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Hope Boykin of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Photograph: Matthew KarasHope Boykin of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Alvin Ailey dancer Hope Boykin on the new season

Ailey's powerhouse Hope Boykin stars in Matthew Rushing's latest production

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Hope Boykin, back onstage with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater after recovering from a shoulder injury, talks about why she's excited to dance again. One reason? She's cast as the lead in Matthew Rushing's new ODETTA, based on the life of the folksinger. For Boykin, a member of Joan Myers Brown's Philadanco before joining Ailey in 2000, teaching is her great joy. Here, she discusses her illustrious career.

Where were you when you first met Matthew Rushing?
I remember the exact moment. And then we were fast friends. I’ve known him longer than some of the people in the company have been alive. [Laughs]

What happened?
I was at the school thinking I would be in New York for a month. It was the very first time they held “January Experience.” People could come and enroll in classes for a month to try it out or see if they wanted to continue. That was the month I had off of college.

At Howard University?
Yes. I ended up not going back. I was in a class in studio three, so it must have been something modern, maybe Horton. He was with his good friend Kim, who said, “Come here!” I went to the door. She said, “Point your feet! Look, Matthew, come look at this girl.” And that’s when I met him. She wanted him to see that I had an arch in my foot. [Laughs] I never thought about it. I grew up in an environment dancing where I was one of the only African-Americans. Maybe there were two of us in some classes, but it never dawned on me what was expected or what wasn’t common or normal, because I was always different. But I was never treated differently. It’s always surprising when people ask me about battles or struggles, but when I was in junior high and high school, I didn’t even realize that I was any different. I was the black girl in the class so that was enough difference. That was the only thing that was signaled out. I was always in the group. So I never really noticed. But that was when I met Matt and we started talking and then we would hang out, and hang out means just dancing in the studio after everything’s done. You’d go in there and just dance until you couldn’t dance anymore. He was in the company; I’m older than Matthew by a year, and we just got along. I definitely believe in love at first sight because some of my best friends I met that way, and Matthew is definitely one of them.
 
Do you actually play Odetta in his new dance?
[Laughs] I get to play Odetta.
 
How did you hear about ODETTA?
Matthew and I were on our way to church one day, and he said, “You know those times when you choreograph for someone? I choreographed this for you.” I just went into a brief hysteria. I couldn’t stop crying. Hearing that was something. I knew he trusted me, but I didn’t know how much I trusted myself. My injury last June took me out of action for two and a half months, and it was great. I got a chance to see myself. My mirror was wiped clean. I wasn’t pretending. I dealt with a lot of personal things. I hadn’t had time to grieve about certain things, process other things, laugh. I walked in the park every day. It was 20 blocks from my apartment; I had to get my exercise that way, and I was walking and thinking, I can’t believe I live this close. I was blessed by all of those things, but I did not know how hard it was going to be. I was constantly trying to prove to myself that I was still able to do this.
 
To do what?
Alvin Ailey. Because you don’t realize that you’re on a constant train, and when you get off, you have to run past it. My coworkers have not stopped. They are superheroes. Every one of them has on a cape. The pause that I took put me in a different place. I was like, how do I catch back up?
 
Did you want to?
I absolutely wanted to. The break taught me that I love it. I knew I loved it, but you never really know if you want to fight to go back and I always said, “I won’t come back after a big injury.” That was not even a second thought. I didn’t teach or dance; I didn’t do anything dance-related, but go to physical therapy. I was completely, as I saw it, disconnected, but it was eye-opening to realize that I was not finished in this realm. Whatever is next or coming later, there is still work to be done onstage because there are still people who need to get a chance to see that they can do it because I did. I used to say I’m the poster child for “You can do it.” I believe that. I’m in the doctor’s office getting a follow-up and a student was in the doctor’s office, and she was just struggling. I looked at her and said, “This is just a pause.” I was able to give her that [reassurance], but had I not been in the company, had I not been injured, had I not taught her, had I not had these opportunities, I wouldn’t be able to give her the insight and she wouldn’t be able to receive it. But because she trusts me, it’s a little bit different. I also spent time writing while we were off and I was thinking to myself, What makes me valid? What makes me relevant? Why do we appreciate some teachers versus other teachers and what information are we imparting to our students, and are we trying to make them like us or are we trying to make them better people? Better, stronger, more efficient and proficient, yes, but loving them because of who they are.
 
