Long ago Los Angeles audiences fell in love with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Its soulful choreography and athletic, graceful dancers leave folks here tingling with excitement, and it’s not uncommon to see people whooping and cheering and shaking their hips in the aisles at the end of an Ailey program. If history is any guide, we’re expecting the same reaction beginning Wednesday night, as the New York-based powerhouse troupe returns to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for a six-performance run through Sunday. This time, artistic director Robert Battle has created three distinct programs that showcase the work of some of today’s most internationally renowned choreographers as well as the Ailey classic, Revelations, from 1960. Among the featured choreographers are Ohad Naharin (Minus 16), Hofesh Shechter (Uprising), Ulysses S. Dove (Bad Blood), and Christopher Wheeldon (After the Rain Pas de Deux).
Matthew Rushing, Ailey’s rehearsal director, is also presenting ODETTA in its West Coast premiere. He choreographed the piece to the American folk music of the late Odetta Holmes, who has been credited with influencing Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and others of the 1960s folk-revival scene. Rushing, 41, is a native Angeleno who studied at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and won a Music Center Spotlight Award before launching his career and ultimately joining the company in 1992. We spoke with Rushing, who now makes his home in Harlem, about his new work.
When Robert Battle approached you about choreographing a ballet to the music of Odetta Holmes, what went through your mind?
The first thing that went through my mind was, “Who is Odetta Holmes?” I didn’t know much about her. I had recently been introduced to a little bit of her music, but not enough to really know who she was and what she stood for. So it wasn’t until I had time to research her life and listen to audio interviews and really take time to listen to her music and watch documentaries—it was then that I fell in love with her. I was inspired by her love for justice and also her genius within music. Once I got to know who she was, I jumped at the opportunity of choreographing a ballet to celebrate her life and music.
How do her songs inspire you, and was it challenging to create choreography to her music?
I would say her music does a lot of things to me. It definitely does inspire me, it challenges me as an artist, asking me, “What am I doing with my gift to impact the world to make the world a better place?” Some of the challenging things about her music were basically coming up with steps that can articulate the power, the history, the passion within her music. There were so many levels that she could express with her voice—also her instrument, the guitar—that there were moments when I just listened to the music over and over again, trying to come up with something that was cohesive, trying to come up with steps that could actually be comparable to the level of excellence I was listening to in her music. So that was a lot of the challenge. But at the same time the music was so full of spirit, so full of truth, so full of love, that once I had a moment to just meditate on the music, I found it inspiring me and leading me to genres of dance I really hadn’t worked in before. It challenged me to kind of push myself choreographically.
Can you give us a sneak peek into ODETTA and describe what we’ll see?
There are 11 dancers in the ballet. As far as a sneak peek…the dancers’ movement. The movement stems from classical ballet, then goes to traditional modern dance. It also goes into Afro-Cuban as well as West African dance. A lot of these styles are part of the repertory that I dance with the Ailey company, and when I listened to Odetta’s music, I was totally influenced to pull from these different genres and styles. For instance, the section that’s choreographed to the song “Cool Water”—it’s a country song, a very lyrical song that made me think of classical lines. Even the dancer I worked with—she’s a beautiful dancer who’s classically trained with exquisite lines, so I felt it was a great opportunity to use the genre of classical ballet. There’s another section called “Ox-Driver Song.” It’s also basically a country song, but the way Odetta interprets it made me think of West African and Afro-Cuban music.
As far as the costumes are concerned, Dante Baylor is the designer—we talked about coming up with a look that, in my mind, represents the folk tradition. The whole idea of the folk tradition was very new for me; I didn’t know much about it. I really enjoyed learning about it, and my take on it was that it had to do with bringing together different cultures, different peoples, different nationalities. And that made me think of patchwork. And patchwork itself makes me think of traditions and carrying down traditions. So I wanted to incorporate that in the look of the costumes. Also, I wanted to make a look that’s almost timeless, a look that could fit into a setting of the early ’20s or early ’30s, and a look that could also fit into the ’60s. These are time periods that Odetta’s music covered in my mind, so I wanted a look that represented the folk tradition and can be seen as timeless.
The set design was by Travis George, and I wanted to make the visual experience a little bit heightened by bringing in different production elements, one of which was the benches. They’re around six feet tall, and they transform into different environments. One starts off in a church, and it later transforms into a train. I wanted to create an environment with something other than the steps and something other than the lights. I wanted to use all of the elements and create a more complex environment than you would usually see in a modern dance piece. I also used images by Stephen Alcorn, who created a children’s book on Odetta’s life. I used these images to create almost a backdrop for some of the sections—not to interpret the section but to support the feeling of the section.
As an L.A. native, what do you hope to convey to Los Angeles audiences? Is ODETTA especially relevant to this city in some way?
It’s not just Los Angeles audiences; it’s society in general. First, I want to introduce Odetta Holmes to Ailey audiences. I’ve found in my research and speaking to family and friends, there are a lot of people who aren’t aware of her genius. After that, I want to show the power of art and how Odetta used her instrument, her voice, her guitar, her gift to help promote social awareness to make this world a better place. Hopefully it’ll spark some kind of flame in people to be aware of the power of art. My main thing is that people walk away inspired and enlightened.