On February 6 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, Renee Robinson will take center stage as a principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater one more time.
For Robinson, who is a native of Washington D.C., this evening will be a homecoming and a celebration of her extraordinary dancing career which has spanned more than three decades. It also will be her farewell performance.
Robinson’s artistic longevity is absolutely remarkable. Her professional career with the AAADT is the longest of any female dancer in the company’s history. An iconic dancer and a true legend, she is the last member of the company to have been hand-picked by its late founder, Alvin Ailey.
She is still one of the most powerful and charismatic dancers in the company, unfailingly bringing her commanding presence, immense passion and artistry onstage and dancing at a level of which most dancers can only dream. Her commitment to the Ailey legacy and spirit is inspiring. Her love of dancing is infectious and is the true key to her success and longevity as a performing artist.
In our recent conversation we talked about her performing career, her memorable roles and her plans for the future.
How would you describe your dancing journey?
It has been a lot of fun and a wonderful opportunity for personal growth. When you are a dancer in a company like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater you not only learn to be a performing artist but also continue to grow as a person. It has been a full experience.
Your training was in classical ballet. What brought you to the AAADT?
I auditioned for the summer program at the AileySchool while I was a student at New YorkUniversity. I didn’t have much modern dance experience at the time but I got the scholarship because of my strong classical ballet training. I fell in love with the school, with its international atmosphere and a large student body. And I fell in love with the company. I enjoyed exploring different dance techniques. I used my classical ballet skills and the discipline that I had gained during my classical ballet training as I learned other forms of dance.
What did you learn from working with Alvin Ailey?
Mr. Ailey encouraged his dancers to learn throughout life and continue to grow as people. He wanted us to explore different art forms and be aware of the world around us. The richer you are as a person, the more you will be able to give as a dancer. Most of the ballets are about people, so if you stop learning and growing as a person you will not be able to give your role its full value. This is something I share with the young dancers when they ask for advice: Be rich as a person.
You have worked with many distinguished choreographers. What dances resonated with you the most?
In thirty years I have worked with many incredible choreographers who had their own style, process and vision. Each experience was different but valuable and important, and each experience has helped me become the dancer I am today. But if I have to single out a choreographer – it would be Alvin Ailey and his work Revelations, which the company performs at the end of almost every performance.
What makes Revelations still so popular and relevant?
The popularity of Revelations comes not only from its choreography but also from the dance’s long and incredible history. The voice and story of Revelations are inherently human. It’s about joy, sorrow, overcoming and being reborn. It’s a story of all human beings regardless of culture, religion or nationality. We are all human. And Revelations is about human experiences. All these experiences were given a shape through the movements, colors and amazing spiritual music. The music in Revelations is phenomenal – with its feeling and rhythm and pace – it goes right into your heart.
The young dancers – the students of the AileySchool who hope to join the company in the future – all want to dance in Revelations. The ballet was created more than 50 years ago, yet the young dancers know this work and they are excited and eager to perform it. I find this absolutely phenomenal!
You will be remembered as The Lady with the White Umbrella. What does this role mean to you?
Before I joined the company I remember seeing Ms. Jamison performing this role. Those long, elegant, beautiful arms! Seeing her onstage took my breath away. When I became a member of the company I didn’t think I would dance this role. I always thought that only tall women with long limbs would be given an opportunity to perform in the section “Wade in the Water.” At that time Donna Wood, April Barry and Pat Dingle carried the umbrella. All were very tall, with very long limbs. When I was cast in this part, I remember, during my first rehearsal, I realized that I would need to build my upper body strength (laughs) – the umbrella weighed much more than I had thought.
When Ms. Jamison became Artistic Director of the company, I had so much joy rehearsing this role with her – for me she was… she is The Umbrella Woman. I remember her speaking about the experience of carrying the umbrella and the importance of knowing the significance of the woman that carries the umbrella in the baptism ceremony. She taught us not only how to be articulate with our hands, arms and torsos but also to have a reverence for this role in our hearts. It was a double treat of having the opportunity to perform this role and having Ms. Jamison teaching it to me. It’s an important role and it’s an important ballet that is greatly loved around the world. And after all these years, when people tell me that I will be remembered as the woman with the umbrella … I am so grateful that I had Mr. Ailey and Ms. Jamison as the voices that helped me get to that level of truth where people see me as this woman and associate me with this role.
In your farewell performance at the Kennedy Center you will be dancing in Night Creature (1974). Why is this piece special?
Night Creature is such a wonderful and joyful ballet. It’s one of Ailey’s works to music by Duke Ellington. Its first part is upbeat and happy; the second part brings sensuality into the movements, and the last section ends on a very high note. It’s a really classic Ailey – a mixture of the elements of classical ballet and modern dance with jazzy, groovy movements. It poses a challenge for the dancers to bring all these elements into clarity while moving to the marvelous Ellington score. It is a fun work and a great curtain-opener. I also think that it’s a quite important ballet for the young dancers of the company – every new member of AAADT dances in Night Creature. It helps them get familiar with the company’s dancing style because all the different movements and techniques are represented in this one work. I am so glad that I am still able to perform in it. This ballet shows Ailey at his finest.
For more than three decades you have handled not only the demands of highly athletic choreography but also the company’s busy touring schedule. What is your driving force?
AAADT is a touring company. The dancers spend most of the year being away from home. I got a taste of it while I was a member of the junior company, Alvin Ailey II.
We didn’t do a lot of international travel back then, mostly performing in the United States. During that time I experienced what it would take to be on the road and perform almost every night and I understood all of the demands of such life. Of course it’s 10 times more demanding once you become a member of the main company. After joining AAADT I had to learn very quickly how to take care of myself in order to last.
I always wanted to see the world. For me, the touring was an attractive element of the company and a part of the driving force. I love dancing. And I love being on the road. Learning how to take care of myself was a challenge. But I was doing something I truly enjoyed and I was able to see the world, experience different cultures and meet new people.
As part of the AAADT outreach program, we also teach and speak about our work during the company’s tours. When you are an Ailey dancer, you have to be generous with your art and you have to know that it is hard work. But it’s a joyful work. It really is.
Have the company and its dancers changed over the past thirty years?
Over the years dance choreography has evolved. The dancers have become proficient in various dance techniques. They have become more versatile as performers, their bodies leaner and more flexible. But what has remained constant at AAADT is the search for excellence in order to bring the best dancers to the performing platform.
The ballets have changed. The dancers have changed. But the root of the company, which Mr. Ailey envisioned as a repertory company, hasn’t changed. What was important more than 50 years ago is just as important in 2013. And this is what has made this company great.
What will be your next journey?
I just graduated from HollinsUniversity with a Master’s degree in Dance. It has been such a fantastic experience of studying dance after doing dance for so many years. It also has opened an entire new prospect for me. I am still looking at what it means and what shape it will take. I am interested in writing a few children books that will teach young aspiring dancers how to take care of their instrument – their bodies. I think such information should be available at an early stage of a dancing career. I want these books to be accessible and comprehensible, thought-provoking and precise. And I want them to be a fun read.
What will you miss most when you retire from your performing career?
Oh, I have a very short answer to this question (laughs) – I don’t know! I am still rehearsing. I am still going to the studio and taking classes. I will be dancing in Washington D.C. in February and then in a few other cities during the company’s U.S. tour. I don’t even know what this word “retirement” means (laughs). I am still dancing.