What age do you teach?
I usually work with the freshmen. This has been the fifth year. I never assume it’s going to happen again, but I choreograph for the B.F.A. concert. They’re freshmen in college: Ailey/Fordham B.F.A. program. Every year I’m invited back I get excited. It’s another opportunity. I see them and I want to tell them everything that I know so my new model is I’ll teach you whatever I’ve got. I’ll give it to you, because what is the point of holding it in? If you want it, I’ll share it.
 
And I’m sure you learn more about yourself too, right?
Oh the more I share with them, the better I become. You’d think that I’d be tired, because I’ve added an extra day here. On Saturdays, I work with the junior division. I teach a class for level four, so they’re about 13, and then I do another for level six, which is 15 to 18. I don’t dread it. I don’t! Sometimes I’m tired, but when I get here I’m ready for them. And I get to see if what I’ve said about what I believe works.

What do you teach?
I teach Horton. I teach Horton and Hope. There are some things that aren’t in the book. I want them to know when I’m going a little bit off track, but then I bring it right to them. I believe this technique is so important. It’s extremely fortifying, and I want them to get the best of it, but I need to make sure they understand some things, so I might do a little variation. I try to teach the way my mom says you have to teach someone: not like they are able to retain, but like they’ve never heard it. That involves me being imaginative. My mother is a retired educator. She graduated from high school when she was 15 and from college right before she turned 19. She was teaching until after she had me and then assistant principal, then principal—a superhero. Her cape is like down the street. [Laughs] I say, “Mom, it’s a dance class, it’s not the same.” She says, “All learning is the same. Education is the same.” She’s right.
 
Do you think Horton technique is disrespected or thought of as being old-fashioned?
But I think all modern techniques are considered old. Modern is an old word. If modern is that old, we have to think about how we’re expressing it. That’s the other thing I was writing about: How can we make it relevant right now? We just have to bring ourselves forward to their understanding. I believe when I teach, I share it from that base. I realize it’s not considered contemporary dance, but I can teach you this because I understand it, and it is fortifying and you will get stronger.

I love Ailey’s Horton-inspired dances.
You see that it’s the most organic thing. We were in Kansas City, and I was in the house watching Memoria. I’ve seen it forever, but it is just incredible.

Earlier you said that you weren’t pretending anymore. What are you referring to?
I couldn’t really lie to myself about personal things. In May of 2013 I lost my dad. And then around the same time of this past year, we lost [technical director] E.J. Corrigan and [senior director of performance and production] Calvin Hunt. We were in the same location that it happened [on tour], but we had to keep going. Pushing forward builds your strength, but then sometimes you’re numb and when everyone left, I sent Matthew an email: “Everyone left me. I’m here to face the things that I had not been able to face.” This was when I was injured. There were days when I never turned on the television, there were days when I just wrote—I would frequent all of the coffeeshops in Harlem. I was just getting it out, and that’s the pretending I meant: looking in the mirror and saying, Let’s deal with this now, how is it really making you feel? The grief one day, but I’d remember my dad saying this and E.J. saying something else. One day, I’d be angry about it; the next, I’d remember. I saw something on somebody’s Facebook page: Pain is weakness leaving your body. I was like, yeah, yeah right. It’s like when they say, if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. I’m like, if it doesn’t kill you, it just doesn’t kill you! Eventually you will build a muscle—our heart muscles build, our compassion muscles build. Just like everything else, but you just don’t realize what you’re able to withstand until you’re given the opportunity.
 
