit the costumes because they didn’t have the money to build new ones. So we got to the callback and it was all tall girls except for one or two. We finished the callback, and the two small girls had been cut, so now we were really wondering. All of us were over five-feet-eight. We were in a circle, and Mary Barnett, the then associate artistic director, walked over to us, and with her back to me, said, “Thank you ladies for coming, but Dana is Alvin’s first choice.” I looked over at Alvin, and he was smiling.
It was an interesting time to be in the company because you know the company had success, so Alvin was, not necessarily feeling his oats, but kind of feeling like “What’s next?” At least, that’s the sense I got. And he was in an interesting time as an artist because there was the struggling through the 1960s, achieving a modicum of success in the 1970s, and becoming a household name, at least in New York, by the 1980s. He was really at a point where he didn’t want to choreograph anymore. He was looking to younger choreographers to bring in and to mentor. Some were former company members such as Ulysses Dove, and others were from the outside like Donald Byrd.
I came in late to the summer rehearsal period with the first company because I had to finish out my contract with the second company. I remember we had flown back from Martinique, and I was all nice and tanned, but tired from the tour. It was a Thursday in July. The bus dropped us off, and I was planning to go home. As I was grabbing my suitcase off the bus, Alvin said, “Oh, you’re back. Great. We have a photo shoot upstairs.” And I started to say, “But…,” and he said, “I’m sure you’ve got a unitard in there somewhere.” So I grabbed my luggage, and there I was at the photo shoot. I was in the Ailey company.
My first year was full of challenges. My first check on tour was for $0.97 because I had been fined for so many infractions (each at $19.50), like my lipstick wasn’t red enough or a strand of hair came loose. I never cashed that check! The infractions didn’t seem fair. I think there was a lot of focus on me. There was also serious hierarchy in the company which was thirty members at that time. There were senior members and there were the bottom of the totem pole new members, like me. So when I first got in, I knew my place – I would be holding the edge of the water in “Revelations,” for the next year, and that’s all I would be doing. But when Donald Byrd came in to choreograph a dance, I thought I might have a chance at doing something bigger. The way the Ailey organization worked, all of us were called to an audition for a new work. It gave the choreographer a chance to look at everyone in the company. The audition could last anywhere from one to two days, usually about 3 hours at a time. At this audition, Mr. Byrd was being pushed to choose certain people, more senior company members, for the dance. Despite this, he cast me as the lead.
My first European tour with the Ailey company was 19 weeks. We left in August and came back in November. Nobody tours like that anymore.
I remember being in Paris, and not having much to do. One day I was sitting there, and Alvin was looking at the callboard, and looked kind of funny. I said, “Are you okay Mr. Ailey? And he said, “Why won’t they let it go?” And this was referring to “Revelations.” Second piece he ever choreographed, and it became his signature work. How hard that must have been, to have everyone compare everything you ever did to this one dance. And it’s here in 1988, and “Revelations” was done in 1960. I could physically feel his depression about it. Every time “Revelations” was performed was like physically driving the knife further into his heart. And he just couldn’t stomach it anymore. At City Center, he was notorious for just leaving before “Revelations” because it always closed programs.
When we got back from Europe, we learned that the associate artistic director Mary Barnett was no longer with the company. Although it was a big transition for us, it meant that Alvin immediately became more involved in rehearsals; more of a presence. It was the most exciting thing. I had been doing his dance “Streams” with the second company, and he decided to bring it back for the first company. Before we even started the rehearsal, he said, “Come sit and talk.” And he told us about the painting and the music that inspired the ballet. There are two huge processionals that are similar to “River,” a lot of solos, duets and trios throughout the piece and there is a coda group section. It’s abstract. But it was great to hear him finally. He could be so descriptive and colorful. It was a new era. He was stepping up and figuring out what he wanted to do.
To me his signature work is “Memoria” which he dedicated to Joyce Tristler who died in 1980. They had been very dear friends. “Memoria” is her memorial. They say the lead female is Tristler and of the two leading men -- one is Alvin and one is Jimmy Truitte.
Well, Masazumi Chaya (now associate artistic director, but then rehearsal director) came up to me not long after my first City Center season and said, “Dana, Alvin wants you to learn ‘Memoria.’” I was thinking one of the group parts, maybe the gray group. He said, “the solo part,” and I was floored. I was the last one that Alvin personally chose to dance the lead role before his death. I was ready for all hell to break out. Because of the structure of the company, to have a first year dancer learn a lead part in such a prestigious ballet was really unusual. Some of the senior women were ticked off.
During one of my first rehearsals for “Memoria,” Alvin came in and just said, “Let’s talk.” I thanked him for trusting me with this role. He said to me, “I wish I could tell you what this dance means to me, but I can’t go there emotionally. I will do my best to give you imagery to work with, but I can’t explain the core of what it means to me.” So it was amazing. Back in NY, I was in the studio six hours a day for three weeks to learn this part. He wanted to make sure I learned this. The rehearsals were really intense. I was the third cast lead woman, but I got to work with the 1st cast lead men, senior members who were very supportive and loving.
Now, Alvin did like to push people’s buttons so that he could work that to his advantage if he wanted a certain emotion or something. There was one part in “Memoria” where you go from a lateral T to an arabesque, and I think we worked on one then the other for two hours. I was on my left leg the whole time. In the end, when I had just kept doing it without complaining, he went back to the original version.
After I had learned my part, Alvin called an all lead rehearsal, three casts of leading women and two casts of leading men. So, being the third cast woman, I was mostly working by myself. We got to the solo, and he stopped the tape and said “Now that I have someone who can do my choreography, can I please see my choreography?” It gave him the information he needed. Of the other two women, one was not phased, and I knew she would be leaving soon. The other danced like I have never seen her dance. She was beautiful. I think Alvin thought that she had gotten complacent. I had been in the business long enough to know that Alvin’s comment was more about the other women than about me. He used the comment referring to me to find out about them, where they stood.
My first performance of “Memoria” was on a make-shift stage at The Grand Palais in Paris. There were no wings so the time to get off stage and around for another entrance was insane. Anyway, after I finished, I went down to the green room, and there was Alvin. I asked him how I did, and he said, “It will get better.” And I left the room, and I cried, but it did get better. It did. After we left Paris it was a year and a half before I did it again because I got injured. During the time I was recuperating, Alvin died. My two first cast leading men died. It was very intense to come back to that piece about death after the death of so many people close to me and connected to the piece. I’ve never before or since had the kind of intense emotional experiences that those performances brought forth.
I feel lucky that I was able to work with Alvin and get to know him, even though my time in the company with him was short. In many ways, he molded me into who I am today.