Talking Pre-Show Rituals, Self-Care, New Season Highlights, and More with Ailey II's Jessica Amber Pinkett
Every March, when NYC is deep in the winter blues, Ailey II's exciting season fires up at just the right moment. And this year is no different: They've got a roster of fiercely talented dancers, and a slew of premieres (as well as returning favorites) to boot. Dance Spirit caught up with Jessica Amber Pinkett, now in her second season with Ailey II, for a rundown on her rehearsals, pre-performance rituals, and more.
Dance Spirit: How's the season prep been going so far?
Jessica Pinkett: Our season prep had been going beautifully! We have essentially been preparing since we started rehearsals last summer. It may seem a bit far out to be preparing, but it's important to ensure the cohesiveness and quality of each Ailey II group. We work as a family, grow as a family, and perform as a family. Rehearsals are always challenging—especially on the road—but we all do our part to make sure things go as smoothly as possible. This year's season is going to be nothing short of excellent.
DS: Can you tell us a little bit about the pieces in which you're dancing?
JP: The new works I'm in are Breaking Point, choreographed by Renee I. McDonald; Touch & Agree, choreographed by Juel D. Lane; and Road To One, choreographed by Darrell Grand Moultrie.
Breaking Point is booming, bold, and in your face. It's about the hopes, dreams, aspirations, and desires we're actively striving towards—until we ultimately reach our breaking point. The movement pairs perfectly with the message. The choreo is complex and athletic, testing our bodies and boundaries until we reach our own breaking points within the work.
Touch & Agree is all about relationships, about never wanting to lose who you are even when attached to another person. It's an exploration of oneself in this sea of people, allowing yourself to shine through as you are. Juel's choreo is his voice in movement form: There's hurt, love, and passion, and it's as clear as day onstage. He let our emotions run freely—I think I cried almost every day of rehearsal.
Road To One is about legacy and humanity, paying homage to all the mentors that build, motivate, and inspire the next generation. The work allows us to showcase our individuality, but stresses the importance of moving, breathing, and flourishing as a unit, as well. Darrell challenged my way of thinking, moving, and being—I grew so much as a person and dancer because of him. Performing his piece is an absolute pleasure.
Pinkett and Adrien Picaut in Darrell Grand Moultrie's "Road To One" (photo by Kyle Froman, courtesy AAADT)
As for the returning works, I'm performing in Stream of Consciousness, choreographed by Marcus J. Willis; Sketches of Flames, choreographed by Bridget Moore; and Circular, choreographed by Jae Man Joo.
DS: How have the rehearsals differed from piece to piece, choreographer to choreographer?
JP: Every choreographer's vision is different, which means the dancer's focus and intention has to also change. Some rehearsals are more about the technical aspect of the movement and less about the narrative (if there is one). Other rehearsals are about tapping into your character and your emotions and allowing them to be the driving force behind your movement. No matter what the rehearsal calls for, I always take a deep breath, create a new space to work in my head, and prepare my body for the shift. This allows me to really challenge my mind and my body, and delve deeper into the choreographic process.
DS: Do you have any pre-performance rituals?
JP: Before every show I take out my journal and a framed picture of my grandmother, Shirley Pinkett. She passed many years ago, but having this picture of her brings me so much comfort. I journal my current thoughts and feelings—placing them on paper gives them a place to rest instead of having them bounce around inside my head. I also take a moment to pray and meditate. Music is another vital part of my pre-performance ritual. My playlist ranges from Beethoven, to Londrelle, to H.E.R, to Kendrick Lamar—I love a variety of music!
DS: How have you kept your body in check while balancing so many rehearsals?
JP: First and foremost, I am very aware of what I put in my body. Don't get me wrong, I will always make room for the occasional bag of chips or piece of cake, but I am conscious of what I eat. I try to get in lots of raw fruits and veggies, smoothies, multivitamins, and supplements, etc. I also make sure that I go to the gym as often as I can, and when I can't, I do my own exercises at home, or when we're on the road touring. I also cannot stress enough the importance of staying hydrated! I drink a lot of water and tea, and I do a cleanse once a week. Last but not least, I do my best to get plenty of sleep. I'll even catch a nap during the day if time allows. I always need to keep my body in tip-top shape so that I can perform at my absolute best.
DS: What's your best piece of advice for younger dancers?
JP: Your art, your passion, your love, and your light are meant to be shared. Don't be afraid to be vulnerable—to be vulnerable is your greatest asset. Share your story with the masses and allow yourself to showcase the best version of yourself. Keep doing the work. Keep pursuing your passion aggressively. Remain grateful and remain humble. You won't know what power resides inside of you until you tap into it and challenge yourself. To pursue dance as a career, you have to be a little insane. If you can put yourself through all of the physical, mental, and spiritual shifts that dancers go through and still want to wake up every day and do it all over again, that is a clear indicator that dance is more than just a hobby for you. Let your movement be your voice
DS: What do you love most about dancing with Ailey II?
