Antonio Douthit-Boyd talks about his career at Alvin Ailey

Antonio Douthit-Boyd lights up Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Wait—how did you talk him into that?
It was a lot of talking. The next year the company did close, but we were fine. We were touring and working and he was kind of like, “You know, if you want to leave, go ahead.” The first day. I thought I was in the clear. I was like, I’ll give my two-week notice; we had performances at Foxwoods and New Jersey Performing Arts Center. I thought I would just finish those performances. The next day I came into work, he was like, “You know, it’s not going to go down like that. Meet me in my office.” He said, “You cannot leave this company, you’re like my son, what are you trying to do, you’re trying to kill me.” I was like, “No, Mr. Mitchell…” He was like, “You can’t get out of your contract. I’m going to call her and tell her not to hire you.” He did call Ms. Jamison, and she told me much later that he called her and said, “This kid signs contracts and he just doesn’t go with his word, he’s going to do the same thing to you.” I was like, “No—right now I want to do so much more than just ballet.” He was like, “We’re doing this ballet called St. Louis Woman, and you want to be on Broadway, this is going to go to Broadway.

That was a real winner.
[Laughs] He said, “Balanchine had works on Broadway—you can be in a ballet company and do all these different things.” I said, “I think Ailey is more my speed. That’s where I should be.” He was like, “Well, what are they doing down there? I was like, “Chaya said they are doing Donald McKayle’s Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder and [Billy Wilson’s] The Winter in Lisbon.” Ms. Jamison’s Hymn was that year, too. He said, “Donald McKayle, I mean that’s great that they’re doing that, but none of that other stuff is worth you going down there for.” I was like, “I just want to see for myself.” He said, “You’ll see, you’ll see. You’ll be back here.” I’m happy that Ms. Jamison took a chance on me. I was that kid that literally auditioned for every company that came through New York. Nine times out of ten I got a contract or I got to the end, and they would ask, “Do you have a job?” I would be like, “I was just taking the class” or something. I was telling the mentees, if you’re gonna put yourself out there, know what companies you’re going to audition for and be ready to take a job. I was signing contracts!

At Norwegian National Ballet, Espen Giljane was very upset; I auditioned with another dancer in the company and we both got jobs. We were going to really go! I didn’t think Mr. Mitchell was going to keep me at DTH. And I believed everything he said. He had big ideas about what the company was going to do, and I believed in the vision of the company so I stayed and Espen was like, “I should sue you guys—you signed contracts, I got visas for you guys to come over here” and it was his first year taking over. I was like, “Never ever sign someone’s contract and not be ready to take the job.” It took me a long time to realize that the dance world is so small and everyone knows everybody. The funny thing about the Espen Giljane story is that the company went to Norway and performed at the opera house. Espen and Sharon [Luckman, formerly the executive director of the Ailey company] were talking about something and he saw me in the hallway—this was seven or eight years later—and he was like, “You’re Antonio.” He told the story to Sharon; I saw him the next day and I apologized for the way I handled the situation and told him that I was young and going through things with Mr. Mitchell, and he was like, “I understand. You’re still a beautiful dancer.” I said, “I just want you to really understand that was the young me and I’m not that person, and I’m sorry that I put you through that.” I was happy that I got to rectify that situation, because that was really bad judgment on my part.

