July 1 marks an exciting new era for The Juilliard School. Vail Dance Festival director and former New York City Ballet principal Damian Woetzel steps into the role of president, and the dance division will also have a new leader: Alicia Graf Mack, 39, will take over from Taryn Kaschock Russell, acting artistic director for the current school year.
As a performer, Mack was a beloved star at Dance Theatre of Harlem and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theaterand also a guest performer for Beyoncé and Alicia Keys.
But she's no stranger to higher education. Early in her career, she earned an undergraduate degree in history from Columbia University, and, later, she took a break from dancing with Ailey and pursued a master's at Washington University in St. Louis. She majored in nonprofit management, focusing on arts administration.
Since retiring from Ailey, Mack has stood at the front of the room as an educator. She's currently based in Houston, where she's wrapping up teaching commitments as an adjunct dance instructor at the University of Houston and as a visiting assistant professor of dance at Webster University in St. Louis. Dance Magazine spoke with Mack about her appointment as director of The Juilliard School's dance division.
How are you feeling right now?
I'm deeply honored, I'm incredibly excited. My head is absolutely spinning from the buzz. My family's from the East Coast, my brothers live in New York City, and my sister is also a dancer, so all of this is just so exciting for me and my family.
What was the selection process like?
It was an open, national search. I went through the application page on Juilliard's website and submitted my cover letter and resumé. Then I went through a three-month process, going through rounds of interviews, writing a vision statement, meeting students, meeting faculty. It was quite involved.
Do you know if you'll be teaching as well?
I'm not sure if I will have a regular class, but I would love to be in the studio. That is a place where I feel that I can connect the most with the student body.
What value do you see in dancers going to college?
I think, today, dancers must be equipped for an ever-changing landscape. The field is so different, even from when I was performing. Job opportunities, it seems, in large dance companies are starting to narrow, and dancers have to be equipped with versatile training and entrepreneurial skills in order to stay relevant and employable.
I want to empower young artists to step boldly into the world upon graduation knowing that they can create their own opportunities and their own realities if they are not presented immediately.
And I think that the role of higher education is different than that of a professional training program. My charge at Juilliard is not only to make sure that the dancers are physically capable, but that they are thought leaders and they are provoking thinkers and they are citizens of the world.
Artistically, what are you hoping to see in the next generation of Juilliard dancers?
I would like them to hold on to the historical perspective that the training has provided them. If dancers are trained very rigorously in the foundational techniques of classical ballet and modern dance, that gives them a very special sense of themselves and of performance techniques. Moving forward, these dancers are also poised to be leaders in a new sort of contemporary modality of movement, and I see them continuing to push the envelope of physicality and finding new ways of creating dance.
As an African-American woman, what does this position mean to you?
So much. I do realize that this is a historic appointment, and I believe that hiring a woman of color to lead the dance division into the 21st century is a signal to the world. And I believe that under the leadership of Damian Woetzel and provost Ara Guzelimian, it is clear that they are not interested in the status quo in dance or the arts. They are ready to see all of the possibilities and invite all of the different voices in the Juilliard community. And I believe that these guiding principles will permeate through the institution right down to the students.
It's currently New York Fashion Week, which means it's the perfect time to gush over the merging of fashion and dance, yet again. We know we've said it a thousand times, but there's just nothing better than big brands tapping dancers for campaigns or runway shows.
The best collab of late? That would be Tory Burch Sport's latest collection theme, centered on ballet and modeled by a group of 2018 Juilliard dancers.
All of 18-year-old Kaylin Maggard's dreams—from scoring the title of National Senior Outstanding Dancer at New York City Dance Alliance Nationals to winning the 2017 Dance Spirit Cover Model Search—are coming true. And to anyone who knows the gorgeous contemporary dancer, that's no surprise.
From the moment the Dance Spirit staff met Kaylin, it was obvious her humility and talent would take her far. Not only did she go full-out during the photo shoot and class at Broadway Dance Center, but she was always cheering on, laughing with, and supporting her fellow CMS contestants Haley Hartsfield and Michelle Quiner. During the voting period, the social media world was abuzz with praise for her work ethic, positive attitude, and generosity.
Since her CMS trip to NYC, Kaylin's moved from her hometown of Columbia, MO, to the Big Apple for her freshman year at Juilliard, and is busy getting acquainted with the city. As for the future? She's taking it one opportunity at a time, but something tells us we'll be seeing this contemporary queen reach new heights every year.
If you've gotten your copy of our September issue, then you've definitely seen Kenneth Edwards' beautiful photo essay following Juilliard student (and 2013 CMS finalist!) Madi Hicks for a day. Hicks is a stunning dancer and Edwards an equally stunning photographer, so we here at Dance Spirit had a really (really) hard time picking our favorite images to print in the magazine. Which is why, as a special Saturday treat, we've compiled our favorite outtakes from the shoot. Take a look and prepare to be mesmerized by Hicks' elegant presence and Edwards' on-point photographic eye.