JP: Traveling to new places! I've been able to see so much of the world because of this glorious opportunity. To meet all of these people who are united through the universal language of dance warms my heart. I especially love meeting young dancers who are moved, motivated, and inspired by our performances. One moment I will never forget is when we finished performing in Castres, France, and two young girls sprinted down the street to get their programs signed by myself, Tara Bellardini, and Khalia Campbell. They were out of breath and didn't speak any English, but you saw the passion and excitement in their eyes.
I aspire to inspire. I remember growing up and not seeing many dancers of my likeness. There was a point in time where I thought young black girls weren't meant to be dancers, but the Ailey company changed that for me. I can now tell young black boys and black girls that dance is a wonderful career choice, and that if this is something they genuinely want to do, they should pursue it. I want to be a shining beacon of hope for this generation, and I want people to see what I have done, and to know that this is an option for them. I am proud of my successes, and hope to exceed them, and for others to as well. Ailey II has given me a platform to share myself with others and I am extremely grateful for this.
Catch Jessica and the rest of Ailey II March 14–25 in NYC!
Get in, losers. We're going to Broadway.
OK, not losers, actually—more like the bajillion die-hard fans of Tina Fey's 2004 cult hit Mean Girls, who've been wearing pink every Wednesday since a musical adaptation of the film was first teased back in 2013.
Now their world is like a cake filled with rainbows and smiles, because Mean Girls the musical, which had a trial run in Washington, DC, last fall, is set to open at Broadway's August Wilson Theatre April 8. And in a very grool twist, it turns out the show—with direction and choreography by Casey Nicholaw and a book by Fey herself—is delightfully dancey.
Principal Lloyd Knight has become a true standout in the Martha Graham Dance Company thanks to his compelling presence and dynamic technique. Knight, who performs leading roles in iconic pieces like Appalachian Spring and Embattled Garden, was born in England and raised in Miami, where he trained at the Miami Conservatory and later graduated from New World School of the Arts. He received scholarships to The Ailey School and The Dance Theatre of Harlem School in NYC and joined MGDC in 2005. Catch him onstage with MGDC during its New York City Center season this month. —Courtney Bowers
They say there's no "I" in "team"—and nowhere is that truer than the world of college dance teams, where precision reigns, uniformity is key, and a single misstep from any given "I" can cost a group a championship trophy. So it's unsurprising that securing a spot on one of the best dance teams in the country is no easy feat.
Members of these highly athletic teams rehearse for hours every week—on top of academic classes and commitments—and perform at football and basketball games, annual concerts, and nationally televised competitions (hi, ESPN). And "no I" rule notwithstanding, each of these top teams is made up of highly trained, highly technical, highly hard-core individuals, who come together to create a ready-for-victory pack.
These six teams aren't one-off success stories—they're consistently strong, and earn the top spots at major competitions like UDA and NDA nearly every year. Up for the challenge? Here's what to know before you go to auditions.
Today in Ballet Dancers Are Actual Superheroes news:
You've no doubt heard that the fabulous Alicia Vikander is playing Lara Croft in the newest iteration of Tomb Raider, which hits movie theaters this Friday. But while her training for the high-octane action role was crazy tough, she says, studying at the Royal Swedish Ballet School was far tougher.
In our "Dear Katie" series, former NYCB soloist Kathryn Morgan answers your pressing dance questions. Have something you want to ask Katie? Email email@example.com for a chance to be featured!
I'm a hip-hop and jazz dancer, and I want to get involved in the commercial-dance world. I've never studied ballet, but people keep telling me I "have to" take ballet classes if I want to make it professionally. Is that really true? My family has limited money for dance classes, and I have to be careful about how I spend it.
Everyone loves a good viral video, especially when there's dancing involved. And though many viral videos are contrived and created for the soul purpose of instafame, the story behind the latest video catching the eyes of millions—including Rihanna, super model Naomi Campbell, and Diddy—is even more unique because it features children who don't even know who those celebrities are.
A dance troupe in Nigeria has become the next internet sensation, thanks to their exuberant dancing and passion with which they perform. Their enthusiasm for dance is evident in every step and it's hard not to smile as you see these children (who range from ages 6 to 15) express pure joy in something as simple as dance. These nine kids are part of The Dream Catchers, an organization started by 26-year-old Seyi Oluyole, that gives impoverished children a place to live while teaching them how to dance.
For 16-year-old Amanda*, dance is everything: her passion, her escape from the daily grind, and her career goal. Her parents see things differently. "I have siblings who are active in sports," Amanda says, "and my parents would rather I play soccer or basketball. They don't see dance as something I can earn a stable living from in the future. They often tell me I should just quit."
Some parents aren't able to, don't know how to, or choose not to give you the kind of support you need to thrive in the studio. And when your parents are adding stress to your life, rather than alleviating it, there's a lot at stake. "Dancers who don't have the support of their parents might struggle with self-doubt," says Dr. Linda Hamilton, a former dancer with New York City Ballet and a clinical psychologist specializing in the performing arts, "while those whose parents are too involved can crack under the pressure." Whether your parents aren't there when you need them or they're always there, practically smothering you, try these tips to improve your situation.
On Friday night, the iconic RuPaul made history as the first drag queen ever to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And it didn't take long for the world's most fabulous RuPaul fan/one of our favorite human beings, Mark Kanemura, to commemorate his idol's accomplishment with—naturally—a WALK to end all walks.