Dance, dance revelations

Masazumi Chaya keeps the tradition alive at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

JAZZ HANDS Vintage Chaya, center, in Talley Beatty’s The Road of the Phoebe Snow.

Photograph: Courtesy of Alvin Ailey American Dance Foundation Archives

[Ed note: This story has been extended with online bonus content.]

Every successful artistic institution has a secret weapon, and in the case of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, it comes in the form of an eternal optimist: Masazumi Chaya. Known simply as Chaya, the fast-talking Japanese charmer performed with the Ailey company for 15 years starting in 1972 and is being honored this month. Now the troupe’s associate artistic director under Judith Jamison, Chaya, 60, is responsible for so much—relating not only to the dancers but the dances themselves. This season, he resurrects two that haven’t been seen in New York for nearly 30 years: Ailey’s 1971 Flowers, inspired by the life of Janis Joplin (it will be performed for the first time on Tuesday 11), and Talley Beatty’s 1959 The Road of the Phoebe Snow. In anticipation of his December 18 celebration, which features a program including Flowers and Revelations, Chaya spoke in his office at the Ailey studios about how he preserves the choreographer’s spirit.

I know you’re an avid DVD watcher and that you like to play ballet DVDs for dancers in the Ailey company. Do you take them everywhere, even when you tour?
Yes! I have Ballet Theatre, City Ballet, Paris Opera, Royal Ballet. Even just when people come out to bow—it’s important for me for a dancer. It’s not, “I’m sorry, I don’t want to dance.…” Or I have a tape from 1978 when Gelsey Kirkland does Theme and Variations and I tell them, “Watch this entrance—she comes in from corner: [He counts] “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.” One step on the stage, and she already captures us. And [Natalia] Makarova. I want the dancers to see that. Or for Sleeping Beauty, I have Cynthia Gregory. [He hums and marks a variation in his office.] I love how dancers show the music in the body.

Is that the most important quality for you?
Yes, yes. We have lots of beautiful dancers everywhere, technically, but I love to see what George Balanchine choreographed—music on the stage. The formation—you can hear, but you can also see the music onstage. Mark Morris has that. I like that. I want the Ailey dancers to focus on that, too.

How do you teach dancers musicality?
It is very difficult. They go to clubs—they can dance. They already have it on the inside. In order to do that, I ask them to sing their parts. Then, even if the music is abstract, it’s in there.

What kind of dancer were you?I’m not sure. [Laughs] You know, the other day, I talked to the dancers about this: Each one has his own talent, but preparation time—thinking about how to execute onstage—is the most important thing. You can’t depend on your talent. So I always planned it out. Of course, there is the excitement of a performance and all that comes with that, but how a dancer plans is very important to me. Just as it is with a musician or singer or actor. Especially an actor: They can say, “Hello.” But how are they going to say it? In order to do that, I always tell the dancers to say to themselves: “Okay, this is my game plan. I’m going to win this.” That kind of focus. Am I wrong? The music is most important to me. Alvin loved music. When I was his assistant, he would come in with all of the counts written down. When he structured the dances, everything was in line with the music. After Mr. Ailey passed away, we were cleaning his apartment, and I don’t know how many cassette tapes were in the room. All different kinds of music—not only American jazz music, but it’s some Caribbean music to classical music to contemporary—so many cassette tapes.

That’s sad. I didn’t know you cleaned out his apartment. I had to do that for someone a couple of years ago.
It’s hard. It’s quite an experience. I can’t be so sentimental about it. I had to feel like I was doing a job.

Well, it is a job! What did you keep for yourself?
I asked for just one notebook. He had notebooks like this for each ballet. [He holds up a black-and-white school primer.] I only kept one, for a ballet called Landscape. Not that I even danced the ballet! But I see his handwriting and his struggle for formations and, of course, all the counts. Other than that he gave me so many things. If I didn’t work here, I can’t imagine my life! [He points to a wall of photographs featuring Ailey and others.] Those pictures are basically of a lot of people who supported me through the years, who always remind me that when things get hard, don’t complain.

How do you feel about anniversary seasons?
Scary, a little bit. We always focus on what’s going to happen in the next generation; how are we going to pass on all the information? So in my rehearsals, sometimes I talk a lot—and, of course, dancers love to hear what kind of rehearsal Alvin would have, what he said. Also, at my rehearsals, I tell the dancers, “Once you learn your part, learn whole ballet. The girls’ parts, how the set moved, when the music cue comes in—just learn the whole dance! Then, it’s easier later—when you’re dancing, you know you’re dancing the ballet instead of, “I’m dancing my step.” I want the dancers to learn the whole ballet.

What did Ailey say about Janis Joplin?
You know, when I was learning Flowers, he didn’t say it was about her—he would say it was inspired by her life and her talent. Also, later on, he made a ballet about the Doors for the Paris Opera. He had such a passion for talented people who destroy themselves at their peak. The whole world loved them, but somehow they didn’t believe that. That kind of stuff, he likes.

