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Renee Robinson: 25 Years of Artistry

Sergey Gordeev for Dancer Magazine (published in December 2006 issue)


When Renee Robinson first auditioned for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, she did not get in. Everyone was stunned:  she danced all the right steps, endowed them with artistic interpretation, performed with passion and soul, Mr. Ailey liked her…  The mystery remained until Sylvia Waters, the Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble, explained:  “Renee, you were in the back of the room, and it just didn’t make you seem like you wanted it badly enough…” Little did Renee know:  in New York you had to fight for space to be noticed, to let them know that you want the job; and she was always dancing where there was more room – in the back. At the next audition, she made sure she was front and center – and, now celebrating her 25th Anniversary with the Ailey company, Renee Robinson has been dancing front and center ever since.

The confident, gracious, well-spoken dancer recalls a time when she did not display all of these qualities. She remembers a painfully shy 9 year-old girl at her first interview with Doris Jones and Claire Haywood of the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet in Washington, D.C.  Referred by the director of after-school activities of her grade school, young Renee had no way of gauging her talent other than the after-school director’s assurance that she had potential. “She has a nice, straight back, and long, graceful legs,” the teachers said to Renee’s mother. And so an artist’s journey began.


As dancer childhoods go, this one was not out of the ordinary:  there were good days, there were bad days; sometimes she wanted to quit, and sometimes she skipped out to the car after class, laughing, smiling, telling her mother how happy dancing made her feel. Of course, there were all those sock hop dances that had to be missed, and social activities had to be pushed aside in favor of dance class.  But, between the heavy workload at the all-girl Notre Dame Academy and her shy, serious nature, Renee hardly missed them.  She was too busy working on her feet.


She also pursued a parallel interest:  that of becoming an attorney. “Besides dance class, the Library of Congress and the MLK Library were two of my favorite hangouts,” she recalls. “I was always fascinated with words and their power to convince or defend a person or an idea” – which is why, upon graduation from Notre Dame, young Renee entered New York University with an intention of becoming a lawyer.


“In my mind, I was done with dance – not only because I wanted to develop a career as an attorney, but also because I had a passionate desire to travel the world.” Yet, as they often say, you do not choose dance, dance chooses you – and this was definitely the case with Renee Robinson.


While at NYU, she met Denise Jefferson, then a faculty member and, since 1984, the Director of the Ailey School, who was also teaching Graham-based modern at the NYU Tisch School for the Arts. “Even as a student at Tisch and the Ailey schools Renee stood apart for her technical excellence, musicality, generosity and openness of spirit,” says Denise, “Although at that time, Renee was a mostly classically-trained ‘bunhead’ who did not have very much exposure to modern dance. Jones-Haywood School of Ballet produced some of the best African-American ballet dancers in the United States, but it wasn’t famous for their modern dance training. When I finally convinced Renee to audition for the Ailey School as ‘something to do for the summer,’ I knew that there she would find a home.”


Following Ms. Jefferson’s advice, in the summer of 1979 Renee found herself immersed in a world so colorful and richly diverse that it was “love at first step.” “I was doing Horton, Jazz, Graham, studying with renowned master teachers such as Pat Thomas, Delores Brown, Denise Jefferson, Ana Marie Forsythe, to name a few; I was dancing alongside students from all over the world. It was exciting to see so many talented dancers, many of whom were African-American… and everyone was so thrilled to be at the Ailey School! Whenever the company would be in town, it would be a huge treat.” Best of all, Renee learned that the Ailey company toured most of the season – which resonated deeply with her long-time desire to travel the world. And so the future lawyer turned into a future dancer:  instead of returning to NYU to continue studying law, Renee stayed at the Ailey School to pursue her dream of joining the Ailey company.


The Ailey organization is a wonderful “incubator of talent,” carefully nurturing dancers through all the steps necessary to become an Ailey dancer.  The youngest children take classes in the pre-professional division of the school; then they “graduate” to more advanced, professional-division classes. The most talented dancers from the professional division participate in performance workshops with resident and guest choreographers, and then they are invited to join the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble – a fully professional touring and performing company that serves as the training ground for future Ailey dancers. After a year or two of touring with the Repertory Ensemble, dancers are ready for the rigorous demands of the main company – or, in fact, any company in the world.


The year Renee joined the Ailey School, Kelvin Rotardier almost immediately invited her to join his workshop – which at that point was functioning almost as a “third” Ailey company. Touring and performing with Rotardier’s workshop, Renee finally started to overcome her shy nature and enjoying the performance aspect of dancing. “I remember seeing her open up to a whole new world of expressiveness celebrating the individual,” says Denise Jefferson, “and grow so much in terms of diversity of style and technique.”


Within that same year, Sylvia Waters invited her to join the second company – the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble. “Her talent was evident,” she says. “Renee had stage presence, exuded warmth, seriousness, a sense of determination and strength; she had – and still has – a wonderful facility, and a unique understanding of nuance in movement.  There was a certain authority in the way she danced – which was a surprise, given her innate shyness; but it was a wonderful surprise.”