What was your injury?
Just some shoulder drama. I just didn’t really admit the severity of it until I was talking to someone while we were at Lincoln Center and then my arm just fell. I knew: I was like, Oh I’m not going [on tour]. The next week, we were packing, and I was buying toiletries. I was like, I’m not going. I can’t raise my arm! There’s no way. But I danced through the season, because I had said, This I need to do. I’m not trying to sound like I have wings or anything, but I am definitely a miracle. I’m forced to replay the things I have overcome even if no one knows. [She demonstrates how she managed to manipulate her arm and shoulder during Revelations.] Being in an organization like this that was built on so much love and love for a person makes you make sacrifices. We are so quick to forget. And so quick to forget to remind the young ones that this is why you’re able to do all of these things.
 
What did you start back with?
Matthew’s rehearsal was my first official day back to work.

Tell me about this piece.
He likes to do a lot of research. He’s really good at finding his way around things. I know he was struggling because she has so much music. You’re given a certain amount of time to tell some sort of story, but then you have to create a story that you’re going to tell about a person who’s already existed. You’re not making it up. So how to be honest with her, how to make a through-line. It’s been pretty amazing. He keeps saying it’s bigger than he could have envisioned, and I think he means that he has so many more aspects of it in his mind—and I think we do this alike. We don’t sell ourselves short by saying we can’t have this, but we see the things that we would like. I really think he has everything to some degree that he really dreamed of. I’m really proud of him, because he’s my friend and because he’s who the younger generation looks up to. I tend to say he’s written a book; are you going to rewrite it, because you’re following his footsteps? Can you revise the edition of what it’s like to be a successful male dancer and one who’s acclaimed and honored and kind and loving? That person is undeniable. We previewed the piece in Kansas and we had a circle for the very first time; he came in the circle and very rarely do choreographers do that, but we’re family. We looked around and it wasn’t just one cast, but everyone who was involved in the piece. That’s all he talked about all night, the support. I was like, “What do you mean? Of course, we support you.” But he felt it for the first time. I said, “That’s you. That’s everything you give us. We don’t even know how to say thank you to you.” I watch sections of the work, and I see how they stretch each person. I watch how he has given everyone a liberty, but in their liberty they know they have it because they trust him. Not just because he’s saying, “I trust you.” They trust him.

Is your character literal?
Yes and no. I feel like I’m more the through-line of the piece. Odetta was quoted as being this grand woman, the mother of folk music and has songs that you know and things that you’ve heard just because folk is an old American tradition. Here’s the base of it so it’s not foreign, but her voice makes it sweet. So I feel that my character welcomes you into an introduction if you don’t know her and to remember what you like about her if you do. You definitely see my character represented in certain songs, but as a cast we tell a story of her music. If we had two hours on Broadway, I think it would be awesome. He would be able to go deeper. You hear her talking about this and then he’s found ways to bring this to life. And then we do a section with the song “Masters of War,” and the lyrics are so clear, but then you’re still dancing to lyrical music. If you don’t know the song, sometimes you feel like you have to choose, am I going to watch or am I going to listen? In my opinion, he’s done it so well.
 
What kind of notes does he give you during rehearsals?
A lot of them are trust notes: “No, it’s fine when you do that” or “it’s really good when this happens.” Or, “this feeling, I like” or, “can you bring us in more?” He’s very careful with his words for everyone. I feel like he has a Rolodex, and Hope will come up, and he’ll know what tone and words to use with me versus someone else. He’s with us all the time and he knows us and that’s also made it different. We trust him. You want to do it for him.
 
In other words, he’s not a choreographer from the outside.
Yes. We do our job, but we do our job because we love what we do, so everyone will get 1,000 percent. He may just get 1,002. [Laughs] It’s just a little bit different. Honestly, I remember feeling like that with Robert when we first did Juba, and I didn’t know him that well, but I knew I wanted to do it like that for him, which is kind of funny. When I think about doing something for Matthew, I think about that feeling. Back in that time, the cast was small, there was four in each cast and only eight of us in the room. One group would do it and the other and we would laugh, and he would say, “Let’s take a break.” He was in this relaxed space, so you wanted to do well for him. Who knew I was going to be trusting him like this now? May I go back a little bit? How early did you start dancing?
Like the half-hour tap/jazz/ballet class and the recital, one costume two different skirts?
 
