Alicia Graf Mack, a ballet veteran who has danced with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dance Theater of Harlem and Complexions; and graduated from Columbia University magna cum laude with honors with a degree in history, has become the newest artistic director at the prestigious Juilliard School.
Here, I caught up with Graf Mack, a mother of two, in an exclusive interview to talk about her life in dance, diversity in dance and her new role at Juilliard.
Sergie Willoughby: Tell me a bit about your new role.
Alicia Graf Mack: I will be the new artistic director of the dance division of the Juilliard School. I am incredibly honored and excited to assume this position, as the Juilliard School has an incredible reputation in history of excellence. I will be overseeing students, faculty and curriculum and making sure the division is well represented within the school and beyond.
Sergie Willoughby: What were you doing before being hired at The Juilliard School?
Alicia Graf Mack: From 2010-2014, I performed with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. I also performed in New York prior to that. In 2014, I had a bad back injury and moved to St. Louis to recover and to be with my husband who was there at the time. As I was recovering, I realized that my time as a full-time professional dancer had ended. I started a family, and became a professor at Webster University teaching in the dance department, I fell in love with working in higher education and set my second career path into motion. Just this past year, my husband took a job in Houston. We were there for a little under a year before I found out about the job at Juilliard . So now, we’re here.
Sergie Willoughby: A few years back, I reported on Project Plie, an initiative launched to help diversify the dance space, and in the piece I cited the fact that you were not accepted into City Ballet and American Ballet Theater, which was confusing for many dance enthusiasts given your talent and body type. What was your takeaway from that experience?
Alicia Graf Mack: It wasn’t devastating in any way. I approached both companies when Dance Theater of Harlem had closed. I created a Press packet for myself and asked to be seen – either to take a company class or audition. Both companies declined for various reasons. These companies typically don’t have open auditions, so it was neither here nor there when they said, “We are thankful to receive your information. Good luck with your career.” I didn’t take it as a barrier to my forward movement.
From there, I knew I wanted to stay in New York and realized I wanted to be associated with a company that was of international quality. I approached the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater wanting to fulfill a lifelong dream. I had followed them since I was a child, so that seemed like the most natural fit for me. At the time, it didn’t matter to me if I was dancing at a ballet company or a modern company. So, I just pushed forward and moved into an amazing destiny for myself.
Sergie Willoughby: How did you like performing with the Ailey company?
Alicia Graf Mack: It was a life changing experience. Not only is it an affirmation to step into a dream, but to know the history, the legacy and the responsibility of an Ailey dancer and carry on that tradition and being able to travel around the world and be a cultural ambassador is something I took on with my whole being. It gave meaning to my dancing and to me as a person and I am forever grateful for the coaches, mentors and colleagues that I had the great opportunity of working with. Being able to work in that cultural aesthetic and celebrate Black people, Black music and Black culture through this incredible art form is my way of saying thank you for this life that I am blessed to lead.
Sergie Willoughby: Do you have a preference between ballet and modern dance?
Alicia Graf Mack: I don’t have a preference. Both genres of dance are rooted in a very disciplined tradition, and that speaks to me. I’ve always been a traditionalist, in a way; I love the classicism of the line of ballet, and I love the expression of modern dance and the physicality that it brings. So, for me, any form of dance that speaks to the spirit and reaches to your heart is a form of dance that I enjoy.
Sergie Willoughby: Tell me about your performance for Carmen de Lavallade when she was honored last year by the Kennedy Center for the Arts.
Alicia Graf Mack: It was an incredible experience for me because I really had not been dancing on such a revered stage like that in some years as I was busy building my family. So the chance to perform at the Kennedy Center felt like a full 360 return because I’m from Maryland so the Kennedy Center was the theater I visited to see performances when I was a kid. So, it holds a special place in my heart.
And to dance for Carmen who, for me, is the queen of modern dance and the mother of the world I inherited between Dance Theater of Harlem, Complexions and Alvin Ailey. She is the root of all of those companies, so it was an honor to stand onstage in a work that she originated and to look up to the box and say “thank you” for everything you’ve done for me, for dancers, in general, and for African American dancers, specifically.
Sergie Willoughby: What is your vision and mission as artistic director of The Juilliard School? How will you make it your own to differentiate it from your predecessor?
Alicia Graf Mack: I hope to bring fresh energy and a new milieu of possibilities of what dancers can be and do in the 21st century. I aim to equip the students with not only technical brilliance, but also a new way of thinking; and a new global idea of what an artist is. I want to look at new ways to make dance more diverse, more inclusive in our thought of what a dancer should be and what a dancer should look like.
Sergie Willoughby: What makes Juilliard special?
Alicia Graf Mack: The students that are recruited to The Juilliard School are the most talented and the brightest students around the country and around the world. We only choose 12 men and 12 women for each incoming class and they are so brilliant in their artistry and their technique already coming in that the school is then refining and helping them to question and challenge the work ahead of them. Not only are they professional in their ability but they are graduating already being leaders in the field – as choreographers, as educators, as performers, and as thought leaders.
Sergie Willoughby How important is it for young dancers of color to see people like you performing onstage or serving as artistic directors at major companies?
Alicia Graf Mack: It’s of utmost importance that young people see themselves or an image of themselves on the stage or in leadership roles. I can remember the first time I saw a Black ballerina onstage; it was life changing. Her name is Christina Johnson. She was a DTH dancer performing in my hometown of Columbia, MD. Although I had seen a ballet before, I never realized the power of seeing yourself in someone else. I realized then that it was an obtainable dream. Later, I had the opportunity to work with her in some ways. She is a friend and a mentor and helped guide me in many ways.
In terms of Juilliard, having me as the artistic director sends a signal that the school is poised to really be a leader in 21st century thinking and in raising diversity and inclusion on many levels, not just racially.