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Crunch Time: Alicia Graf Mack and Glenn Allen Sims on Learning Choreography

Posted by Content Manager, July 31, 2013 | Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Alicia Graf Mack rehearsing Streams. Photo by Claudia Schreier

For Ailey dancers, being versatile enough to adapt to whatever gets thrown their way comes with the job description. Since they must be able to submerge themselves into every style as well as clearly articulate the choreographer’s intent, their seemingly effortless performances are preceded by hundreds of hours of intense preparation.

As rehearsals intensify in anticipation of Ailey’s 2013-2014 New York City Center season, the Ailey Blog sits down with Alicia Graf Mack and Glenn Allen Sims to talk about how dancers learn, retain, and organize all of the choreography from Ailey’s vast repertory.

From Movement to Memory

“It takes a lot of brain power,” says Glenn. “There is a lot of work involved behind the scenes in order to learn different pieces, but it stimulates you because each choreographer brings new experiences. I think that’s the beautiful part about dance—you have to figure out how you can draw from a choreographer’s background and movement style to articulate what they want. It pushes me to become a better dancer.”

Alicia also feels this exercise of brain power when moving between rehearsals throughout the day. “It is a task to keep all the choreography straight, especially now since we’re learning all the new pieces at the same time and we’re never solely working on one specific style. Our brains not only have to be able to switch from piece to piece but from style to style as well, and I find that challenging. I tend to visualize the steps in my head in order to keep it fresh. I’m definitely the type of dancer that has to review everything before I execute it.”

Fortunately, the dancers don’t have to worry about getting every single step perfectly on the first day. Each rehearsal is video recorded from start to finish—a tool that both Glenn and Alicia rely on at times for a “good refresher,” as Alicia puts it. The videos track the evolution of a work, and Glenn adds that the process also “helps keep the camaraderie between Company members” when it comes time to review and finesse.

Connecting with the Music

In order to enable herself to perform without inhibition, Alicia tries to focus on the musicality of the movement rather than the counts themselves. “Whenever we’re working on a new piece, I always get a copy of the music, put it on my iPod, and listen to it over and over again so I can get the music in my head to retain the choreography. Plus, some music isn’t countable, so you have to be able to respond to it in a more intrinsic way.”

Glenn continues, “Our bodies are vessels for the choreography, and we’re meant to interpret the music. If you’re just counting all the time, how can you let go of yourself and be vulnerable enough to perform?” From ballet and Horton to hip-hop and Gaga, the methods may change, but the ultimate goal of communicating with the audience remains constant—and that is the mark of a well-versed dancer.

Glenn Allen Sims (center in gray) and the Company rehearsing Garth Fagan's From Before. Photo by Claudia Schreier

Taking Time to Recharge

While all Ailey dancers rehearse daily from 12 to 7pm, their approaches to work differ once they walk out of the Ailey building each evening. Glenn aims to drop everything when he leaves the studio, aiming his attention elsewhere after hours. “I like to make sure that I have other things in my life to make me more grounded, since I’m still trying to find my voice outside of dance. I enjoy culinary arts, I went to real estate school, and right now I am working on becoming a personal trainer. But if I have a question about a step or two before coming into work or at the end of the day, I might watch the video to make sure I’ve locked the moves in before I completely check out for the night.”

For Alicia, on the other hand, the more challenging works occasionally call for additional time in the evenings spent on what she likes to call “homework” —reviewing new material from the day and solidifying the nuances of certain steps in her head.

Advice for Young Dancers: Be Versatile and Stay Focused

For young dancers dreaming of a life onstage, Glenn and Alicia offer sage advice on how to stand out from the pack. “If you’re looking to be a professional dancer, don’t ever classify yourself into ‘I am a jazz dancer’ or ‘I am a ballet dancer,’” Glenn urges. “Every dancer should have the ability to execute several types of dance styles and techniques. Jobs are very rare these days, so you have to be able to have different experiences from which to draw so you can apply them to any situation you might face in your career.”

Over the years, Alicia has learned exactly what does and does not work for her when it comes to learning choreography, knowledge that she feels will put you ahead of the competition.

“Different people learn at different rates—and that’s okay, but it’s important for young dancers to know how they learn best. Make sure to go for those landmark moments in the choreography or special musical cues that the choreographer sets up. That way, even if you’re lost, you know that there are moments that you can hit so the choreographer can see you are tuned in and focused,” Alicia shares. “Also, go for the style the choreographer wants—it’s even more important than getting it perfect right away.”


Left: Alicia Graf Mack rehearsing Jiří Kylián's Petite Mort. Photo by Kirven Douthit-Boyd. Right: Alicia Graf Mack rehearsing Alvin Ailey's Streams. Photo by Claudia Schreier

Interview conducted by Lucie Fernandez

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