Baltimore dancer steps into role with prestigious Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre

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Gifted with a mother's second sight, Catherine Johnson knew her daughter Jacqueline Green better than the child knew herself.

In 2004, the eighth-grader insisted she had absolutely zero desire to study dance. "Oh, Mom," she said, rolling her eyes. "Why would I want to do that?"

Nonetheless, at her mother's prodding and though she had never taken a dance class in her life, she auditioned for the Baltimore School of the Arts.

On Tuesday, the 22-year-old Green will return to her hometown for the first time as a member of the main company of Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, one of America's premier modern dance troupes.

"The first year at the School for the Arts, my teachers kept doing all these things to my body," Green said.

"They'd grab my leg and lift it, try to make my foot point. A few of us were new to ballet, and we had to work so hard to catch up. But somewhere along the line, I fell in love with dance. I don't know how my mother knew. But thank God she did."

Ailey II, the company's junior ensemble of apprentice dancers, visits Baltimore every few years, often at Artscape. In addition, the main company has a longstanding annual gig at Washington's Kennedy Center.

But the two-day visit to the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric will be the first time since 1994 that Baltimore's dance fans will be able to see Ailey's top-tier troupe without having to travel to D.C.

Despite a less-than-ideal schedule — the performances are being held Tuesday and Wednesday nights — Lyric administrators had no trouble selling out the 2,564-seat theater.

Sandy Richmond, the Lyric's president and executive director, said that the recent $12.9 million renovation of the historic theater made it possible to lure the main company to Baltimore after an absence of nearly two decades.

"During the renovation, we added 25 feet in width and 6 feet in depth to the stage," he said.

"We brought in counterweights to raise and lower scenery, replacing the old sandbag system. We've been talking to other nationally known dance companies and hope to book some of them for future seasons. Now that we are modernized, we are a great venue for dance."

Tuesday's performance also marks a homecoming for Alicia Graf Mack, a native of Columbia and one of the troupe's bona fide stars.

Mack left the company in 2008 because of an injury. But last spring, she had healed enough to perform a duet during a celebration for the company's departing artistic director, Judith Jamison.

"I started plotting that night," said Ailey's artistic director, Robert Battle. "We were in the studio. My mouth fell open and I said, 'Oh my God, this girl needs to be dancing.' As soon as Alicia got on stage and around the dancers and the energy of this company, I think she wanted to come back, so I didn't have to plot too much."

The two-day visit will also provide Baltimore with its first glimpse of the 53-year-old company under Battle, who became just the third artistic director in Ailey's history last fall.

Battle moved quickly to make his mark, introducing his dancers to choreographers from unfamiliar genres. For instance, he commissioned a piece about AIDS from hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris. The number, called "Home," will be performed to house and gospel music.

"I thought that hip-hop would be the unexpected quantity in the conversation about AIDS," Battle said.

"I've seen a lot of modern dance choreographed on that topic, but I haven't seen a lot of hip-hop. It's a celebration of life. It's not gloomy."

The program will also include the company's signature work, "Revelations," which traces African-Americans' journey from slavery through a series of dances set to spirituals and the blues. In addition, the Ailey dancers will perform three short pieces choreographed by Battle: 'Takademe," "The Hunt" and "In/Side."

"For me, this year is about the past, the present and the future," Battle said. "I want to honor the great works of the past that have been important to the company and to the dance field. But I also want to keep the company and our audience on the precipice of discovery."

Toward that end, Battle brought in nine new dancers to fill vacancies in the company — an unusually large number. Dance frequently is choreographed based on dancers with specific bodies and specific skills, so the bodies Battle chose will inevitably determine the future look of the main company. One of his first hires was Green, whom Battle promoted from Ailey's junior troupe.

"I looked for performers who are virtuosic, but also who are flexible and can adapt to many different styles," he said.

"Jacqueline is an exquisite dancer. I remember seeing her perform 'Shards,' an abstract piece by Donald Byrd.' She has a natural maturity. She was able to just be, to present the material with quiet strength and without telegraphing her emotions. I think she's going to go very far."

She already has. When Green tried out for the Baltimore School for the Arts, she was ... well, green.

"Except for one summer camp in middle school, I'd never danced in my life," she said.

But Norma Pera, who heads the high school's dance department, knew immediately that the young girl with the posture of a queen had potential.

"Jacqueline was just a natural, and they don't come along very often," Pera said.

"And the fact that she was so bright and willing to work so hard made a huge difference. She didn't just stand in the studio and learn shapes. She learned how to think through the dance internally."

Green continued her studies at Fordham University. While she was still in college, she started performing with Ailey II and fell in love with the company's repertoire.

"Every dance that Mr. Ailey choreographed feels emotionally moving on the body," she said.

"The movements show you exactly what he was feeling in his soul and heart. It's in the contractions, in how deep you bend an elbow or a leg. Other choreographers do that, too, but I feel it to a greater degree when I dance him."

That's a profound realization, and in a few days, Green will finally have a chance to share that and other insights on stage with her family and friends in the audience. More than a week before the performances, she was already feeling excited and anxious, hopeful and determined.

"I can dance in front of anyone else in the world," Green said. "But when I dance in front of my mom, I get nervous. I want to make her proud. I want to show her: 'Look, this is how you directed my life, and this is how well it came out.' "

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre performs at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, 140 W. Mt. Royal Ave. Tickets are sold out. Call 410-685-5086 or go to http://www.lyricoperahouse.com.

Jacqueline Green

Age: 22

Birthplace: Baltimore

Residence: New York

Job: Became a member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in 2011

Education: graduated Baltimore School for the Arts, 2007; Fordham University, B.F.A. in dance, 2011.

Catch her in: "Home" and "Revelations" at the Lyric.

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