Ailey himself died prematurely in 1989 from complications due to AIDS. I wonder why he identified with tragic figures…
I know! [Laughs] Okay. Cut! But everybody, of course, has a bright and dark side. He had such an understanding for people who go through that. And he never judged good or bad. I’ve wanted to do Flowers for awhile. Now with Britney Spears and all of those young, talented people just throwing their lives away—every day, we see the tabloids. That’s almost the same idea; I thought it would maybe work for the young generation. I know one thing: I cannot put on the ballet as a museum piece. It has to be for this generation. It needs that energy, otherwise it’s just another piece of paper in a beautiful leather-covered book. I want it to live. With Alvin, we would practice and if something would happen by mistake, he would say, “I like that! Can you put it in?” He always had that room for the dancers. We did not try to change things, but we always were part of his ballet. We felt that.

You were in musical theater in Japan?Yes. Years ago. [Shakes his head sadly]

Did you hate it?
Yeah. I thought, What I’m doing is a copy of a copy, so maybe I should go to Broadway. Everyone said, “You’re too short for a chorus guy.” And there was lots of typecasting. When I came to New York City, Promises, Promises was a big hit and so I hung around with those dancers. Jack Cole came to a concert I was in; I never met him. Of course, Alvin loved Jack Cole. He wanted to do Sing, Sing, Sing, a ballet that Jack Cole choreographed. He always talked to me about that. Always. We had a plan. We were going to do a Jack Cole piece; we found a person who taught the style and she lived in California and we had a meeting with her. She was very strict. For instance, Jack Cole’s style is very particular, so she would like to rehearse for one summer—only rehearse. And then the following year, if we can do it, then the choreography. We didn’t have that kind of budget.

What else are you working on this season?
There is Firebird, which is really exciting. I like Béjart. When I saw his work in 1968 in Japan, he was so new to me—I was learning Vaganova. Every thing very romantic. I never saw so many male dancers onstage. In Japan, it’s 10, 11, 12 and 100 ladies. So when I saw more male dancers than female dancers onstage, it made an impact. I met Mr. Béjart through Alvin; Alvin said, “Talk to him, talk to him.” I was so nervous. The first thing I say is, “Why so many male dancers?” Stupid question. But he was very sweet. He said, “In our company, the male dancers have to dance equally with the female dancers, but at the same time they have to lift and they get lots of injuries, so that’s why we have more.” And then I asked about insurance. [Horrified] Why I’m asking something like this? He said, “With more male dancers that made less injury and the insurance premium didn’t go up.” Mr. Béjart told me. Maurice Béjart! It made me think; we couldn’t expand the number of dancers, but we could use more sprung floors and therapy—my head said that we had to do as much as we can. I wanted to make sure conditions would be better so that they could dance at least five or ten years longer then I danced. They should be able to. They are so talented and physically so beautiful. If they’re dancing on a cement floor there is no way.

Why did you stop dancing in 1987?
I was so good that year. I was dancing so good. I cannot believe it. Everything the choreographer wanted, I could understand. [Slaps hands] I realized, This is the time I have to stop! This is the end. That way people don’t say, “Oh…he’s still dancing?” No. It was a stupid way, but it felt so good. I didn’t think I could be better than that. I told Alvin that I had to leave the company. He said, “Why? Why? You don’t like that ballet? What do you like?” I said, “No, no. I just want to stop—I’m very happy.” We didn’t have a rehearsal director position; he actually created it for me. I found that out later. He wanted me to stay. I was very happy, flattered that he wanted me to stay that way.

But, you were just going to leave?
Yes. [Swipes hand] I was done. Bye! [Laughs] I was going to go to Japan and teach. I liked teaching too, and I thought, I will do that. But Alvin wanted to me stay, stay, stay. So I stayed, stayed, stayed. They didn’t kick me out yet. Thirty-five years. Can you believe that? I’m 60 years old!

Are you going to do more pieces by Twyla Tharp?
I would love to. She came to the performance of The Golden Section. It was a Sunday matinee.

She rarely attends performances by companies who present her work.
[Grins] I went to say hello, and she said, “Good.” I had heard so many stories about her with ABT; how she never came backstage.… I said, “Anything else?” and she said, “Do you want to know the truth?” I thought, Oh my God. She gave me three notes. And then Ginger Montel [of Twyla Tharp Productions] called and said that Twyla would like to work with the dancers. “If she comes to rehearse, probably she is going to kill the dancers, so actually we’re going to wait until after the season finishes before the spring tour.” She came for a rehearsal—three hours. First of all, we did the exercises—she moves around like crazy, and we just followed. We had a great time. Shelley Washington did a fantastic job [of staging The Golden Section], but this was like putting the cherry on the top.

What was that session like?
She would do exercises, and we would just follow. Sometimes she yelled, “Aaahhh!” The dancers go, “Aaahhh!” She was so much fun. I had such a different image. Same thing happened with Jerome Robbins, too. I had a great time with him. Those two books about what Jerome Robbins said about Alvin Ailey—they’re so wrong to me. They said that he had the most unpleasant experience with the Ailey company dancers—that they didn’t respect him or anything like that. That’s not really true. It’s the same thing with Twyla. It’s almost like I feel like Twyla knows what the human body can do—the limit, how you can pass the limit and what you can discover it’s possible to do in time.

Do you have a favorite Ailey dance?
Revelations, still.

Wow. How can that be? It’s just that you’ve seen–
Every performance. I never get tired. Also it’s a very new experience for me: I had never been to the South, and I never saw the white church or people chanting. Never! For me, it is so new and exciting. People go through faith and belief and trust and everything about spirit—I’m still enjoying watching that dance. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it. But every day is different.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs at City Center through Dec 31. Masazumi Chaya will be honored on Dec 18.