The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is not just a dance company. It is the dance company for many modern-dance lovers. Houstonians can witness the excellence of this accomplished troupe when they take the stage February 18 and 19 at Jones Hall, thanks to Houston’s Society for the Performing Arts.
As one of the world’s leading contemporary-dance companies, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has been recognized with a U.S. congressional resolution as a vital American “cultural ambassador to the world” that has forever changed the perception of American dance.
Company member Vernard Gilmore took some time out of his busy rehearsal schedule to provide OutSmart with some insights about Alvin Ailey’s lasting impact on the arts, as well as his own experiences as a Black dancer.
“What’s so great is that Texas is where Alvin Ailey was born. It’s significant to come back to his home state and show his excellence, who he was to us, and how he’s changed history for so many people,” Gilmore says. “I take honor in being able to perform there for him. It’s a great celebration of his excellence.”
The three Houston performances will feature the company’s signature masterpiece Revelations. Using African American spirituals, song-sermons, gospel songs, and holy blues, Alvin Ailey’s Revelations fervently explores the places of deepest grief and holiest joy in the soul.
“Revelations is one of the greatest modern-dance works of our time. It never fails to reach across the footlights and touch people the way no other ballet can, because you can see yourself in the joy, the happiness, the struggle, and the triumph of spirit,” Gilmore notes.
Gilmore’s own history in the performing-arts world is storied. He began his training at Curie Performing and Creative Arts High School in Chicago, and is a 25-year member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. His career highlights include an appearance on CBS Chicago’s Someone You Should Know series, and a performance at the 2010 White House tribute to dancer and choreographer Judith Jamison. In 2017, he was honored in OUT magazine’s annual “Out100” issue.
As an openly gay man, Gilmore credits dance with helping him find his center as he was coming out in his teenage years.
“Dance really freed me. It gave me the outlet and the ability to see that it’s OK to be you and it’s OK to be gay,” he recalls.
He also credits his mother and grandmother for providing strength during his coming-out process. “My mom has always been open to talking about the gay community, and her mom used to make dresses for drag queens back in the day,” he adds.
A fabulous upbringing, indeed!
As a Black gay male, Gilmore naturally uses his own experiences as an incubator for his choreography. He says it’s only a part of who he is as a whole, and while it does influence his art, it is only a microcosm. He also thinks it creates a more inclusive experience for the artists he works with.
“I really believe in taking everything that I’ve learned and bringing it to whatever I’m doing. For me, [my experience as being both Black and gay] creates more color and more ways to connect to an audience. [And I can] connect better to other artists in the ways I think about movement, and the ways I think about structuring choreography,” he adds. “As gay people, we always want to feel welcome in any situation that we’re in. And so to bring that type of [welcoming] spirit into the room is really what I’m about.”
Alvin Ailey was a gay pioneer of the American performing-arts scene, although he initially tried to conceal his sexuality from the public eye. Most recently, PBS aired the documentary Ailey that traces the contours of his childhood in Jim Crow-era Texas—a period that provided much of the inspiration for his Revelations masterpiece in 1960.
He formed the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to carry out his vision for a company dedicated to enriching the American modern-dance tradition and preserving the uniqueness of the African American cultural experience. The awards he received throughout his career included a 1988 Kennedy Center Honor, in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to American culture. In 2014, he posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of his contributions and commitment to civil rights and modern dance in America.
Although Ailey is not here to see it, his creativity is very much alive in troupe members such as Vernard Gilmore, who sums it up best: “Mr. Ailey wanted to put people on the stage so others could see their lives celebrated onstage.”
What: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
When: Feb. 18 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 19 at 2 and 7:30 p.m.
Where: Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St.
Info: spahouston.org or 713-227-4772
This article appears in the February 2022 edition of OutSmart magazine.