Sylvia Waters has been the artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre’s second company since it was founded in 1974. In her role as director and mentor, she travels with the company, sets repertory and teaches company class. Next week, Ailey II will perform at the Joyce Theater in New York City, April 13-22.
What is the most challenging aspect of teaching such advanced and well-developed young dancers?
My job is to help dancers gain confidence so they can really soar. I strive to polish their honesty as artists.
The hardest part, however, is teaching them to work professionally. They come into the room knowing the steps, but they still have to learn how to participate with immediacy, even when they’re not active in a particular environment. For instance, if they’re in a rehearsal space, they need to stay engaged in what’s happening, because even if they’re not in that piece, the experience still affects them. They’re still learning to expand their abilities–mentally, physically and spiritually.
What qualities make a dancer ready to advance professionally?
dancer must have confidence using his or her facility. I notice dancers who have an extreme willingness for new movement and a hunger to perform. I look for their use of imagery, and how they reveal their individual personalities through movement. They are ready when they learn how to maximize their performances with a new choreographer, style or aesthetic.
How has your teaching philosophy changed over 35 years?
I’m a little more confident than I was when Alvin Ailey entrusted me with the minds and bodies of these young people–it was very frightening! But it was a good challenge. Each new thing, or new dancer is a challenge, and instead of asking, “Can I do this?” I say, “I can do this!” Teaching is not an exact science, but I’ve learned to trust my insight.
Photo by Eduardo Patino