Words by Diane Parkes.
Ground-breaking New York dance company Ailey 2 embarks on its largest European tour in more than a decade this autumn visiting 12 venues across the UK. Presenting a programme of hugely popular audience favourites alongside ambitious contemporary pieces, the company begins its 12-venue tour at Marlowe Theatre Canterbury on 19 & 20 September.
About to celebrate its 50 anniversary, Ailey 2 is the second company of one of the most iconic dance companies in the world – Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – and it offers the exceptional dancers from The Ailey School their first professional roles.
This tour, says Ailey 2 Artistic Director Francesca Harper, is a rare chance for UK audiences to see this next generation of performers.
“What’s so exciting about Ailey 2 is that we are catching the enthusiasm and raw talent of the dancers at the beginning of their careers” she says.
“There’s such a rich history to the company of fostering and nourishing young artists. They are so talented and Ailey 2 gives them the opportunity for that talent to flourish.”
The programme for 12 dancers features four works – excerpts from Francesca’s Freedom Series and William Forsythe’s Enemy in the Figure along with Robert Battle’s The Hunt and Alvin Ailey’s Revelations which is a signature work of all the Ailey companies.
“Revelations is Mr Ailey’s most famous work and it’s a masterpiece,” says Francesca. “It reflects the cultural heritage of the African American community and Mr Ailey’s blood memories. It embodies this reverent grace and spiritual elation.”
Ailey 2 has also adapted The Hunt which was originally created for six male dancers by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Artistic Director, Robert Battle.
“I asked Robert if we could have women perform in it as well so we are the first company within the Ailey organisation to have The Hunt performed by an all-female cast,” says Francesca. “It’s a very athletic work and is set to really powerful music by French percussion band Les Tambours du Bronx. Robert was inspired by modern sports and the rituals of gladiators so it has this very ominous and threatening energy. For the women to be as ferocious and athletic as the men is really exciting and an important statement.”
Francesca also brings her own stamp to the programme in the shape of William Forsythe’s Enemy in the Figure. From 1991 to 1999, she was a dancer in Forsythe’s hugely influential Ballett Frankfurt, rising to principal for the last five years.
“I thought it was so important to bring Forsythe’s work into the company because he was one of my mentors when I left New York and it helps the dancers understand who I am as an artist,” she says.
“Enemy in the Figure was inspired by Thom Willems’ percussive and electronic score. William had this sense of abstract storytelling where he would take his personal stories and deconstruct them. It’s a powerful work and will leave the audience on the edge of their seats.”
Francesca’s own work, Freedom Series, was inspired by her taking up the post of Ailey 2 artistic director and her emotional responses to returning to the Alvin Ailey family – she trained at The Ailey School where her mother Denise Jefferson was director.
“This is my home, it has always had that familial feeling,” says Francesca who has also choreographed for Broadway shows and was the ballet consultant for the film Black Swan. “It grounded me to see all of these people of colour and diverse representation living their dreams, following their passions and feeling empowered. And to see them transform and develop and flourish. Over the years I feel so fortunate to have witnessed that and for it to have been an integral part of my development. When I’m back here I feel the power that is in that kind of cyclical journey.
“Freedom Series carries so much weight for me. I have so many memories that live in the building and this organisation. I created a series of vignettes that imagine this hybridity where these memories strive to influence my vision of the future. It examines identity and community and being an African American woman as well as the diversity that Alvin embraced.”
Francesca is looking forward to sharing the programme with audiences in the tour presented by Dance Consortium, a group of large-scale theatres which aims to bring the best international dance to venues across the UK and Ireland.
The tour also features an extensive community outreach project for young dancers with workshops, masterclasses and open rehearsals. This forms part of the Ailey Project UK which was launched in 2021 with Dance Consortium member venues.
“We’ve established this wonderful relationship through the Ailey Project UK,” Francesca explains. “It really falls in alignment with spreading the message of an inclusive voice so it’s exciting to bring those two worlds together with this tour.
“Our outreach programme is so important to us. It’s sharing and spreading our mission to these young aspiring artists. As a young African American girl, I just didn’t see people like myself doing the things and performing the way that I dreamt of so for us to reach young people who may have dreams of dancing or becoming being involved in the arts in some other capacity, it’s so important. It can change lives.“One of the most exciting things is that this tour is launching our 50th anniversary season as 2024 marks 50 years since Ailey 2 was founded. Audiences to this tour can expect excellence and heart, they can expect innovation, they can expect cutting edge work and they can expect these young artists at the height of their expression.”
For more information on the tour visit here.
Header image by Eduardo Patino.