Every dancer has an intimate story regaling their first visit to the theater; that monumental occasion when the light was tripped fantastic, the background dimmed, and the only thing in focus was dance. For Inglewood, California, native and Alvin Ailey principal dancer Matthew Rushing, that life-altering day came in the spring of 1987, when his mother shuffled him over to the Wiltern Theatre in the hopes of securing a pair of stray tickets to the Ailey company’s sold-out performance. Her tenacity paid off, and after a swift exchange with a scalper, the two found themselves inside of a packed theater, watching the company’s most critically acclaimed work, “Revelations,” unfold in a magnificent flurry. “I connected with everything about that performance,” Rushing recounted in a recent phone interview with The Independent. “Not only did I leave that show knowing I wanted to become a dancer, but that I wanted to dance for Alvin Ailey.”
In 1992, he did just that, becoming one of the youngest dancers to be invited into the organization’s main company at the age of 18, and spending the next 24 years touring venues both modest and majestic. “’Dance came from the people and should be delivered back to the people’ is Ailey’s mantra,” Rushing stressed, “and each year I get it more and more. It’s about going to places you’ve never been before and introducing Ailey to audiences who may have never seen this kind of work before. This should not be an elitist art form.”
Now 42, Rushing has been hailed as one of the most prolific modern dancers of our time, stylizing various hats within the organization including choreographer, principal dancer, rehearsal director, and company advocate. In 2013, when Ailey’s artistic director, Robert Battle, hosted a tribute in his honor to an overflowing house at City Center, the seasoned artist assured the New York crowd he wouldn’t be hanging up his performance tights any time soon. He’s made good on his promise, leading the main company this season on a 20-city tour as both dancer and rehearsal director, making him one of the most senior professional dancers of any major company.
To say that Alvin Ailey’s legacy is securing a sizeable chapter within the pages of our dance history books is only part of the story. In 1962 — a mere four years after the company was founded — the Ailey troupe was hand-picked to front a U.S. State Department tour, signaling to the world that their significance and value went far beyond artistic merit. Murmurs of a role as diplomatic representatives swirled around the organization, and in 2008, Congress made it official, designating Ailey as “a vital American cultural ambassador to the world.” To date, the organization has performed for an estimated 23 million people in 71 countries on six continents, holding the current record for longest touring schedule of any U.S. performing arts company.
“There’s a very unique experience that you have coming to see an Ailey concert,” said Rushing. “You come to the theater, and you get to connect with all the different dancers, the different shapes and sizes and shades. It’s all-encompassing.” Known for transcending the virtues of the African-American heritage into experiential movement, Ailey’s repertory continues to reflect the company’s longtime commitment to celebrating cultural perspectives in all of their multilayered facets, from choreographer and Ailey mentor Lester Horton’s East Indian and Native American influences, to hip-hop artist and historian Rennie Harris’s exploration of urban depth. “It all comes down to diversity for me,” Rushing stressed, “and how important it is. It’s not just one root, not just classical or modern. We wouldn’t have what we know as Ailey if we weren’t exposed to different approaches to dance.”
Next week, Santa Barbarans have the opportunity to witness the company’s expansive body of work over the course of a two-day program presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures. Tuesday night’s billing will include the premiere of Rennie Harris’s uplifting “Exodus,” a call to arms for change and enlightenment within our urban communities, and Ronald K. Brown’s “Open Door,” a Latin-jazz infused number inspired by the choreographer’s recent visit to Cuba. Christopher Wheeldon’s whisper-light “After the Rain Pas de Deux” and a soulful presentation of Alvin Ailey’s classic “Revelations” will round out the evening’s program.
On Wednesday, the dancers return with the all-female “Vespers” and all-male “The Hunt” choreographed by Ulysses Dove and Robert Battle, respectively, highlighting the virtuous strength and ferocious complexity of gender roles. Former Ailey artistic director Judith Jamison revitalizes her sensual duet “A Case of You,” with newly designed costumes and lighting, and Ronald K. Brown’s spiritual and allegorical “Four Corners,” along with Talley Beatty’s excerpt “Toccata” from his 1960s debut Come and Get the Beauty of It Hot are set to heart-thumping, feet-stomping soundtracks that will leave Wednesday’s audience shimmying in their seats.
A few days shy of packing up and heading the charge out west for what promises to be another physically and mentally taxing travel schedule, Rushing is the embodiment of a seasoned artist, relaxed and reflective, content with a few moments of downtime before the winds pick up again. When asked what fuels his continued passion for the organization and art form, his answer is at once succinct and comprehensive: “It has a lot to do with spirit. Whatever your moral beliefs are, we all possess the intangible thing that gives us life. I think Ailey speaks to the importance of spirit existing in the way we move and how it should be communicated into each and every performance.”
UCSB’s Arts & Lectures presents Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Tuesday-Wednesday, April 12-13, at 8 p.m. at the Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.). For tickets, call 893-3535 or see https://artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.