Spend one day observing the dance program at The Juilliard School, and it's obvious how hard the dancers have worked to get there. But even in a studio filled with insane talent, 20-year-old Madi Hicks stands out. A former title-winning comp kid (and 2013 Dance Spirit Cover Model Search finalist!), this junior dances 24/7, and packs as many dance composition classes into her schedule as possible. “I love, love, love to choreograph," she says. “I really want to have my own company some day." In the meantime, she's soaking up all that her elite school and NYC have to offer. So what's it like to attend one of the most prestigious conservatories in the nation? We followed Hicks for a day last spring to find out.
“The teachers really care about our futures and invest in us," says Hicks. “I get so much one-on-one help because the Juilliard dance program is so small. I wouldn't get that in a larger program."
I remember my audition for Juilliard like it was yesterday. I can tell you which leotard I wore, where I stood at the barre—and that I didn't make it past the first cut.
I bring this up for two reasons:
1. It's college admissions season, when high school seniors anxiously await envelopes containing options and decisions surrounding their future. It's a terrifying time of year, and one that can be extremely exciting and heart-wrenching at the same time.
Juilliard students Daphne Fernberger and Lorrin Brubaker in Lar Lubovitch's Concerto Six Twenty-Two. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor
2. Juilliard's dance department celebrated another successful spring performance run this past weekend. Their sophomore, junior and senior dancers excelled in a repertory smorgasbord: Twyla Tharp's Baker's Dozen, Lar Lubovitch's Concerto Six Twenty-Two and Eliot Feld’s The Jig Is Up. It was easy to forget the dancers were students and not professionals the way they tackled Tharp's wiggly phrasing and Lubovitch's flowing, expansive movement.
Juilliard's Kristina Bentz in Eliot Feld’s The Jig Is Up.
Photo by Rosalie O'Connor
On Friday night, Dance Spirit's very own September 2013 cover guy (and Juilliard junior) Corey John Snide shimmied his way through Feld's quirky mix of Irish-jig-meets-Soul Train-meets-flower-child choreography.
While watching The Jig Is Up, I remembered one of Corey's quotes from the feature: "College has given me options for how I can make a living and feel fulfilled artistically. I'm not just trying to kick my leg up to my face anymore." He captures exactly what college dance has to offer. It's the time to explore everything we love—and don't love—about dance. It's awesome.
Choosing a school, however, is not always as awesome, or easy. When I was rejected from Juilliard, I was definitely disappointed in myself. But as they say, hindsight is 20-20, and I know now my reasons for choosing to audition there in the first place weren't exactly grounded. I didn't know Juilliard's rich history; I'd never seen a performance there; and I had no idea of which company I dreamed of joining after graduation. I hadn't considered what I truly wanted out of a dance education, compared to what the school—or any school for that matter—actually offered.
All classic mistakes.
But Dance Spirit is here to help. Check out "University of NYC" to find out what school in The Big Apple is really like. "Streamline Your College Search" offers countless tips to help you target your dream dance program. And look in your April issue for "I Have No Idea What I Want to Do After High School!" where you'll hear from five professional dancers about how they chose their paths—some heading to college and others directly to a career.
Want more? Sign up for the DanceU101 monthly newsletter to get program news and the "Real Deal" from college dance students delivered right to your inbox.
When I find out there is a video on the internet featuring Jakob Karr that I somehow haven't seen, my day is immediately halted. Must. Watch. Jakob.
Choreographer Lauren Adams recently released a new project she had been working on (and hinting at heavily on Facebook!). A project including Jakob Karrrrrrr!
A shot from "Angel(s) on Fire"
But not just Jakob Karr. Also a whole handful of other awesome, strapping men: Jason Parsons (the bald, mysterious one), Joey Arrigo (the comp kid turned technical whiz), Corey Snide (the tapper who can also do everything else well, too), Austin Goodwin (the scruffy, captivating redhead) and Danny Tidwell (no intro needed, am I right?).
Adams directed and produced this piece, called "Angel(s) on Fire," and I keep watching it because there's so much to see. The video was filmed and edited by Allison Schultz, who does an incredible job shooting from crazy angles and layering the shots throughout the four-minute routine.
So yes, I have this love thing (from afar, of course) going on for Jakob, but I actually found myself most drawn to Corey Snide as I watched the "angels" in action. Corey, weren't you, like, just New York City Dance Alliance's Mini Oustanding Dancer? (You may also recognize Corey from our September 2013 cover—he's a Juilliard man now!)
The choreography seamlessly blends contemporary elements with tap-like movements, a boxing series and the guys playing with feathers.
Click here to watch "Angel(s) on Fire." I think you're going to like it.
Kyle Robinson (bottom row, left) and Brandon Cournay (top row, fourth from right) with their Juilliard class
Brandon Cournay and Kyle Robinson are pretty similar. They both grew up in small towns, moved to NYC to attend The Juilliard School, received their BFAs in Dance in 2009 and went on to have majorly successful dance careers. They also both learned early on that being a male dancer comes with a lot of stereotypes.
