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Yannick Lebrun talks about Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

The elegant Yannick Lebrun talks about his career with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Photograph: Andrew Eccles
Yannick Lebrun

Alvin Ailey's Yannick Lebrun talks about his career with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which performs at New York City Center November 28 through December 30. In this interview, Yannick Lebrun discusses choreographers Garth Fagan, Jiri Kylian, Ohad Naharin, Ronald K. Brown and Alvin Ailey and tells us what he's looking forward to this season.

On December 11, during the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater season at New York City Center, Yannick Lebrun will turn 26. He has the night off. “To be honest with you,” he whispers conspiratorially, “I wanted to dance.” Lebrun, one of the Ailey company’s most elegant members, considers dancing to be his daily multivitamin. Raised in French Guiana, where he began his training at the age of nine, Lebrun kicks off his fifth season with Ailey in the opening-night performance of “Sinner Man” in Revelations. He’s also cast in several new works, including Garth Fagan’s From Before, Kyle Abraham’s Another Night and Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort. (He’s practically in raptures over that last one.) Lebrun spoke at the Ailey complex during a break from rehearsals.

Time Out New York: Why did you start dancing?
Yannick Lebrun:
I was born in Cayenne, the capitol—the only French department in South America. It’s the smallest little country in South America that nobody knows about, but that we can clearly see. [Laughs] It’s between Brazil and Suriname. It belongs to the French; my president is French, and we vote for him. I started dancing when I was nine as the only boy with all these girls around me—looking at me like, Oh my God, that’s not usual to see a young man dancing like that. My cousin invited me to one of her dance competitions. I was blown away. I always loved moving and dancing; growing up in South America, it’s part of the tradition and the culture, but to gain technique was very interesting to me. I wanted to do that.

Time Out New York: How did you feel about ballet?
Yannick Lebrun:
Ballet was something I didn’t want to do at first. I wanted to do jazz and modern and to try hip-hop. Jeanine Verin, my dance teacher, looked at me and my mom—this was in 1995—and said, “You have to start with ballet. Ballet will help you find that freedom in other techniques.” She was right. I had to start with ballet even though I had to hear people laughing at me or questioning why I was dancing. Everybody else was playing soccer. But I was always like that and even now, I am very independent. My mom encouraged me.

Time Out New York: What about your father?
Yannick Lebrun:
Not so much at first, but then he saw that I was passionate, that it’s what I wanted to do and was never going to give up. So he was like, “Okay, that’s what my boy wants to do. I’m fine.” So I started in a small studio with ballet and jazz.

Time Out New York: Were you tall when you first started? What was your facility like?
Yannick Lebrun:
I was not that tall, and I didn’t have everything that I have now. People might be surprised, but I really had to work hard to get to that level. I’m still figuring it out right now. I know I’m not at my best. But I was not that tall, and I did not have all the flexibility and the strength that I have now. I also gained confidence, especially when I came to America—to America in general, not only to the Ailey school. Being here gave me more confidence; the way I integrated myself into this country. And seeing how other people moved and then, of course, being at the Alvin Ailey school, which is one of the best schools in the world for modern training. I mean, really, thanks to [the late director of the Ailey School] Denise Jefferson.

Time Out New York: Is that how you ended up here?
Yannick Lebrun:
Yes. I did some summer programs in 2001, 2002 and 2003. I was on scholarship for the summer program here and that’s how I fell in love with this organization.

Time Out New York: How did you hear about the Ailey school?
Yannick Lebrun:
Denise Jefferson was a judge for the dance competition that after my cousin did, I did. For seven years! From ’97 to 2004. They are organized by a French committee; so all people who win the first prize in their category go to France to compete with all the French kids in the national competition. She came to the one in French Guiana as a judge, and she was like, Oh my goodness, I have to give him a chance. He has the facility. He might not have all of the facility, but he has the potential to at least try it out for a summer program. It was a real pleasure to meet the teachers here and to see the strictness of the work. That was very important: to see how people approach this profession with seriousness. Because in French Guiana, the possibilities for dance are few and far between—we don’t have all the facilities, the theaters. And going to France was like, Wow. They have that, why don’t they help? Coming to America was a dream—we come here and see, Wow, it’s possible. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. One of the reasons why I wanted to train at Ailey was because the modern technique—the Graham technique and the Horton and the very intensive ballet training, because we still take ballet every day here. It’s important to be able to go from a ballet line to a modern shape. Go back to modern, then the next day you might see me do African. So that’s what this organization is about: creating amazing talent, versatile artists.