“Most importantly,” Sylvia continues, “She had range. I still remember watching Renee learn ‘Cry’ for the first time – she danced it with Jasmine Guy and Diane Hunt; each of them did a separate section of the dance. That was one of her many stage personas, which changed dramatically when she did any of Talley Beatty ballets, or Alvin Ailey’s ‘Wade in the Water’ [a part of his masterpiece, ‘Revelations’], or the sultry trio in Milton Myers’ piece for the Ellington Festival, ‘Echoes in Blue.’”


When the time came for Renee to audition for the main company, she was as nervous and excited as can be. “I was dying to get in,” she remembers, looking back at the deciding moment in her career. She knew that Mr. Ailey liked her as a dancer and went into the audition thinking that she would get in.  She did all the right steps, gave it everything she had and…  did not get in. Stunned, Renee and everyone around her were wondering what happened until a conversation with Sylvia Waters made it clear: not being a New Yorker, Renee did not know that unless you push your way to the front of the room, the auditioners are left to assume that getting the job must not be that important to you. That was the first lesson Renee learned at the Ailey company:  claim your space and own it. At the next audition, Renee was dancing front and center – and was offered a contract.


Masazumi Chaya, who was a company dancer at the time, remembers the first time that everyone suddenly noticed “the new dancer”: it was in Choo San Goh’s ballet, “Spectrum,” which Renee danced almost immediately after entering the company. “A dancer in the first cast got injured and Renee was chosen as a last-minute replacement. That’s when everyone really saw her as the beautiful dancer that she is. She is very awake, very alive, with a rounded movement fueled by a power that comes from within.”


Meanwhile, Renee was staying up all night before the performance, listening to the music of the ballet to make sure she gets it perfect on stage. “I was a bundle of nerves!” she laughs. “’Spectrum’ was a pretty big deal for me – I was dancing alongside such well-known stars as Maxine Sherman, Gary Deloatch, Sarita Allen… each dancer represented a color and had a featured role on stage. I wanted to do my best.”


Though her ‘Spectrum’ performance was a complete success, it took a few years for Renee to adjust to being a part of the company. “At that time, the Ailey company had a very clearly defined seniority system, and the new dancers did not become fast friends with the dancers who have been in the company for a while, like they do now. “I still remember being star-struck by the lead dancers of the time: Donna Wood, Sarita Allen, Marilyn Banks, Gary Deloatch, Keith McDaniel, Masazumi Chaya, Michihiko Oka…  I especially remember Mari Kajiwara – I looked up to her for more than just her dancing: she was assisting Alvin, and I danced her ballets when I was in the second company. I loved working with her – she was smart, firm, but gentle. She knew all the counts, everybody’s parts… these were the dancers I looked up to.”


As the years progressed, Renee got more and more comfortable with being an Ailey “star,” and developed a few roles that, due to her unique interpretation, began to be considered her signature roles. The most recognizable of them is, perhaps, “Cry” by Alvin Ailey, made famous by the spectacular Judith Jamison.


“When I started performing ‘Cry,’ I started to see life a little different,” says Renee. “Alvin had always said to us that we had to dig deep into our own life experiences to perform this kind of ballet. He gave us imagery of his own, but he also encouraged us to go out and live life to the fullest, to have many experiences, so that we have something to bring back to the stage and share with the audience. Ms. Jamison tells her dancers to do the same. And ‘Cry’ is one of those ballets where you really have to have something to share. It is super-demanding, both physically and emotionally, yet you never get tired of doing it.”


Another one of Renee’s personal favorites is “Wade in the Water,” also known as the “Umbrella section” from Alvin Ailey’s masterpiece and the company’s signature work, “Revelations.” “When I started learning the Umbrella section, it felt important. To me, it represented an Ailey woman. It made me think of all the women who have done it before me – most memorable of which, of course, was Judith Jamison. She made the part hugely famous, and no one could do it like her, with her long, gorgeous body and her huge stage persona. It also made me think of the real people in the community who have inspired Alvin to choreograph this role – which represented baptism – and the role of women in the society. Dancing the Umbrella part was like a gift, which is given to you when they think you either have the maturity and the presence to command the stage in this role, or that you’re ready to grow into it.”


Besides Alvin Ailey, there were, of course, other choreographers who made Renee grow as a dancer and left an indelible mark on her as a performer. Among her favorites are Donald McKayle, Judith Jamison, Carmen de Lavallade, Ulysses Dove, and Ronald K. Brown – whose recent powerhouse hit, “Grace,” has Renee appear as a center spirit, a “guide” presiding over the transcendence of troubled, contentious beings into a state of inner peace and humility. “’Grace’ is one of my favorite roles,” says Renee – perhaps, in part, because it is not so far from her actual role of a “guide” and a source of knowledge for younger dancers entering the company.


