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DANCE Chicago academy's spring event celebrates Alvin Ailey's legacy
by Ariel Parrella-Aureli
2019-04-24

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The high school hallway is quiet. There is nobody standing at the gray lockers, reading in a corner or chatting by the water fountain. The white walls are lined with old, black and white photographs of dancers and flyers of upcoming art performances, and backpacks and shoes lie unattended on the floor.

It's a scene reminiscent of a typical high school experience, despite one key difference: Instead of chatter, lectures or film sounds coming from nearby classrooms, tapping, clapping, live music and heavy breathing seeps out into the hallway.

At the Chicago Academy for the Arts, it's a busy afternoon of dance rehearsal and artful endeavors. More than 20 aspiring dancers, ages 14 to 18, are practicing in the large rehearsal hall for an upcoming performance that is the first of its kind. The academy and longtime donor/supporter Barbara Levy Kipper will present "Icons of Choreography Dance Series" on Saturday, May 4, which will include work by influential choreographers Martha Graham, Gerald Arpino and Alvin Ailey.

The show—which will act as the school's annual spring performance—is an opportunity for dancers to present work that would usually only be seen in premieres from professional dance companies, said Randy Duncan, the dance department chair and an award-winning choreographer/dancer.

"[We wanted to] start a series of well-known choreographers throughout history, so we went to work," Duncan told Windy City Times.

Thanks to "friends in high places," the department was able to get rights to the famous pieces and show the technique and style of each influential choreographer, he said.

Graham was the first dancer to perform at the White House and received high honors worldwide in her more than 70 years of modern dancing. Arpino was the co-founder of Joffrey Ballet and succeeded Robert Joffrey as its artistic director in 1988 until his death in 2008, and choreographed more than a third of all its commissioned ballets. Ailey's iconic, lavish pieces credited him with showcasing modern dance and revolutionizing African-American participation in 20th-century concert dance. Much of his work focuses on relationships, spirituality and sexuality, including same-sex couples. ( Ailey himself was gay. )

Excerpts from Graham's "Diversion of Angels," Arpino's "Kettentanz" and Ailey's "Escapades" will be shown during the spring performance, which will also showcase an original by Duncan called "Initiation."

"Escapades" was originally choreographed for the Centro Regionale Della Danza of Italy in 1983. Duncan said he originally wanted to showcase "Night Creatures" but the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater still performs it, so the Academy was given "Escapades"—still performed by Ailey II, the second dance company he founded—instead.

"I wanted the Ailey work because no one ever does the Ailey work outside of Ailey and the second company," Duncan said.

He remembered meeting Ailey in the '70s after he graduated high school and attended the Ailey School on a scholarship; he became friends with the choreographer and was mentored by him. Duncan said Ailey had influence over many dance companies, choreographers and dancers and expanded the diversity, quality of movement and style of the dance world. He also was a celebrated figure in the Black and LGBTQ communities and remains an icon for his theatrical dance work rooted in activism, history and intimate relationships.

"I was very lucky [to see] things through his eyes," he said. "Everyone knows Ailey."

The high school students recognize his prestigious work and impact on the dance community, too. Senior Zachary Jeppsen is the male lead in the "Escapades" duet along with Mary Adele Campbell. Jeppsen said Ailey's work taught dancers, especially ballet dancers, how to embrace artistry and not just technique.

"He is amazing—he has been able to get this jazzy sort of swing and set it on ballet dancers," Jeppsen said. "He opened up a whole new chapter by combining those two art forms and styles of dance that I don't think was not present before."

Jeppsen, who was recently accepted into The Julliard School, has attended the Academy since freshman year and commuted three hours one way from Wisconsin for most of his high school days. Just this year, his parents rented him an apartment in the city to be closer to school. He said working on his dance skills for hours every day has been a growing experience that has led him to Ailey exposure like the upcoming show—which most students do not experience, he said.

Duncan said the department is excited to showcase the incredible work for the first time at the Academy and to have advanced dancers that can perform the pieces.

"With the dance department that we have here, I knew we could do [Ailey's] work great honor," he said.

For more information on the Academy's show and to purchase tickets, visit www.chicagoacademyforthearts.org/academy-events/2019/5/4/faculty-and-guest-choreographed-dance-concert .


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