Yes! You were a gymnast also, right?
I was and I competed until I was about 11. Regionally. I got a little scared, so I would scratch bars. So I could never get all around. I think I left doing layouts and gainers. Now I look at it and think I would never do that! [Laughs] I was so fearless. I didn’t care. I knocked out temporary teeth; I didn’t care. I was like, “Can I go again?” They were like, “You’re crazy!” I loved expending my energy.

Did you dance, then, to help your gymnastics?
Yes. And then I quit because I wanted to be a cheerleader. We only had JV. And then the U.S. Olympic Festival came to Durham, and that’s where I met Nina Wheeler. This whole time I would go to performances at ADF [American Dance Festival], but I hadn’t connected ADF with learning—it was just a concert series. As far as we were concerned, you just went to see dance in the summer because it all came to Durham. The Olympic Festival came to the city and Nina was in charge of choreographing it; I started going to Nina’s [studio] a little bit more and a little bit more. She had a company, and it was just called the Company. You had to do a certain amount of hours in the school as far as taking classes, and then we had a performance. We also competed, but it wasn’t just competition. We would do a concert called “Multiple Choices” for the children because one of her students died and we started doing a benefit for that. That was our modern concert with no sequins, no shimmer, no suntan tights. Also, Nina always went out and brought people in. Jose Meier, Gus Giordano would come to our studio in Durham. I had no idea that Jose Meier was jazz master of the Ailey school. And then when I was 17, Donna Faye Burchfield found money and came up with a scholarship for me to go to ADF.

What was that experience like for you?
That summer, I met Pauline Koner, Lucas Hoving. Martha Myers pulled me into her office and said, “Let me show you something.” And she laid me down and started doing some Floor-Barre exercises with me. I didn’t know what she was talking about. For a scholarship, you work for hours, but she was like, I’m just going to share something with you. Then Talley Beatty came. He taught The Road of the Phoebe Snow, and I auditioned for that and got in, but I was just an extra person and one day someone didn’t come to rehearsal. Pity for her, because I knew it. They said, “Hope, you’re from Durham. Can you be his person if he needs something?” I took him to my house once and my mom and everyone made dinner for him. We had a big-screen television and he was just talking about Stormy Weather, and I said, “I have that upstairs,” and he said, “Oh…I’m in it.” We were like, “No you’re not.” We put the videotape in and he says, “There I am. Wasn’t I handsome?” He was in my house. [Laughs] That’s when I was 18. I would take him to the store, I would take him to get groceries. I would take him to get a meal and take him back. I met Pearl Primus at ADF, I got to work with her there.

How long did you go to Howard?
For three years. If you print that, that’ll devastate my mother that I didn’t finish. I left to dance. But I have a really strong relationship with them. I choreograph all the time, I spend time there.

Did you move to New York after Howard?
I did. I got to do a project at Howard with Lloyd Whitmore. It was like a summer program. He had done it the year before, and he had people who had graduated from Duke Ellington and were dancers in the community in D.C. do a performance. It was my first company experience, and I was an apprentice. There I met Chris Freeman, who is now in Lion King, but was with Joffrey at that time. And I met the mother of [current Ailey dancer] Ghrai DeVore. I was Ghrai’s babysitter when she was two. It’s one of those things where I have to really remember my lane. I cannot cross it because I’ve known her, but if she wants to jump ship, I come with open arms. She’ll knock on my hotel room every once in a while and say, “Can I talk to you?” Because she knows I love her unconditionally. Chris said, “I think you should give coming to New York a try,” and let me sleep on his sofa. He was loving, but he was like, “You can read: uptown, downtown. I live off this line. You can’t get lost. You speak English.” He was one of those people that makes it possible. He made it possible for me to try this.

When did Philadanco happen?
I was here at the school for a year, and Matthew choreographed a solo for me for the “January Explosion.” After that performance, Dwight [Rhoden] came up to me and said, “Desmond [Richardson] and I are putting on a show. Would you like to be in it?”

