Alicia Graf Mack

The gift that keeps on giving is back at Ailey.

How long have you known Battle?
I met Robert when he was setting the piece Unfold on the company. I liked him from the jump because he was funny and very clear on what he wanted and what he wanted to see, but at the same time he didn't expect everyone to do it in the same way. He has a great sense of humor. We would laugh. And at the end of the rehearsal, he'd dance around the studio in his big old boots and you're kind of like, He's just a normal guy.

Is the company different under him?
It's not really so different. Not in a bad way—it doesn't feel stagnant. There are some really wonderful dancers, new and senior, and everybody has something special. Robert sees each dancer as an individual and wants to let them shine in whatever way brings out their best potential. I think he's going to do amazing things. The first day he took over he met with us and said, "Over time, I've gotten to know some dancers and they told me about the first time they saw Alvin Ailey...." He was saying that most of the time there was some type of version of, "I was sitting in the back of the theater and my eyes were just wide open and I was so inspired," and he asked us to maintain that sense of wonderment and innocence when we get tired or when the job gets hard. Something about that really resonated with me. If you don't have that sense of magic when you step out onstage, then it doesn't read. I thought that was special for him to say on his first day as artistic director, and I wrote it down.

It's good to remember, because around the end of December, it's hard.
[Laughs] It's the hardest job on the planet. And I've had lots of jobs, so I can say that.

Dancing in general, or dancing at Ailey?
I think in general. And then dancing here because it's the Ailey company. There's a name that goes with it that you have to live up to. It's a lot of responsibility. And we're performing a lot. We're on the road a lot. You have to stay mentally strong and physically strong.

Earlier in the interview, you said that you weren't going to fall to the bottom again. But how do you avoid the bottom?
[Laughs] Before, I had no idea I could do anything other than dancing. I was 20 or 21, living in New York by myself and I didn't have a degree or any other way to make money. I didn't have enough experience to teach. And I had never had an experience of injury or a life without dancing. It took me a good year or two to figure out who is Alicia who is not a dancer? That was really difficult. And at the same time, we couldn't figure out what my autoimmune disorder was. Every week I was going to see a different doctor, and I didn't know who to trust. I felt like everything was turned upside down. At this point, I feel that at least I have other foundations to build off of. I have my husband who is my No. 1 rock. If all else fails, I know I have him.

Which is huge.
It's huge. I'm not saying I'm not going to have hard times in my life, but I think that I know when to say, Okay, it's going to get better. At that point, I really couldn't say it's going to get better. It was deep depression.

How did you meet your husband?
We both went to Columbia. I met him in 2000 in an elevator in a dorm building and we had one conversation where he said, "Hi, I know you're a new transfer student here." We shook hands and I saw his gorgeous smile—he's a huge football player guy. And that was it. He graduated. His cousin also went to Columbia, and I was closer friends with his cousin; when I graduated, they came back as alumni for a spring fling type thing and I said, "Are you still living in St. Louis? I'm with Dance Theatre of Harlem and we're going to be performing there." They came to a show and that's how we started a friendship. I don't know if you want to know the whole sappy romantic story?

[Laughs] He played professional football in Canada for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and he had an injury and moved back to St. Louis and was working for a company that did operations and distribution for Swiss Army. When I started dancing for Ailey, my luggage kept falling apart; I really didn't know him well at the time, but I called him and said, "Do you think you could hook me up with a suitcase? A really good one—the Victorinox line?" So he sent me a gorgeous rolling duffel bag. "How much do I owe you?" "Oh, you don't owe me anything." Antonio said, "That's a nice bag. Do you think your friend could hook me up?" I called him. He sent Antonio a bag. And then another girl from Ailey.... I kept asking him for bags. I'd had boyfriends during that whole time. Finally, I was like, "For sending me all this stuff, I owe you dinner or a drink. Next time, you're in New York, I'll take you out." We met and had a really great time and it just turned into a relationship from there. We've known each other for 11, 12 years and been married for a year and a half.

How difficult is it to be apart? Do you Skype?
Yes. We have iPads and we use them a lot when I'm on tour. It's incredibly difficult. I guess the saving grace is that we're both working on our careers and happy with what we're doing and very supportive of each other's goals. We're each other's cheerleaders.