As often as possible, I attend and report on the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’?s annual performances and special events. This year, in my first-time coverage of Ailey II, the second company comprised of younger, mostly college-aged dancers, I had the pleasure of speaking with an exuberant young dancer named Courtney Celeste Spears who joined Ailey II last year.
A Baltimore native, Spears is enrolled in the Ailey/Fordham BFA in Dance program at Fordham University in NYC, a unique partnership between The Ailey School and Fordham University, which affords her the opportunity to manage a rigorous schedule of rehearsals, performances and trips abroad while taking college courses. A Dance major and a Communications & Media Studies minor, Spears will graduate this spring after which she looks forward to continuing on in her work as a member of Ailey II. ?The honor to dance with a company like Ailey II has been a dream of mine. It?s so wonderful that I get to dance with an organization that is truly so invested in making sure we understand that dance is about sharing, being honest about who you are, and being a person onstage. We are taught that perfection is something to strive for, but ?perfect? isn?t art,? she shares in a recent interview.
In the future, she says, she may even set her sights on joining the main company. Says Spears, ?”The first company is so powerful. I love their strength and I admire them so much. To me, the women in that company are like goddesses and queens. They remind me that I am a part of something so much bigger.? For now, however, she is ecstatic about dancing with Ailey II, which she describes as her dream company, and is thoroughly enjoying every aspect of the job, especially a recent trip to Italy where she taught a master class alongside Ailey II Artistic Director Troy Powell.
In addition to her daily regimen of academics and dance, Spears has also found time to hold other positions within the company. During her sophomore year, she interned with Emily Hawkins, AAADT’s Associate Director for Public Relations; and, later, she worked with The Ailey School?s BFA Program Administrator Tracy Miller with whom she learned the ins and outs of arts administration. But she doesn?’t seem to mind the fast pace and busy schedule. In fact, she welcomes it. ?It helps me to become a well-rounded, mature adult,? she notes.
Well said. And it?’s evident after just one conversation with this 2015 Princess Grace Fellowship awardee. Not only does she set clear goals for herself, she knows the stakes are high. ?Emotionally and mentally, I care so much about what I do and the work that I put out. My teachers and the Ailey staff expect a lot from me; I cannot let them down. I cannot make people feel that I take things for granted,? she says. She has also wisely charted her destiny. To this end, she says she will start training now for a future in the concert dance field. ?The life span for a dancer can be long, but there?s a tight window to do your best work.?
From March 30th through April 10th, Spears will star in Ailey II?s New York Season at the Ailey Citigroup Theater. Here, she tells me more about her blossoming career in dance and what audiences can expect to see at Ailey II?s NY Season.
TNJ.com: What can audiences expect to see for this year?s Ailey II season in NYC??
Courtney Celeste Spears: We have 4 new works this year and I am very excited about all of them. One is a piece by Kyle Clark called I Am the Road. It?s set to House music and it?s very upbeat and very funky.
Another one is In and Out choreographed by Jean Emile who is a very well-known and well-loved European choreographer. There are comedic aspects to it and it?s very fun and very different for us.
Then we have Gemeos by Jamar Roberts. Gemeos is Portuguese for twins and it tells the story of two siblings? differences and personalities.
Last is Something Tangible by Ray Mercer. It?s very physical and there is a lot of movement ? jumps and turns and it features a range of emotions. It taps into our own human emotions and feelings. Ray wanted us to explore emotions that we have in our own lives from love to anger to joy and strength. The idea is to have something tangible that you can feel as you go through life.
TNJ.com: How long ago did you learn the new pieces and how long did you have to practice and rehearse?
C.C.S.: We started learning them last summer. We get three weeks and three hours a day with each choreographer. For example, we would have Kyle Clark come in and teach us the House piece from 12:00 to 3:00pm; then Ray Mercer would rehearse with us from 3:00 to 6:00pm; then Jamar Roberts and Jean Emile. For the first half of the summer, we were really focused on getting these new works down, understanding the details, and learning the steps.
It?s wonderful having the choreographers in rehearsal to get questions answered because once they are gone, the pieces become our own and it?s up to us to keep the integrity of them as we travel. We learn them in the summer, but we continue to rehearse them over the course of our tour, then we start to make the pieces our own and get comfortable with them. In rehearsing over and over, you learn different nuances that you might not have seen before. Also, we learn to use our time very wisely because three weeks go by very quickly. Our choreographers take the time out of their schedules to come in and teach us and share their stories with us, so we take pride in keeping the work as pure as possible.
TNJ.com: This is your first year with Ailey II. Take me through what the past year has been like. Also, how often do you travel with the company?
C.C.S.: We have a couple of charts of tour. We began the first half of a domestic travel tour in the fall of last year. Our first tour as a group was to Bari, Italy. I had never been to Europe before, and it was so magical to go to an entirely different part of the world and realize how dance has such an impact there. It was special to see. I was so excited to get there and experience the food, the people, the weather, but my favorite moment was assisting a modern dance master class with Troy Powell, our artistic director. We were teaching a class where the students didn’t speak much English. I was wondering how it was going to work because of the language barrier, but once we stared dancing there were no barriers. It said more than words could ever say because dance is really meant to bring us together. Troy spoke to the dancers about what Mr. Ailey dreamed of for the company and it was just great. Of all the places we?ve been, Italy was definitely my favorite.
Then, from mid September to the end of October, we traveled around the U.S. We came back in November and December and did some outreach here in New York.? We went to some high schools, middle schools and colleges to teach, and then in January, we started rehearsing again to touch up the pieces we performed on tour. Then we took them back on the road for the second half of our domestic tour for a month and as soon as that was finished, we got back into rehearsals to start perfecting the four new pieces for our season. The year went by very fast; I can?t believe the season is coming to a close. We had such a good time.
We have been to New Orleans also, and in May we leave for Martinique!
TNJ.com: Have you experienced any challenges over the past year??
C.C.S.: There is a small amount of pressure to present yourself in the best way possible. And although practice makes perfect, it?s a constant battle to remember that it’s not about being perfect, but about being consistent. It’s important not to beat yourself up if a performance didn’t go as planned. Instead, it’s about growing, trying new things and taking risks rather than being safe. As a professional dancer, you?re pushing yourself beyond limits to be the best dancer you can be. With that can come physical pain, but it makes us all so strong and we are able to take on so much and handle a lot because we?ve been training for this moment and this big opportunity that we have to dance with Ailey II.
TNJ.com: What do you most love about your career?
C.C.S.: For me, dance is my most pure form of communication. When I dance, it?s when I am most open and honest with myself and with others; it always says more than words can ever say for me. Being an artist is the truest and most authentic form of one?s self, and specifically with Ailey II, we get the opportunity to travel the world, and do so many different styles of dance. My co-workers are beyond talented, and sometimes I have to stand back and pinch myself because it all still feels like a dream.