For 50 Years Ailey II Has Been a Proving Ground, Not Just for Dance

Ailey II, the second company of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, turns 50 this year. Since its creation, some things have remained consistent: It has always served as a bridge between student and professional life. It has always been filled with ambitious young people aspiring to join the main troupe. And, as members of every generation agree, the experience has always been demanding — extremely so.

“It’s a pressure cooker,” said Francesca Harper, who has been the artistic director of Ailey II since 2021. As has been the norm, the current group — which is performing a 50th-anniversary program at the Joyce Theater beginning April 9 — consists of a dozen dancers who stay with the company for two-year terms. Between classes, rehearsals and an extensive touring schedule that combines performances with lecture-demonstrations and master classes, those years are tough.

“Alvin often called it a kind of finishing school,” said Sylvia Waters, who was the company’s artistic director from the beginning until 2012. “It gives them discipline and stamina and teaches them how to take care of themselves.” (Between Waters and Harper, the company was led by Troy Powell, who was fired in 2020 for engaging in “inappropriate communications” with adult students at the Ailey School.)

Ailey II dancers in Francesca Harper’s “Luminous.”Credit…Nir Arieli, via Alvin Ailey

Training dancers was the goal from the get-go. At the Ailey school in the 1970s, the students “were all obsessed,” said Sarita Allen, a former Ailey dancer. “We would stay from early morning to late at night. We wanted to live there. Alvin was always around, and we wanted to do our best for him.”

In 1974, CBS offered Ailey the chance to make a television special celebrating the music of Duke Ellington. But the company was on tour. So, he gathered Allen and other students and thought, Allen said, “‘Maybe I can pass them off as the company.’” It worked.

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