Time Out New York: As a dancer, is it difficult to continue training in those different styles?
Yannick Lebrun:
No, because I started that when I was a little boy. The culture helped me be that way. I was versatile when I was young. Listening to the drums and dancing to those beats and then having to be in the ballet studio and then doing jazz. My teacher invited contemporary teachers from Paris. There were connections with France and teachers, and they came and taught workshops. As a little boy, I got so many styles.

Time Out New York: So while it was a small school, it wasn’t closed off.
Yannick Lebrun:
No, very open because my dance teacher made sure that every time we went to France that she would communicate with other schools. She was smart about it. She knew that we didn’t have everything we needed in French Guiana, so she let me create a relationship with other teachers and other schools in France.

Time Out New York: Did you study with Denise Jefferson here?
Yannick Lebrun:
Yes. Amazing teacher and so much knowledge and so much to share. She was a wonderful human being. I had her in Graham, Monday, Wednesday, Friday—8:30am.

Time Out New York: Oh, Graham is hard in the morning.
Yannick Lebrun:
It’s hard in the morning, but she was the director [of the school], and you felt like you wanted to satisfy her. First of all, you are here for yourself so you are happy to be here, but also you wanted to make sure that she made the right decision by giving you a scholarship. After graduating high school in 2004, I moved to New York. She was like, “I’m going to put you on scholarship, and you’re going to be a fellowship student for two years.” So I had to work hard and make sure that I earned my place in this school; being foreign, it’s hard because you don’t get a scholarship automatically. I was one of those rare students. Then, came Ailey II with [then-director] Sylvia Waters. It was very intense. She saw me when I was a student. Ms. Waters was always good at coming and watching the performances that the school did every year and also she was very close to Ms. Jefferson, so she could talk to her about, “Who are the students who are capable of being in Ailey II?” So in 2006, I was accepted into the company.

Time Out New York: You said that you felt such freedom in America. What was it like at home?
Yannick Lebrun:
Dance is not something that people do in French Guiana. People don’t really go to ballet class—it’s kind of taboo. You’re a dancer, but are you still going to go to college? How are you going to survive? And then to dance means you have to go to France, and I was like, I know I am not going to find what I want in France. How I wanted to see myself was not in a very closed box, where it’s only ballet or a certain kind of contemporary dance. Danse contemporaine, they call it. That was not my style. And I didn’t want to be a ballet dancer. France has its racial issues also. I don’t want to say racism, but there is nobody that gives a big place to black dancers in France and in Europe, so that’s why I was like, Let me try America. All my friends said, “Wow—you’re going to America right away—that’s so risky!” I was like, “I know, but that’s who I am and I have a dream, and I’m going to make sure I become a professional dancer. New York is where I’m going to find myself as a dancer. Going to France is not going to help me. No.” So Ms. Jefferson gave me this opportunity. And Sylvia and then Judi Jamison, who accepted me [into the main company] in 2008. Big dream come true! I was blown away. But first, let me tell you that in 2007, while I was still in Ailey II, Sylvia said, “Yannick, you know one of the guys got injured. Judith Jamison called me. She’s like, ‘We need somebody. And I think the person I want is Yannick Lebrun.” [Laughs]

Time Out New York: I remember that season: We were all like, “Who is that guy?”
Yannick Lebrun:
It was fantastic. I did “Sinner Man” in Revelations. I did Memoria, one in the gray group. I did Night Creature. I did The River. I was still in Ailey II. It was good; they were all smiling at me, telling me, “Good job,” but they never said, “You’re going to be here next year. We’re going to take you.” No. I had to go back. January until May I finished my season at Ailey II.

Time Out New York: Oh God.
Yannick Lebrun:
You know that Ailey II is only six boys and six girls? They needed me, of course. And we had choreographers coming to Ailey II. I had to do those ballets also! I understood that I still had to finish my job for Sylvia. Then, the last day of the season of Ailey II at the Joyce, it was a Sunday. The audition was on Monday. That Sunday, Sylvia said, “Yannick, we talked, and you don’t have to come tomorrow.” Wow. [Laughs] It was really big for me to find out that I was one of those rare dancers in the Ailey history who didn’t attend the official audition to be accepted. Some people might say, “Oh, but his audition was when he performed in December,” but no—I could have been a mess. After that, I went on tour with the first company. I finished the U.S. tour. I’m on my fifth season now. Every ballet that I’m in, every time I’m onstage, every time I go to rehearsal, I’m like, Wow, Yannick, you are here because you wanted to be here and you love what you’re doing. I don’t take it for granted.

Time Out New York: What do you think of this Ailey season?
Yannick Lebrun:
To work with Robert Battle in his second season as artistic director is exciting. It’s fresh air. Ailey is going in a new direction, and this season is going to be very exciting.  

