His focused intensity in performance does not call attention to itself, yet Matthew Rushing inevitably draws the eye whenever he appears onstage with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Blessed with versatility and a fluent technique, he performs with scrupulous integrity, always getting to the heart of a choreographer's intentions. ¶ In Ailey's "Revelations" -- one of three works Rushing is scheduled to dance when the company begins a five-day L.A. engagement Wednesday night -- his clarity and sculptural control make the solo to the spiritual "I Wanna Be Ready" a portrait of a man preparing for the great beyond. He can be a shambling, understated clown in "Blues Suite" and a sleek bravura showman in a role fashioned for Mikhail Baryshnikov in "Pas de Duke." ¶ "I'm a performer. I get most of my information through performing, because I feel I'm most open in a performing atmosphere," the compact, thoughtful, 35-year-old L.A. native said recently, sitting in an office between rehearsals at the company's spacious, 5-year-old Manhattan headquarters. The dancers had just returned from a well-deserved break following a five-week New York City season and were preparing for the four-month, 50th anniversary national tour that is bringing them to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion this week.
FOR THE RECORD:
Matthew Rushing: An article in Tuesday's Calendar section about Alvin Ailey dancer Matthew Rushing referred to Donald Faison's "Suite Otis." The dance was choreographed by George Faison. —
In an earlier rehearsal of Donald Faison's "Suite Otis" -- a swirling, good-natured celebration of Otis Redding songs from the 1960s that has returned to the Ailey repertory for this golden jubilee season -- Rushing cut a serious, almost studious figure as Artistic Director Judith Jamison urged the dancers to "go inside, internalize" and "listen to what he's singing." But when the dancers charged through in couples during the finale, Rushing's whiplash turns and the dynamic impetus behind each of his phrases conveyed the music's exuberance.
"He has the fastest double tours I've ever seen in my life," Jamison said admiringly outside the studio afterward. "He is tenacious. He studies dance. He lives his life, but he remains a lover and a learner. He always thinks there's something more, and that makes him hungry for it. So that's what's so beautiful about him. When you see him dance, you see that hunger and that yearning for perfection that is just immense."
Rushing has now been with the 31-member Ailey troupe longer than anyone besides Renee Robinson. But his path to the company began several years before. When he was 13, his mother procured two tickets to a sold-out Ailey performance at the Wiltern Theatre from a scalper. The program included "Revelations" and also the celebrated female solo "Cry," both choreographed by the company founder. "I hadn't seen concert dance before that," Rushing recalled. "Those two dances touched me the most. I was so impressed that in 'Cry,' I saw images of my mother, my grandmother onstage. It blew me away that I could come to the theater and be able to relate personally to what's going on.
"When 'Revelations' was performed, I remember in 'Sinner Man' seeing black men dance for the first time. I have a very strong spiritual background and had recently been baptized, so seeing 'Take Me to the Water' and the church women in the finale was amazing. It touched me so deeply that it was then that I decided that not only did I want to be a dancer but I wanted to be a dancer in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater."
Rushing was already involved in a Parks and Recreation after-school program with classes in voice and theater as well as dance.
"At the end of each semester, we would put on an original musical. I loved seeing how you could use theater and dance, bring them together, to be able to communicate." The programs' classes emphasized "performance quality -- being able to dance from our spirits and from our hearts. I learned how to tap into who I was as an artist, and how freeing it was to dance from within. I remember dancing about really intense, mature themes."
Motivated by the Ailey performance, the youngster auditioned for the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. "I was auditioning, mind you, with basically no ballet technique whatsoever," he said. But he got in and quickly set about filling in any technical gaps. "I was overwhelmed with technique -- all the time, every day, two classes a day. In the summer, I took a ballet intensive at the school. So I was there year-round, taking ballet, modern and jazz classes."
During his senior year, Rushing's teacher Ka-Ron Brown brought him to an Ailey audition in Berkeley, since he was determined to attend the Ailey school and hoped for a scholarship to the summer program. Jamison, school director Denise Jefferson and Sylvia Waters, who directs the troupe's second company (now called Ailey II), were all present. Jamison recalled her first glimpse of the 17-year-old and how he mastered a difficult passage of Talley Beatty choreography: "The other students auditioning took about 10 minutes, but he learned it in about a minute."
Rushing got not only a full scholarship to the school but also a place in the second company. He missed his high school graduation so he could go to Washington, D.C., where he accepted an award as a Presidential Scholar in the Arts (and met the first President Bush), then took the train to New York and has never looked back. Most dancers spend two years in Ailey II, but Rushing was taken into the main company the next year, when he was 18.
There was an initial period of adjustment. He was not familiar with the technique of Lester Horton, the influential L.A.-based modern dance choreographer with whom Ailey had studied and performed and whose style is incorporated into many Ailey works. Ironically, during Rushing's formative years, there were few Horton teachers in Los Angeles.
"It was so hard to come here and basically start all over," he said. "It was humbling. But at the same time, it gave me this hunger. I was determined to get into the first company."
Fast-forward 17 years, and Rushing has now been with the "first company" for one-third of its existence. Guest choreographers inevitably want him in their casts, and he has roles in both the 50th anniversary premieres: Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti's "Festa Barocca" and company member Hope Boykin's "Go in Grace."
What has changed during his tenure? "The work level is much more intense, as is the touring. The repertoire is much more demanding -- the number of works and also how fast we have to learn them, and also the styles of dance. Within one piece, we do hip-hop, modern, jazz and ballet."
Having discovered Ailey young and matured as an artist within its richly varied repertoire, Rushing clearly feels intense pride as the company marks its milestone. "There's a strength and a beauty to the Ailey dancers. You bring anything our way, we'll figure out how to tackle it," he said.
As for his seniority, "I don't see myself as being the 'older, wiser' one, not at all -- not when I can look on the stage and see how incredible those dancers are. I can't help but learn from them."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times