Antonio Douthit-Boyd talks about his career at Alvin Ailey
Antonio Douthit-Boyd lights up Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Thu Nov 21 2013
Photograph: Gert Krautbauer
Antonio Douthit-Boyd is one of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's most riveting members. (He also happens to grace the company's poster this year.) As he matures as a dancer, Douthit-Boyd looks for inspiration in Ailey veterans Matthew Rushing and Linda Celeste Sims, as well as through the guidance of associate artistic director Masazumi Chaya. In this interview, he discusses his incredibly busy City Center season and more.
At a rehearsal for D-Man in the Waters (Part I), choreographer Bill T. Jones watches Antonio Douthit-Boyd swing a leg in quick succession over each of his two female partners, before landing, between them, in a split. “I did that once,” Jones says admiringly. Douthit-Boyd, 32, a member of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since 2004, can do a lot of things; this season, along with D-Man, he’s featured in Chroma, Pas de Duke and The River. Really, he’s in just about everything. If you see the Ailey poster in the subway, take note: That’s Douthit-Boyd, showing some leg.
How do you find out you make the cover of the Ailey season?
It was really weird. We were in the middle of rehearsal one day. My husband, Kirven [Douthit-Boyd], was on the poster in 2012. I remember him being called out of the room. He came back and was like [Whispers], “Robert just told me I’m on the poster, don’t tell anyone.” Alicia [Graf Mack] was on the poster last year. This year, we were in the middle of rehearsal, and I wasn’t thinking about the poster or any of the photos we took for the season brochure; someone said, “Robert is looking for you.” I was like, “What does he want? Did I do something?” I went to his office and he said, “I have something to show you.” He had the pictures on his wall backward, and he turned one around and I screamed and cussed loudly. He said, “That’s the first time I’ve gotten that reaction.” But it was great. To see it and then to see it around the city—I think that’s even better. Ahhhh!
Why? Does being on the Ailey poster change your outlook?
Every dancer will say it’s not about the accolades, it’s about the work, and it is about the work, but sometimes you want to see that portrait of yourself. When it happens, it’s almost surreal. You have to step up to the plate, because everyone’s looking at you. Not that I’ve ever been a slacker, but you want to see yourself in a different place each year. So reinventing myself is kind of what this poster has done for me. It’s really hard, because I’m cast in so many ballets. When I start to get tired in rehearsal, and [associate artistic director Masazumi] Chaya’s like, “You look really great, just keep it going,” I’m always like, I feel like crap, this looks like crap, don’t tell me that. I’m not watching myself, but it just feels like there’s so much; but there are times when I can step away and watch another cast and it’s easier to see where I’m having troubles. So I can fix myself by watching other people.
Do you talk to other dancers like Linda Celeste Sims, who has danced a ton of roles for years?
I talk to Matthew Rushing and Linda a lot. Linda and I are partnered up in Chroma so we’ve been having a lot of separate rehearsals from everyone else. We’ll take ourselves aside and talk through the movement. This is our first time really being featured together. I’ll ask her how she paces herself, because sometimes she will dance four ballets a night. She says, “Sometimes you have to give 100 [percent], but you can’t give that 110 that your body knows it can do, because you have three other ballets after that.” I can take that to heart. I’m the kind of dancer that likes to hit everything. I attack everything, but as I get older, Matthew’s letting me know that you can scale back—because your energy is so high, people still see it so you don’t have to force your way through the wall. It’s like, let them into your world. It’s hard to hear that because sometimes you feel like you’re marking and not giving your all, but it looks more refined to the eye. So that is trying to resonate in my head. I still find myself pushing to that 110, and I get exhausted really quickly, and then I find a way to pull it back, because I know I have a lot of other ballets to do.
Can you see how Matthew does that? Maybe you’re moving into the space of figuring out that kind of presence.
It’s a whole other element of dance. When you see him dance, it almost looks like he’s underwater sometimes. We started a mentoring program together.
Really? What is it?
It’s ASAP: Ailey Students and Ailey Professionals. Matthew and I came together because a student of mine from St. Louis—where I teach when I’m off in January—was in the Ailey/Fordham B.F.A. Program, but disappeared for a while and we were like, where is he? He wouldn’t answer the phone, so I ended up calling his mother; she told me that he went through something with school and he had to be taken out of the program. Out of nowhere he was gone. I was like, if there was a way for younger dancers to communicate with professionals, then they might last longer. It’s a foreign world when they come to New York from a place like St. Louis; maybe they need someone who they can call when things are rough. This is our third year doing the program. Students apply; we get a huge number of essays and go through each application to figure out which student is paired up with a dancer in the company. This year, we have 22 company members mentoring students. Amazingly, the kid who we started the program for is back in the school now and in the mentoring program this year. So hanging out with Matthew and seeing him in that light and talking to him on the side about dance gives me a lot of insight on what I need to do to get to where he has gotten.
You aren’t that dancer’s mentor, are you?
Oh no. We knew each other from my studio. I was his first circus teacher. I was working at a circus camp—you know the summer jobs they give students in schools because they’re trying to raise money to go off to different summer programs? I had to raise money to go off to San Francisco Ballet one summer, and he was in the circus camp. I mentored and coached him all through high school until he came to the Fordham program. It would be kind of odd for me to be like, Oh, that’s going to be my kid! We know each other. But my mentee this year is really cool; he’s from Chicago and we have a lot of similarities in our backgrounds, growing up with families who weren’t so supportive of dance. We relate that way.
How do they mentor you?
It’s odd. Matthew and I always say when we pair people up that the students can sometimes help us as professionals. Sometimes we get so tunnel-vision in our own careers that we start to forget why we started doing this. Sometimes being around younger people, you start to go, Oh yeah, I remember that feeling. They kind of do mentor us in a way; they help us to mentor them, which is a give-give situation.
Tell me about Chroma. Have you seen it?
I saw Chroma on YouTube performed by the Royal Ballet. I was like, This is amazing! That year, we went to London and Wayne’s company was having a workshop; you could take their company class and participate a little bit in his rehearsals, because he was doing a study filming dancers and seeing how bodies moved within the space, so he had cameras in every corner of the studio. I took their company class and then got back to the theater for my rehearsals and class and to do my show; Chaya said, “If it’s on your own time, go do it.” So every morning, I would wake up, go to Wayne’s ballet class—I couldn’t do any of the rehearsals, because I had to get back to the theater. And I never got to see Wayne because someone else would teach the ballet class. But I got to experience the environment. Then, the Australian Ballet was here, and they were premiering one of Wayne’s ballets; I saw him coming out of the theater and said, “Oh my God, I took your workshop, and I’m really impressed with you,” and he said, “What’s your name?” I told him that I danced for Alvin Ailey, and he said, “That’s really interesting. I’m coming to see you tomorrow.” I texted Chaya. He said, “I didn’t want to tell anyone, but Wayne’s coming to watch rehearsal.” Wayne had contacted Ailey to ask if he could do a ballet on us because he was very interested in the company; mind you, the company had been watching his works and hoping that one day we would do one of his ballets, but he contacted us. Chaya had been watching Chroma for a while and asked if we could do Chroma. Somehow it all happened. It was freaky.
I am so proud of Antonio. What a beautiful article and insight to what it feels like to be at the top of your game. The article is so well-written, I feel like I'm sitting across the table from his at Starbuck's getting an update from an old friend. Wishing you continued success in your career and can't wait to see you, again, onstage. From a proud St. Louisian! Best wishes always.