Time Out New York: Why?
Yannick Lebrun:
Petite Mort on a modern dance company! [Laughs] The excitement of bringing a ballet like that to this company is to show the younger generations and people who think that ballet and that style is not accessible and possible for our kinds of dancers and bodies. We still have mentalities like that. For Robert to bring a ballet like this to Alvin Ailey is to show that Ailey dancers can move like that and use their training and be versatile. We add something different to the ballet. Of course, we still respect the aesthetic and the story that has to be revealed, but Ailey dancers move differently.

Time Out New York: Why is that? 
Yannick Lebrun:
It’s because of performing other works and reaching deeper doing Ailey works—we have very strong, emotional work in our repertory. Having to inspire people makes us approach everything that we do with a certain sense of humility, sensitivity, strength, athleticism—that’s what Ailey is about. That’s why now, when people come and set work on Ailey, they’re blown away by where we take it and by the decisions that we make onstage, which sometimes are not made by ballet dancers.

Time Out New York: What part do you have in Petite Mort?
Yannick Lebrun:
I do the third duet that starts with covering the eyes. And the one that ends before the girls come onstage with the dresses. My partner is Jacqueline Green. We never thought that we could do that because the partnering is so challenging. We look at European dancers, or other ballet companies that perform these ballets, and they master partnering. They make it look so seamless yet intricate and we’re like, How does she get off balance? Now we’re doing it. We don’t have that European kind of partnering. We know the modern partnering, but that kind of partnering, we don’t know. So that’s why it’s challenging, and why we’re very fortunate to do it.

Time Out New York: Did you work with Robert Battle at Ailey II?
Yannick Lebrun:
I performed Takademe and The Hunt, so I knew those ballets before they came to the rep. Robert’s work is very athletic and very raw, but at the same time it can be very gentle, with a work like In/Side or Unfold. Robert uses a lot of his Juilliard/Taylor-inspired training in his work as well as other cultures—in Takademe, there is Indian kathak, and martial arts in The Hunt. Mixed with modern dance, it’s spectacular. Robert is also bringing a piece called Strange Humors this season.

Time Out New York: What is he like as a director?
Yannick Lebrun:
He’s very open to communication. He listens to what dancers have to say. He is very generous. He shares a lot of his stories. He teaches company class. He’s a fun director to work with, but at the same time can be very serious because he still is in a position where he came after Alvin and after Judi. He has to prove himself, although he’s already shown that he can fill those shoes, he’s coming after legends. He has to be serious.

Time Out New York: Do you talk to him about what dances you’ll be in?
Yannick Lebrun:
Every year, we have contract talks or personal meetings and we can go that far—he will tell us what we’ll be doing this season, or sometimes not. It depends on the year. [Masazumi] Chaya is also here, and he has a lot of things to say. Robert will tell you what you need to improve on or where he sees you or how you need to approach the movement.

Time Out New York: What has Battle spoken to you about in terms of your dancing?
Yannick Lebrun:
Sometimes he tells me that not everything has to be presentational. That I can be a little more relaxed in my upper body and use a little more quirkiness; that can be beautiful also. I’m working on that, and it’s making a change. I know that I don’t always have to make it look beautiful to make it seem beautiful to the audience. It can be awkward, but also beautiful.

Time Out New York: What dances are you performing this season that might allow you to practice being less presentational?
Yannick Lebrun:
From Before. In using West African steps or Caribbean steps and influence, you really have to get down and feel the beat. It’s not always about being pretty or turned out or about the technique. Those ballets that are not always technical are the ones that sometimes are challenging because you have to move a different way and be smart about it. And maybe Grace also. I admire Ronald K. Brown. He’s inspiring to me. The way he mixes West African vocabulary with modern dance is incredible. And it’s always so spiritual. I’m a very spiritual person, and I like to show emotions onstage. I’m at the point in my dancing where I don’t want to hear the same kind of feedback, like, “Oh my God, Yannick—your physique, your legs”—my interest now is in hearing what people felt. I’m trying to go to a different place. When we go on those U.S. and international tours that last for weeks and months, at some point you’re so exhausted by doing the same thing over and over again. Okay, this week we’re in Utah, next week we’re in California, and we’re doing Arden Court. Let me find a way to express certain things differently or make the audience feel something that they’ve probably never felt before. Being on tour with the company is also a good preparation for City Center, because City Center is where you really want to be good. You want to do your best. Of course, it takes time and perfection doesn’t exist, but those five weeks are very important for every dancer. You want to satisfy the audience and the artistic directors, but you want self-satisfaction: You want to leave the theater every night saying, I’ve done well. We try to reinvent ourselves, because it can be so draining. We’re fortunate: This year we’re not performing on Christmas day. [He points to the December 31 box on the season calendar, which is blank and raises an eyebrow.]

