Alicia Graf Mack

The gift that keeps on giving is back at Ailey.

Doesn't teaching make you ultra aware of your own dancing?
Definitely. That's what brought me back to dancing. I was so wanting to give them a great experience that it brought me back to all the things that I love about dancing. I really pushed them. One thing I would tell them was, "If nothing else, come here because you love it. Don't come here for the grade, don't come here to prove yourself to anyone—you don't have to prove anything to me. You just have to continue to grow every day in your own way. Set goals for yourself." All of those things that you say to inspire someone? I was talking to myself.

And how did you return to dancing?
I started taking class if I had an hour or two off. Of course, word started getting around, "Alicia's taking class...." [Laughs] And then I started getting little gigs here and there. It was fun. I did a gala performance at COCA. I did a project with Michael Thomas, who is an ex-Ailey dancer who did SummerStage at the Jackie Robinson Bandshell. He came to COCA to teach and I took his class. He was like, "Oh, my gosh, you're in great shape!" and I said, "I really miss it." So he said, "Do you want to come and dance with us in New York?" "Okay." Sarita Allen was in the show, Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, Troy Powell. And it was just really fun to be back in the whole mix of Ailey world and performing. I guess that was the spark to really force me to take class. And then I got an opportunity to perform and teach in Milan at a convention where they asked, "Do you want to perform?" And I said, "I guess...." I thought it was just a little thing but it wasn't: The Bolshoi was there and dancers from the Royal Ballet and other amazing companies—and there's me. I don't know how I turned up there. It was an opportunity that fell from the sky.

What did you perform?
I danced a solo by Kirven Boyd. He is such a talented choreographer. He sets pieces on COCA, so one year I said, "Could I have a three-or-four-minute solo just in case little stuff comes along?" It's a contemporary-ballet piece. That was in December 2010 and at the same time [Ailey associate artistic director Masazumi] Chaya called me. He was getting ready to put together the tribute-night performance for Ms. Jamison and asked, "Would you want to dance?" I was like, [Whispers] "Yeah, I want to dance." I got to perform Reminiscin' with Jamar [Roberts]. I was really nervous, but at the same time there was this odd sense of peace and calmness that I had never experienced as a performer. It surprised me because I wasn't taking class every day. I had a full-time job and a marriage and all these things that I hadn't had as a full-time performer. But something about that experience made me realize that this is what I'm made to do, and if my body is working properly, then I should do this. And all the complicated things with my health and life—because I'm married and was living in St. Louis—just kind of came together. To step away from dance because of pain or discomfort...the discomfort of not doing what you're meant to do is equally as painful. I'm one of those people who is going to succeed come hell or high water—wherever I land. If it's that I'm teaching, I'm going to be the best teacher I know I can be. If it's that I'm going to be an executive director of a company, then I'm going to do it with everything that I have. But when I know that there's a place in me that has still not been completely fulfilled, it's very hard. So that's where all of this came from. After the tribute-night performance, I had a conversation with my husband. Well, first, I had a conversation with my dad. [Laughs]

How did that happen?
I was here the Christmas season leading up to the shows, and I took class with the company and watched a lot of shows and I kind of got back into the swing of New York. I went home for Christmas—my parents live in Maryland—and my dad was asking me, "How were the shows in Italy?" and I said, "They went so well, I felt like I had never left—my body was working properly and everything fell into place," and then I started crying. He was like, "What's going on?" I told him how much I missed it, and how I hadn't really given those thoughts their full weight because I didn't want to mess up my life in St. Louis.

It's a disruption.
It's a huge disruption. For me, dancing is not promised. I have an illness that I manage pretty well—but then nobody's dance career is promised, if they're healthy or not. He said, "I think you need to talk to your husband." [Laughs] We decided that we weren't going to talk about it over the phone. [My husband] is the most supportive, most amazing best friend that I could have ever asked for, and he knew me as a dancer with Ailey so he knows how much this world is a part of me. He said, "You have a talent that many people don't have, and you also have a love for it that a lot of people don't have," and he encouraged me to make the decision just based on how I felt. He said, "Whatever you decide to do, I'll do whatever I can to make everything work." He transferred to Maryland so that we could be close. He works for Edward Jones. I commute on the weekends, or he'll come up here, and that's how I ended up back at Ailey. It's an incredible journey.

Do you feel like you're dancing differently?
I do. I made the goal this time to approach the dancing in a different way. Of course, technically I want to be proficient, but I think that there are other things that are much more important to me now, like having a sense of freedom on the stage. Because I wanted to be so perfect, sometimes I felt confined by the movement. I'm striving to let the movement be freeing. I want to develop into the type of artist that I've seen many people who have longevity in their careers become, and I find that the way that they move—I want to be like that. Matthew Rushing is one of those people. He's just movement personified. He's spirit personified and every time you see him, it's as if he stepped on the stage for the first time. Carmen de Lavallade is [my] No. 1 idol. Even now, she steps out onstage and she is more beautiful than most dancers.

She is more beautiful than most of the world.
[Laughs] I look at her and say, "Now what is that? What is that thing?" It's very intangible.

Wendy Whelan has it.
I saw her perform at the reopening of City Center. She was amazing. I was talking to Matthew about this last week, and he said, "It's funny because it's only something maturity can give you, and it's sad because you have to have longevity in order to understand that, but it's nothing you can pull out. You can't develop it; it just happens over time." What a blessing for me to be able to learn to tap into that. I don't feel like I have a lot to prove. When you're younger, you feel like you have to prove things to people to show that you're worthy, and now I just want to share. That's really all.

Who did you get in touch with to rejoin the company?
Well, I had been around for two or three weeks, so I would watch performances with [Ailey artistic director] Robert [Battle] or Chaya. I don't know who approached who—it was kind of a running conversation and even when I decided to leave, Chaya was very clear: "Just keep in touch."