It was a pleasure to interview young and ambitious Ailey II dancers Yazzmeen Laidler and Adrien Picaut, who talked to me about their personal experience and being a part of the prestigious Ailey II company.
Yazzmeen graduated from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. After auditioning for the first company, she was invited by artistic director Troy Powell to audition for Ailey II, the second company; she is now in her second and final year there.
After graduating high-school in France, Adrien studied for one year at the Institut de Formation Professionnelle Rick Odums (IFPRO) in Paris. “Rick Odums totally influenced me as a dancer. He took me under his wing and really wanted me to go to Alvin Ailey – so I did my research and went to see their shows, and I fell in love with the company. It was everything I wanted – dance-, music- and costume-wise. It’s simple, but it has great depth, it’s just amazing. In Rick Odums’ school, I learned the Horton and Graham techniques, and that meant I wasn’t too disoriented when I managed to get a scholarship and went to the Ailey School.”
However, Adrien did notice a difference between dance classes in France and the US: “In France, there’s a lot of talking and discussing the steps with the teacher, whereas in America the students figure it out on their own and the teacher comments afterwards. When I was at the Alvin Ailey School, the students were really focused on their craft, they didn’t chat during their classes. The French tend to want corrections before they even dance, and it’s the opposite in America!”
Adrien was invited by Mr Powell to be an apprentice in the Ailey II company during his second year at the Ailey School, before entering the company as a full member.
I wonder what initially attracted each of them to Ailey II. They agree that it was mainly the style – “In this company, there’s a diverse range of ballet, modern, jazz… We really have the whole pool of genres here, and we’re comfortable doing everything,” says Yazzmeen.
“Yes, I love the mix of styles there is at Ailey,” agrees Adrien. “It means we get to change our hats all the time, and that’s great because I don’t think many companies allow their dancers to perform such a wide range of genres.”
“The history of the company is also very important,” he adds. “It’s just so big worldwide, and it’s renowned for good reasons – it’s not just entertainment, it’s also history.”
I am curious to know how that historical legacy, left by choreographer, dancer and cultural leader Alvin Ailey, affects their work. They immediately answer that they feel it most when performing ‘Revelations’, Alvin Ailey’s signature piece, because it speaks a lot of the history of Mr Ailey’s time and era. The dancers explain that they love the fact that ‘Revelations’ was created nearly 60 years ago and so many dancers have performed it, and they get to also be a part of it. “You have to also show your individuality – because you share the vision, but with your own personality.”
“Being part of Ailey II is really incredible”, says Yazzmeen. “You experience so much in two years because it’s like a training programme to go into the big league. You won’t leave Ailey II as the same person you were when you arrived on the first day.”
She explains that the dancers need to be very adaptable, especially when the choreographers come in the summer to set the pieces. “We may have a choreographer for three hours and then another will come in and we have to adapt quickly – change the hat depending on what that choreographer or even our directors want that day. And even for the show, because the shows can change every day depending on what the sponsors or donors want and what our director is presenting to that city.”
The older pieces are taught to the new company members by the older dancers, or by someone who will come back in, or Mr Powell will teach it from a video. For the new reps, the choreographer comes in and identifies each dancer’s strengths and weaknesses – “They love to play with these two things,” says Adrien, “because that’s how you make the dancer grow – using both. We learned a lot in three weeks. It’s a hard process.”
“Yes, because we’re constantly fine-tuning the details, the nitty-gritty, trying to better it every day,” adds Yazzmeen.
The choreographers can sometimes ask the dancers to create a choreographic sentence or improvise, and other times he or she will come in with a set idea. “It depends on where their head is in that time and space.”
On tour, the dancers usually have warm up for an hour to an hour and a half, and then a technical rehearsal where they run all the pieces for that night’s show. “Then we’ll get feedback from our director and rehearsal director, then we’ll have a dinner break and time to do our hair and makeup and then the show.”
“Although today for example,” says Adrien, “we didn’t have a tech rehearsal, but we have a drive-ahead – we’re setting off to the next city right after the show. We’ll arrive in Bayonne at 3am and tomorrow night there will be a tech rehearsal because it’s a new theatre and show.” When on tour, they also sometimes go into dance schools to give masterclasses to students in pre-professional or professional training.
“The most difficult part of working for Ailey II is definitely tour life,” says Yazzmeen. “Time management, the travelling, you get tired trying to keep track of where you are and what day it is! It can be overwhelming to be always around the same people, but that’s also a good thing because we’re learning constantly from each other and getting inspired every single day. We wake up to so much love.”
“Touring is definitely a learning experience,” agrees Adrien. “This is when all the show-must-go-on experiences happen. Sometimes something will happen thirty minutes before the curtain goes up and you have to manage it really quickly and without the audience noticing. This is where you become a professional dancer – you learn to adapt and figure things out.”
“Which is your favourite piece from tonight’s repertory?” I ask.
Yazzmeen tells me hers is the girls’ trio from Darrell Grand Moultrie’s ‘Road to One’. “Every time I perform it, it’s a new feeling, I get lost in the movement. Yesterday I was on stage doing my solo and I didn’t even know where I was in space, I was so zoned out by the choreography.”
Adrien’s favourite is ‘Something Tangible’ by Ray Mercer. “It’s a movement quality I really like. It shows technique, and all the transitions are so well thought through – it’s so good! And the music is great.”
I ask Yazzmeen where she sees herself in five to ten years. “I would like to be dancing with the first company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater,” she says, “but we always have to think ‘what if’ and have a plan A, B and C… Plan B would be to either find another company or do commercial dance. I would also love to own my own dance school, because I love teaching and I do my own choreography on the side.”
“What’s it like for you being back in France touring with such a prestigious American company?” I ask Adrien.
“I just feel so proud to be back in France with my dream company. My parents and friends, who hadn’t seen me dance for three or four years, came to see me dance in Lyon – they were mind-blown by all the work that goes into this. They’re really happy for me that I get to do my passion for a living. My ultimate goal would be to dance for the first company [Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater], but, like Yazzmeen said, we also have to look at other places. Later still, I would like to do some choreography, but my dream is to have as long a career as possible as a dancer. There are plenty of companies around the planet, and change is also good!”
If you would like to find out more about Adrien, Yazzmeen and the other Ailey II dancers, click here. You can read my review of their performance here. To find out more about Ailey II and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, click here.