Published: December 9, 2010
As the City Center curtain rises, a dancer stands center stage, arms clasped above her head with her sternum and eyes lifted towards the sky. With the first somber string of Kevin Jarrett’s composition, it is as if a jolt of electricity separates her hands, igniting a reverent port de bra. This principal dancer represents Joyce Trisler, for whom the ballet “Memoria” was choreographed.
Alvin Ailey choreographed “Memoria” in 1979 after the premature death of Trisler, a close friend and colleague of Ailey’s in the Lestor Horton Company. The ballet is composed of two parts: “In Memory” and “In Celebration,” which pay homage and find joy in Trisler’s life and legacy. A testament of Ailey’s dedication to perpetuating Trisler’s spirit, this winter’s performance of “Memoria” on Dec. 5, 11 and 13 marks the first time this season that the Ailey Company, Ailey II, and select members of the Ailey School share the stage.
Courtney Henry, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’11, is one of only 10 dancers selected from the Ailey School to share the stage with members from Ailey’s first and second company. Henry’s technique, poise and dedication to the art of dance have afforded her this opportunity not once but twice, as she gears up for her second consecutive season performing the ballet. A soon-to-be graduate of the Ailey/Fordham B.F.A. program, the Observer turns the spotlight on Henry to discuss this extraordinary opportunity.
Observer: Knowing the meaning and history behind “Memoria,” how do you conjure up the emotions needed to give the piece the overall sentiment that Ailey intended?
Courtney Henry: We are told in rehearsal to think of something sad. Having never known Joyce Trisler I cannot pull from that experience, so the responsibility lies on me to create my own back-story. We all have experienced sadness and happiness and it is this feeling, not the steps, that the audience relates to.
Observer: How are these feelings manifested in the actual choreography?
C.H.: In the first section, there are a lot of contractions and movements that have the upper body concaved and hovered to portray the vulnerability you feel when you experience loss.
Observer: Do you find it difficult to transition from feelings of sorrow to joy in the second section, “In Celebration”?
C.H.: No, because I think the music has a lot to do with it. In the first section the music is sober, all strings, and the movement is slow, attenuated and continuous to reflect this. In the second section, the music is upbeat and joyous. Everyone is on stage and there is this collective spirit of energy and joy that we all thrive off of.
Observer: Does the quality of movement reflect this change?
C.H.: Absolutely. The movement is upbeat, fast and staccato. There are a lot of arabesques (formal ballet position) and big jumps. Hip angulations and vibrant port de bras invigorate the movement. We deem this section the “party scene.”
Observer: Having performed many times, what is the most challenging part about performing in “Memoria”?
C.H.: Maintaining a consistent focus is the most challenging part. There are so many people dancing on stage at once, it is easy to get distracted.
Observer: As a dancer, how do you allow yourself to get immersed in the piece without losing a personal sense of artistry?
C.H.: If you focus on the steps, you just end up executing them. Concentrating on the overall meaning of the piece allows you to have a seamless thought process and bring your own experiences, feelings, and understanding. This is why Ailey’s works have withstood the test of time. Every time they are performed, different dancers bring their own individual knowledge and background to make that performance unique.
Observer: I’ve been anxious to ask, what was it like performing on City Center stage for the first time?
C.H.: I distinctly remember the first rehearsal in the theater, being on that stage and looking out into the audience. It was so amazing. It is such a huge space. Then you add costumes and lights and it finally all comes together.
Observer: Is dancing in such a magnificent theater intimidating?
C.H.: The way I see it, there are two ways of thinking. Some dancers found themselves feeling really small, or you can look at it as being a part of something grand. I chose the latter.
Observer: What have you learned from working and dancing alongside company members?
C.H.: The one thing that always inspires me is their upper body. I think as a student we focus a lot on our legs and even when they are just marking, their upper body is so invested. You can see the movement being initiated from the torso and back and I love watching it.
Observer: How is performing “Memoria” this year different that last year?
C.H.: This year I am definitely more comfortable with the movement. I know what to expect and for the most part, knew the steps.
Observer: As artists you are constantly looking to improve your art. Since you have reached a level of comfort with steps, are you approaching the work differently?
C.H.: Absolutely. I can pay more attention to the details and explore the initiation of movement and the transitions between steps.
Observer: What has this two-year process taught you about yourself as a dancer and artist?
C.H.: This has truly been an amazing opportunity. Coming back to the movement a year later, I am finding out a lot of things about myself. I have used this experience as a gage to see how I have grown and look to the company for ways I can continue to grow.