Right! You danced with Complexions.
Twenty years ago, because it’s their anniversary. I was like, “Sure, that’ll be fun, that’s awesome.” Matthew was in it. At one of those performances, I was introduced very quickly to Deborah Chase [Philadanco’s rehearsal director] because she was really good friends with him and came to New York to watch the performance. On Sunday, which is one of the biennial auditions at Philadanco, I went—it was the night after the Complexions performance. She was sitting in the front of the room. I thought, She looks familiar, but I was dazed. I don’t think it was that great of an audition, but she had seen me dance the night before and then JB [artistic director Joan Myers Brown] called me in the office and said, “I kind of like you. I might take you on as a project.” That’s how my love for her started. She likes to say I’m her last one. I wore her out. [Laughs] I’ll get a card in the mail, I’ll get a book: “I just want to remind you I love you.” I had a great time at Danco, but I didn’t really appreciate it until I left, and I say that because I realize every step I took there prepared me for the things I get to experience now. I didn’t know what was involved in carrying a Marley because some places we performed didn’t have one. I didn’t know about having your costumes look pristine. And even something that might be as trivial as how to leave your dressing-room table.… She was very serious about how we represented ourselves, not just because of how that represented her, but what that meant for us. I just spout all of that back to people. And then I was blessed again because of my relationship with Judi [Ailey’s former artistic director Judith Jamison]. I’ll go to her office and I can unzip with her. She’ll send me a text message on the day I don’t feel well and I haven’t seen her. She even came into the studio today and said, “Are you all right?” We go to movies together.

I’ve never heard of that side of her.
Oh my God. I love it. She’s Judith Jamison. She was a muse; she’s an icon. She’s all of these things and someone whose number I have. [Laughs]

What movies do you see together?
During the summer when I was off, we would go once a week to a 9am or 9:30 movie. To anything. We like adventure. I don’t think we see romantic comedies. We like drama-driven things. She’s really something else. I like the fact that I can watch how she acts and interacts and then I can learn from that and say, “Oh right, let me say that that way.” She controls her environment, and I like that.

Did you always want to be in Ailey?
I did without knowing it. I said I was going to do certain things, without realizing I was going to have to move to New York and study at the school.

How did you audition? Did you have to do that behind Joan’s back?
No. There was one audition that I came to and she didn’t know. I didn’t get in. But I tell my students, “Go through the front door. Knock and say, ‘I want to come in.’” Side, backdoor, window things don’t work. People respect you, and Joan told me that. I knew I was leaving Danco before I got into Ailey. I knew that was my last year there, not because I hated it but I grew there so much. I ended up teaching at University of the Arts, I had gotten a Bessie there—I really had a good time. I felt like I wanted a change. I didn’t even realize why; I think I was called to this place. I had auditioned a couple of times, and I honestly think I was in better condition a time or two before that than I was when I finally got in, which is another testament to being a miracle. When people can see through your mess to what you can’t even see in yourself, and they trust it and they go with it, then something must be okay. I overheard Renee [Robinson] tell someone, “Everything that you have got you to this point. Stop trying to be more than what you are.” Now I say, “You know what Renee Robinson said…” We have to remember why we’re here too. Everything that I have and everything that I’ve gained is a representation of this love that I have for the place, the things that I see and the people that I’ve met so I’m happy.

Why did you break down when Matthew told you about ODETTA? Do you not feel you’re valued as a dancer?
I don’t think any dancer feels what others see. Another thing I tell my students that I really need to do is make a list of all of your attributes. Instead of focusing on the things that you don’t have, let’s go back and add a new thing to the list of stuff that’s already awesome. I’m a turner, I’m a jumper, I’m a listener, I can hear music well, I like to go to movies, I like to write, my turnout is better, I finally got that split, I didn’t let that teacher frustrate me. All of those things we have to add to the accomplishment list, or we’ll always feel broken and beaten down. Every day will be different, but every day we can try to do bigger, more things. I realize my place here is not for me. Here it comes. [She cries.] I would love to think that it’s all about me doing all the things that I want to do, but the gift of dance is to give it away. It doesn’t deplete you. The more I remember that, the easier it is for me to continue to do it, which is why I know it’s not finished. I have a storehouse of gifts that have to be given away.  
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is at New York City Center Dec 3–Jan 4.
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