It probably weighed on you.
It did. When I found out we were going to Norway, the whole time I was wondering if I was going to run into him. I didn’t even realize we were dancing at the opera house of the Norwegian National Ballet; we went there and it was like his name is on the wall, his face is on the wall, you’re gonna see him. And we’re going back to Norway. So I’m happy I cleared that air. I told the kids, “Don’t do that.” But you live and you learn. I was 19 or 20. When Mr. Mitchell took me into the company, I knew that I wasn’t ready for a professional ballet company, but he was like, “I can make anyone a dancer.” [Laughs] He always used to say that. He said, “All you have to do is listen.” I listened to everything he said. So when he said, “I want you to stay here, I want to invest in you,” you know, I don’t know what Espen’s going to do with me over there, so if this man is saying he’s going to invest in me, why don’t I just stay here?” Should have talked to him before I signed the contract, but…you live and you learn. I got to come here. They were in their season already at City Center. Chaya gave me a bunch of videos. If a dancer was off that day, he would have a dancer try to teach me something in the studio, but it was very rare that someone was off, so I learned five ballets by myself from video; we had two weeks of rehearsal in January, because the company’s off for three weeks at the end of the season and then I went on the road and was dancing with them. Chaya was like, “I really like you. You learned all this by yourself?” I had nothing to do for six weeks. I should be able to pick up five ballets. It was just spacing here and there, but I was ready to go after the two weeks of rehearsal.

Was it a total shift from DTH?
Yes, because at DTH we spent more time in the studio—we rehearsed a lot—at Ailey, it was more like, “Learn it. We’re on the road.” We tend to be on the road like six months out of the year, so that was a big adjustment. DTH toured, but never this much. Rehearsals were a lot more intense at Ailey, but they were shorter. At DTH, we had months of rehearsing until we hit the stage. Would I say I like one way more than the other? No. I think they were both valid for what they did. Ballet companies rehearse longer to prepare for their seasons; at Ailey, you get three weeks to learn a ballet and you might be onstage the fourth week doing it. But they’re intense rehearsals and Chaya is a very good director, and Ms. Jamison was great and Matthew and Linda are really great, if they have downtime, to help you out with roles that you’re having problems with.

How much is Robert Battle in the studio?
He’s in the studio a lot, but not as much as Judi. He’s new, and he has a board member who wants to take him out here; he has to get new board members. The other day, we had a group of prospective donors who were watching rehearsal and Robert had to leave to go out with them. It’s the beginnings for him. He has to put his face out there so people know who he is when we go to different cities. I feel like we lack seeing him in the studio, but he’s not not there because he doesn’t want to be. We understand that he has to be away. We would want him to be there more. You can’t get everything. We would like to have our paychecks on Fridays, so…. [Laughs] Do what you have to do. Chaya’s good right now.

What’s most important to you about your dancing?
Now that I’m older, the most important thing is to stay genuine. A lot of times I get onstage and put so much energy out there: Hey, I’m here, I’m here! Look at my leg, look at my foot, look at me! But now I’m in the space where I want the audience to enjoy what I’m enjoying. I want them to enjoy the experience that I’m having onstage. In these coming years I want to have the audience enjoy my experience. That we take the same journey together. Instead of me forcing myself upon the audience like, Love me, love me, love me, I think I just want to do me. You enjoy me. And that’s it.

Who had that effect on you?
A lot of it is from Matthew. And Linda. If you see her in the studio, she’s often in the back: This is my zone, this is me. And when you see her dance, you don’t necessarily think she was out there tonight dancing her heart out; you love her because of the beauty that she has. She’s not forcing you to love her. Matthew: You just look at him, and you want to fall in love. He doesn’t have to do anything. I want to be that person where the most simple things make you stand out. Not the big, flashy things anymore. I think as we get older, or as I have gotten older, I realize it’s the smaller things that count, it’s the transitions that count.

Did starting late have any impact on the way you see yourself as a dancer now?
I think it was an advantage. I started late, but I got to skip a lot of things—which was bad, because now I go back and try to refine things that I didn’t get, but it gave me the chance to propel past some of the kids who were starting much younger but were the same age as me. I wasn’t afraid to do certain things, because my body didn’t know what was right or wrong. If someone said, “Do something,” I was going to just do it. That fear of, I’m going to hurt myself—that’s not technically correct. I was just like, Okay. And later I learned, I can do this with this technique or by turning this leg out or from the knowledge of how to correctly land from something. I was fearless. I was that kind of kid who would just do anything anywhere.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs at New York City Center Dec 4–Jan 5.

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