“Beyond her incomparable performance qualities, Renee is a true nurturer,” says Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Judith Jamison, who has “directed” Renee since 1982, after Alvin Ailey passed away. “She enjoys helping others. She helps new company members adapt to life as an ‘Ailey dancer,’ supports those who have been in the Company, and helps them as they continue their journey as a dancer. She has been and continues to be an asset to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.” Masazumi Chaya, Associate Artistic Director of the Ailey company since 1991, adds: “Renee is the only dancer from this group [of current company dancers] who has worked with Mr. Ailey – so she carries the knowledge of how he did it.  She can help young dancers, which she loves to do.  She helps us run the rehearsals, coaches them, she is wonderful.  She is a part of the Ailey legacy, and can hand it to the new generation. Like Judi[th Jamison], she is a bridge between Alvin and the modern times.”


When asked about which roles danced by Renee they enjoy the most, each person from the Ailey organization has his or her personal favorite. Denise Jefferson talks about Renee as the woman in Billy Wilson’s “Winter in Lisbon:” “There is a central duet in the ballet, and I love it when she does this part. She creates a fabulous character of this glamorous, sensuous woman – who is alluring, sexy, aloof, warm, sultry… Billy Wilson once said to me that this role was based on Frances Taylor, his wife at the time, and Renee really found that character. And then there is her incredibly expressive back – the woman starts with her back to the audience – and Renee dances the piece with every inch of her body!”


Sylvia Waters’ favorite role by Renee is the first solo in Ulysses Dove’s “Vespers.” “I have never seen it done like that,” she says, “It is an indelible memory. Whereas in some dancers you see the mechanics of the movement, when Renee does it, you never see it: she just is there, where she’s supposed to be; you never saw how she got up there or got down [in Vespers, the women dance on and off a chair]. It makes me think of another time Renee danced a Ulysses Dove work when she was still a part of the second company. The ballet was called, ‘I see the Moon, and the Moon Sees Me.’ Renee was in the first cast; and, later on, whenever Ulysses set his work on the main Ailey company, she was always at the forefront of the casting roster.” Chaya, too, cites Renee’s dancing in Ulysses Dove’s ballets as his favorite: “She has a special attack in her movement, and that makes watching her very exciting.”


Judith Jamison, on the other hand, talks about Renee’s role in Carmen de Lavallade’s “Sweet Bitter Love” as one of her favorites: “Watching her perform this solo is very compelling. You can really see her consummate artistry; she has an innate wisdom to perform the ballet the way she does. All her experience is evident in every move she makes. She still commands the stage so elegantly after all these years.” Carmen de Lavallade, who chose Renee as the first cast for this ballet when she was setting it on the Ailey company in 2000, says she selected Renee because of her gift for seeking out deeper layers in whatever she's dancing. "She's one of those magical dancers who always bring something extra special to the movement,” she says. “There’s always something underneath; it’s never just ‘dancing.’”


A leading dancer of the world’s leading and, perhaps, most significant modern dance company, Renee smiles when asked to share her secret to longevity in dance. After all, not many ballerinas – or dancers of any style, for that matter – can boast such a long and successful career. “I think a lot of it has to do with your mindset,” she says. “One of the things that inspire me a lot is the young generation of dancers. Their music, the clothes they wear, their culture – it keeps me interested in more than the things that are ‘age-appropriate,’ which is an easy trap to fall into. Being around young people helps keep you zesty, it keeps you on your toes.”


Another way for Renee to stay so young for so long is to get a lot of exercise. “I work out and cross-train at least 4 times a week. On weekends, I walk around the block for 45 minutes or so. I’m also a huge advocate of Zena Rommett’s floor barre – I actually just got certified this year, so I don’t only take classes, but also teach them. I get my massage regularly. I’m also a huge fan of Pilates – and with Pilates, too, I teach as well as take class: I have a certificate to teach beginning and intermediate Pilates mat. I’m very much into gyrotonics and various yoga techniques. I pay attention to kinesiology: I am always in our physical therapist’s office, learning about how the body works and how to take care of injuries. Of course, food is a very important part of it, too: I eat a lot of vegetables (especially leafy greens), make sure to get my protein, and I juice a lot. In short, I take care of my body – and I recommend that any dancer start doing that from an early age. It will help them have a long, injury-free career.”


Yet another source of Renee’s youthfulness is that she enjoys many other activities in life besides dancing. Her other passions include sketching, learning languages, and fashion. “I would have never guessed that I would develop an interest in fashion,” laughs Renee, “But as an Ailey dancer, you do have to present yourself with a certain style, and I have grown to enjoy the creativity that goes into making all the elements of an outfit work together to create a certain effect.”


In her 25-year career with the Ailey company, Renee Robinson has accumulated a formidable fan club of dance luminaries, each of whom has so many things to say about her talent, dedication, beauty, and her significance in the world of dance. Yet, perhaps, the most succinct and heartfelt expression of these feelings came from Geoffrey Holder in his typically cadenced, instantly recognizable, majestic voice:  “Renee is brilliant.  Brilliant.  Brilliant.  She is an artist.  I love her.”

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