By William Scott
“It came the minute I got in. I knew my life was going to change, ” remembers Chicago native Chris Jackson of his acceptance into the company. I caught up with him by phone in Iowa City. He is there on tour with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT). From a small dance studio in Maywood, Illinois to one of the most esteemed dance companies in the world, Jackson has come a long way.
“Growing up I didn’t know too much. The one person that was the male icon in dance was Mikhail Baryshnikov,” Jackson says. In 1998, he began his formal dance training at The Chicago Academy for the Arts High School under the direction of Randy Duncan and the late Anna Paskevska. That is where his boundaries expanded as these mentors introduced him to new forms of dance and encouraged his growth.
“I loved modern dance. They told me there was a black company in New York and I should go and dance for The Ailey School. Thank goodness they did. I knew right away that dancing at the school was my first goal,” Jackson recounts. The Ailey School has been a pivotal training center for young dancers since its namesake, Alvin Ailey, founded it in 1963. It continues to feed directly into the Ailey dance company and the dance world at large.
Jackson’s talent did not go unnoticed. In 2001 he was admitted to the school as a recipient of the Alvin Ailey Fellowship. His two years in the coveted program, offering full-time training for students who show the highest potential for a career in dance, set the young performer on a life-altering path.
After stints as an apprentice with River North Dance Chicago and as a member of Ailey II, the school’s junior company in residence, Jackson was presented with an even greater opportunity. In 2004 he was given his place in Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and he seized the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of generations of modern dancers.
Masazumi Chaya, AAADT associate artistic director, is celebrating his thirty-fifth year with the company and knows full well the journey of a dancer entering Ailey’s ranks. “I try to remember what Alvin was saying when he choreographed, to stay with the original dance,” Chaya says, “but we have so many dancers that can do so many incredible technical things, each time it is unique.”
Ailey’s signature dance, “Revelations,” an exploration of African-American rural Southern spirituality, had become something of a rite of passage for dancers in the company. It is danced almost 300 times each year and concludes nearly every concert. Jackson bears this torch with a great amount of pride and responsibility. “The piece has been around for forty-eight years. It is timeless and every time it feels new,” he says. “Coming in and having the same experience as so many dancers is amazing.”
Watching company members enjoy performing Ailey’s work is just as much a part of the process, tells Chaya: “I think it makes Alvin happy.”
The Ailey experience does not stop at “Revelations.” “I’ve been to places I’ve never dreamed of, across America, Russia, France,” says Jackson, his excitement for what he does evident in his voice. “I love seeing things I’ve never seen before.” He now has plenty of opportunity to have new experiences. The company often sits down in its New York City home for only two week, sometimes one, before heading back out on the road. But it is this weekend that we will see Chris Jackson back home.
“Chicago, that’s my place right there. It is where my family and friends are,” he says of the company’s yearly visit to his hometown. For a dancer who loves touring but hates living out of a suitcase, the Chicago engagement serves as a kind of respite. “No one is ever standing still in New York City,” he says.
The company will bring some of that New York City hustle with them when they hit Chicago for five days. Jackson is featured in “The Groove To Nobody’s Business” (Saturday and Sunday), choreographed by Camille A. Brown in 2007. In this piece, set on a NYC subway, Jackson plays that sick guy no one wants to be around. You know the one—annoying and gross.
“He’s so theatrical, his acting really helps lift the work,” Chaya says of Jackson’s efforts.
But is it more than just the dance that had Jackson eager for Chicago. “It is great to be there and feel that energy and support coming from the audience,” he says. “It feels like home.”
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Congress. This production is now closed.