Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey revives a coveted concert, renews its goal to diversify dance
It’s been years since New York City's Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has performed in Kansas City. The Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, a nonprofit dance school, hopes this year's revived performance will help expand access in the metro to the art of dance.
On a dreary morning last week, a fleet of yellow school buses lined the streets around the Kauffman Center for Performing Arts. Around 1,000 students from K-12 schools in Kansas and Missouri, herded by teachers into organized lines, flooded into the theater.
Some were dressed to the nines — spring dresses and suits — for the occasion. They were about to be the first Kansas City audience in six years to watch the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
The ensemble was founded in 1958 by legendary dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, in an effort to preserve African American dance and cultural experience. The world-renowned troupe used to make regular trips to Kansas City.
“Having the young people able to see reflections of themselves on the stage is so critical to the mission of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater,” says Artistic Director Robert Battle.
Decades ago, Battle, only the third person to lead the company, was one of the kids in a similar audience. He saw the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform in Miami, Florida, when he was 11 years old.
“That's why it's important that we do those performances,” he says.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has a long history with Kansas City. Though he grew up in Texas and worked in New York City, Ailey made connections and established roots in the region.
In 1984, those roots were cemented when the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, a nonprofit dance school now based in the 18th and Vine district, was established.
Since then, KCFAA has worked to expand access to the arts and diversify dance. During the pandemic, when the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater wasn’t making the trip, Ailey II, a smaller troupe of early-career dancers, performed in Kansas City. Ailey II performed for a smaller, masked audience last year. In 2020 and 2021, the performances were digital.
This year’s revived performance with the larger dance team was presented by KCFAA and the Harriman-Jewell Series.
CEO Melanie Miller says the pandemic was really hard on KCFAA. They had to pivot in a lot of ways, she says, and they learned how to run a dance school remotely.
“What we found is that people still love to see dance and be involved in it — and even if it's on a small screen,” Miller says. “We do believe people love to see it in person more so.”
“Even virtually, we were able to appreciate the arts and encourage people to keep moving and dancing,” she says.
Though Miller hopes virtual dance classes are a thing of the past, the effects of the pandemic are not. Chief Artistic Officer Tyrone Aiken says, during COVID, outreach numbers went from 20,000 people to 5,000 people.
He says they are getting closer to pre-pandemic numbers, but they aren’t there yet.
“It's been very hard and things have changed, which means people look at the time that they have, and what they choose to do with that, differently than before,” says Aiken.
Getting people out to shows like the one at the Kauffman Center is not the hard part, he says – around 4,500 people attended those shows. But getting parents and kids to commit to regular classes is another story.
“When you're talking about classes, when you're talking about a camp … we're finding that we have to work harder to strengthen our ties to families so that they understand how this can impact them and their children,” Aiken says.
Aiken says art forms like dance often provide a vehicle to talk about difficult topics like Jim Crow laws or slavery. Also, he says it lets kids know that Black history belongs in schools.
“For us, it's important that we are talking about … race and we're talking about American history and American dance history,” says Aiken. “But through a lens that is both engaging and entertaining, so that students can start making some of the connections about the importance of African American history.”
“Those are all important things because, at the end of the day, it's American history, and we are all the better when we're informed about American history,” he says.
KCFAA also hosts AileyCamp, a six-week intensive summer dance course that teaches jazz, modern and tap dance. The camp also teaches students how to communicate and express themselves through things like creative writing and art.
The camp was created by Ailey himself in 1989, the same year he died of complications related to AIDS.
“Even knowing his own demise was near, he wanted to make sure that we addressed the young people who didn't otherwise have the opportunity to be exposed to this,” says Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Robert Battle.
“That (camp) started in Kansas City, so I think that says it all about that deep relationship,” he says. “And so we're happy to be back.”
At the Kauffman Center last week, students got to see Black history, music and dance come together in excerpts from two acts. The first was choreographed by acclaimed African American dancer Kyle Abraham, whose dance company aims to create work that is galvanized by Black culture and history. “Are You in Your Feelings?” sucked kids in with modern music by popular Black artists like Kendrick Lamar and Drake.
Battle says the full act blends old and new music from artists like Erykah Badu and The Flamingos.
“It's cross-generational. That's what's wonderful that it's past, present, and future,” he says. “No matter what age or what your background is, you find something to revel in when you see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.”
The modern sights and sounds work pretty well while students are captive in the Kauffman Center. But Melanie Miller says she wants KCFAA to become synonymous with Black excellence in the region.
“I'd really love for Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey to be on the tips of everyone's tongue,” she says.