You have to be fit if you want to be an Ailey dancer. Watching a rehearsal in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre's purpose-built studio complex on New York's West 55th Street, the sheer physicality of the performance is striking.
'It's hard work,' says Clifton Brown, a rising star of the company, 'and you only saw an hour of it.'
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre is one of America's most popular dance companies and will return to Hong Kong after its 2004 Asian tour. The troupe will first stop at Beijing and Shanghai this week before giving three performances of two separate programmes here from November 1.
It will also host two masterclasses for senior dance students at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and professional dancers.
Formed in 1958 by Alvin Ailey, a Texan-born dancer and choreographer who studied the long, clean lines of a dance technique invented by Lester Horton, the company's debut at the 92nd Street Young Men's Hebrew Association was notable because most of the dancers were African-Americans. Then as now, the show drew on and celebrated African-American culture. Ailey was inspired by what he called his 'blood memories' of Texas - the blues, the gospel songs and the spirituals - and couched them in the vocabulary of his dance routines. His signature work Revelations, choreographed in 1960, still lies at the heart of the company's repertoire.
The group is a little more racially diverse now - it has a strong Japanese contingent, for instance - but it still vigorously preserves its African-American heritage. It also preserves the choreography of its founder, who died of Aids in 1989. Ailey choreographed 79 works, and these form the core of the repertoire. They are often revisited under the aegis of Ailey's spiritual heir Judith Jamison, a former dancer who's now the creative director.
Ailey had a distinct style of choreography, but he incorporated different techniques. Camille Brown's new piece The Groove to Nobody's Business, which features songs by Ray Charles, isn't based on Ailey's favoured Horton technique but on various elements of African dance.
It's also theatrical - Clifton Brown says the 'Theatre' part of the troupe's moniker isn't just there for show. The company, which sees itself as a repository of modern dance history, performs abstract dances as well as works with a story.
Camille Brown's new three-part work is about a contemporary urban experience. 'The beginning is about a businessman,' says Clifton Brown. 'He's called to head office, where he thinks he'll get a promotion. But it turns out that he gets fired instead.
'We see people on the stage doing their own thing in the city.
We know what the man is going through, but everyday life just goes on around him. People keep getting in his way - they don't care that he's upset. Everything just keeps moving on.'
In the next section, the same characters and the businessman are waiting for a train in the subway.
'It shows the hustle and bustle and irritations of city life. It's a crowded city and he gets irritated with the people around him, and irritated because the train doesn't show up,' the dancer says. 'Scene three shows the people on the train. They are inconsiderate and don't pay attention to anyone else's space.
I use a newspaper as a prop in that scene, and I enjoy that. It helps me get into my character, a bit like
Both Hong Kong programmes will feature Revelations, a free-flowing, elegant piece of choreography set to gospel and spiritual music based on Ailey's experiences of Baptist churches in the American south.
'Revelations is more than a dance - it's a spiritual experience,' says Brown. 'It comes from Mr Ailey's own life, and it embodies something about black culture and history. It was inspired by things
that Mr Ailey saw when he was growing up.
'But we always say that it's a very universal story. Everyone in the audience can relate to the feelings, even though they didn't grow up going to Baptist church. It's a spiritual journey about people in search of wider experiences.'
Brown, who hails from Arizona, is a product of the Ailey system. His mother took him to dance classes when he was young because he was clumsy - it was either that or karate lessons, he says.
He moved to New York to study in the Ailey/Fordham BFA programme in Dance and joined the company as a professional performer in 1999. 'Alvin Ailey was an inspiration to me,' he says. 'His legacy made me want to become a better dancer and strive for excellence. Our lives go into our dancing here. On stage, you just see the dancing. But a lot of life experiences go to make up that dancing.'
Many say that Jamison is now just as much an inspiration as the founder. She started dancing in the group in 1965 and stayed for 15 years before forming her own company. But she always stayed close to Ailey, and he anointed her his heir just before he died. Jamison simply says she's carrying on the spirit and techniques of Ailey.
Jamison's management has turned the company into a lucrative international act, but she still finds time to have a hands-on presence on the dance floor.
'Miss Jamison has a strong vision for the company,' says Clifton Brown. 'But she also gives the dancers space to experiment and do what they do. She likes to challenge us. She's always around - she oversees all the works and helps us to better ourselves. She knows so much. Before she ran the company, she was a top dancer. She has so much experience to pass on to us.'
Jamison has been involved with the company since 1965. But long tenures are common - one recently retired dancer stayed for 25 years. It's a great family-style experience that few want to give up, says Brown. 'It would be difficult to have this experience anywhere else. We do so many different things, and go to so many different places.'
But it's the work that ultimately breeds this loyalty, he says. 'Members of the company get to perform Revelations. That's special. Every dancer enjoys doing that.'
Programme A: The River, The Golden Section and Revelations, Nov 1 and 3, 8pm; Programme B: The Groove to Nobody's Business, Pas de Duke, Love Stories and Revelations, Nov 2, 8pm. Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. Tickets: HK$240 to HK$580. Inquiries: 3128 8288