Time Out New York: Hey, you even have New Year’s Eve off!
Yannick Lebrun:
[Laughs] It’s an exciting season. I am looking forward to seeing the reaction. We’ll take every comment for what it is. We are very open also to that.

Time Out New York: You’re working with Kyle Abraham. How is that going?
Yannick Lebrun:
It’s going really well. It’s his first work on the Ailey company. He’s very urban; he has a lot of modern dance influence, hip-hop influence, very grounded and fast—lots of floor work. Jazz music and energetic. I think that will also be an audience favorite this season.

Time Out New York: What about Garth Fagan?
Yannick Lebrun:
It was my first time working with him. It’s the first time that the company is doing From Before. Garth is very specific about what he wants. That ballet is simple, and when I say simple it means that it’s about the purity of the movement and showing the steps as purely as possible and sometimes it can be a challenge. You don’t want to overdo it. The movement is what it is. We do crossings, diagonals that we have to repeat the same steps. Simple formations and then we repeat the same phrase over and over, but that’s also the excitement of this piece—to show endurance. The repetition is very impressive and is the basis of the ballet. I wouldn’t say that it’s easy. I learned a lot from working with Garth. He is from that generation where dance—it was dancing from the guts. It’s that old-school, hard-core modern dance. Contract, contract. That energy in the studio was good to have. Sometimes we have to be reminded of those things.

Time Out New York: How do you regard dancing parts created by Ailey?
Yannick Lebrun:
That’s my favorite overall. That’s the reason why I wanted to be in this company, first to perform Ailey work. I wanted to do Revelations and also when I saw Memoria for the first time—I love Memoria. I’m the purple man, so you’ll see me do it with Linda [Celeste Sims], with Alicia [Graf]. It’s a blessing to perform that role. The first time I saw it as a kid, I was so moved by what that ballet says. It’s about Joyce Trisler (Memoria is dedicated to the choreographer and dancer, who died in 1979), and what she meant to Alvin, and the emotion that came out of the dance was extraordinary. It’s one of my favorite Ailey pieces to perform. I like to dance with a story that has meaning; some people create a story, but this is not fake. It’s about somebody who lived. For the woman who dances that role, it requires a lot of concentration and focus. I’m not even talking about technique, but you need the modern and the ballet technique. I like true stories, emotional stories, and I like to apply my training in my dancing and Ailey training. I came to this school for a reason: to apply it in Ailey works. That’s why Revelations and Memoria are my favorites before any ballet.

Time Out New York: What is the specific story in Memoria?
Yannick Lebrun:
It’s her life passing and her coming back to life—or the memory or the joy, and that’s why we incorporate the students. Dancing with the students is always good because we have this fresh energy and fresh air. Ailey 50 is also nice: doing Revelations with so many people onstage and in the audience [the aisles].

Time Out New York: I hate that. I think it’s so tacky. Once was fine, but now it’s a gimmick.
Yannick Lebrun:
[Laughs] I would qualify it as fun. Of course, it doesn’t have the same depth as when only company members do it maybe.

Time Out New York: How do you feel about Minus 16?
Yannick Lebrun:
It’s great to do Ohad’s [Naharin] work. It gives an opportunity for the audience to really have the Ailey experience. To interact with the dancers and to be onstage, it’s fantastic. The work has meaning and the work is very specific, because he has his Gaga style. We had to have classes in order to do Minus 16, so the experience, the journey was amazing for all of us. It’s a pleasure.

Time Out New York: What do you do to improve yourself outside of dance?
Yannick Lebrun:
I make sure that I learn about the world. That I discover other things, that I hear different kinds of music. That I learn from watching what’s happening in the news. That I go to the movies sometimes. That I just walk through Central Park or go to places that I’ve never been before and watch other people interact with each other. To improve my dancing, I make sure that I take other classes that are not so dancey. Recently, I’ve gotten into Gyrotonics. Gyrotonics is amazing. [Laughs] I think now as I’m maturing as a dancer, I want to be here for a long time, and I want people to see my evolution. That’s why I do other things. I go to the gym often and I do Floor Barre. I took my first Bikram class during Hurricane Sandy. When we’re on tour, I make sure I discover as many things as possible. It can be religion, culture, restaurants. Anything helps my dancing because it helps me as a person. The more experiences you have, the more you can share with the audience. The more knowledge you have, the better you can tell a story.

Time Out New York: Did you follow the presidential election?
Yannick Lebrun:
Yes. I can’t vote, because I’m not a citizen, but I was so, so happy. America has shown me again that it is unified: It’s so powerful what’s happening, and it’s a great example to the world. I hope a lot of people know that the world is watching.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is at New York City Center Nov 28–Dec 30.