Brandon is gay. Kyle is straight. Even though that difference hasn’t changed the way they dance, it’s affected their lives as dancers. Their stories don’t represent every gay or straight male dancer, but they’re real. And Brandon and Kyle agreed to share them with DS.
"I'm Gay" —Brandon Cournay
Brandon for KEIGWIN + COMPANY (Matt Murphy)
As soon as I bought my first pair of Capezio jazz sneakers, I was hooked on dance. I was 10 years old, and I’d wear my dance shoes to school instead of tennis shoes. Yes, I was kind of a weird kid, but I’d found something to look forward to every day.
School was terrible for me. I was constantly being pushed into lockers, and kids would call me “gay” just because I was a dancer. I felt very alone. But I never tried to defend myself, and I didn’t tell anyone about the bullying—not even my parents. I was called gay so frequently I started to wonder, “Am I gay?” when I was still too young to comprehend what that actually meant. I didn’t know anyone in small-town Walled Lake, MI, who was gay and could have told me it was OK.
Every day at four o’clock, I found solace in dance class. I was lucky to go to a studio with a lot of boys. It was unspoken, but we knew we were all going through the same thing at school, and that bonded us.
For the last three years of high school, I had a girlfriend. It’s hard to explain: Looking back, I knew at that point that I was gay. But at the time, I didn’t realize it. I was too afraid and embarrassed to acknowledge it, even to myself.
My girlfriend and I were still dating when I started college at The Juilliard School in NYC. Suddenly, I was meeting people my age and older who were openly gay and totally cool with it. But I was confused through my whole freshman year. I was constantly worried I wasn’t acting straight enough. I was going crazy thinking, What do I do? What is this feeling?
Brandon, with his sister, in his first dance costume
I had a breakthrough when I went back to Michigan the summer after my freshman year. I was acting like a different person back home than I was at school, and I finally understood why. I realized and accepted who I was—a gay man. I felt like a new person, starting over at the age of 19. In a way, it was terrifying.
I never officially came out to my family or friends. There was no big announcement—I just stopped hiding it. When I talked about it with my mom, she just said, “I love you. You’re amazing.” To this day, I still haven’t come out to my extended family. I feel like I don’t have to. I know they know, but I don’t want it to define their perception of me.
After college, I stayed in NYC to audition for roles in both commercial and concert dance. I performed in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular and did some gigs with Mark Morris. Then Larry Keigwin—who’d choreographed Runaway on my class during my senior year—emailed to say his company was doing Runaway again and he needed extra dancers. I took the job, and the next season I officially joined KEIGWIN + COMPANY. Larry’s work expands what it means to be a male dancer. For example, Mattress Suite features a love triangle between three men. This company feels like home. These dancers are my family.
As a whole, the dance community in NYC is an open one. But that doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with the stereotypes that come with being a gay male dancer. There’s this idea that we’re all promiscuous and flamboyant. Sure, some men act like that, but not all of them.
Brandon with his parents at his Juilliard graduation
When I go back home to Michigan, I’m still self-conscious about how I dress and act. I don’t wear skinny jeans to the mall. I’d rather put on a sweatshirt and “mom jeans” to avoid being called names. In August, I ran into someone from high school in my hometown. I said, “How are you?” and he said, “What’s up, homo?” That still hurts.
Luckily, experiences like that are rare these days. One of my closest friends, who’s straight, just visited me for my birthday, and I’m going to another friend’s wedding next week—my first gay wedding. My sister recently started a serious relationship, which sparked a conversation between my mom and me. She asked, “Why don’t you ever talk to me about your relationships?” I was like, “I didn’t think you wanted to know!” She surprised me. When I meet the right person, I’ll bring him home to meet my parents.
Overall, I don’t think being gay has affected me professionally in a negative way or a positive way. Gay or straight, we’re all just dancers.
"I'm Straight" —Kyle Robinson
Kyle Robinson (Tyler Golden/Oxygen Media)
I loved acting as a kid, especially musical theater, so when I was 10 my mom suggested I join my sister at the dance studio. My dad would’ve liked me to stick to baseball and football. But as soon as I took my first dance class, sports became secondary. It took about a year before my dad really started to understand and accept my dancing. By the time I stopped playing sports altogether to focus on dance, my parents had become my biggest fans.
When anyone gave me a hard time at school for being a dancer, I had ways of dealing with it. If someone called me names like “gay” or “fairy,” I’d say, “Is it gay that I’m hanging out with lots of hot girls after school?” That would shut them up.
I had my first girlfriend at 14—a dancer at my studio. But I’d never really given my sexuality much thought. My hometown, Duxbury, MA, was conservative. Things like that just weren’t discussed.
It wasn’t until starting college at The Juilliard School that I really thought about what it meant to be gay or straight. I felt surrounded by gay men. I think I was one of two straight men in my class and one of five in the division. I suddenly had friends who were questioning their sexualities or coming out for the first time.
Kyle (third from left) with his family
It felt like there was a big gay party I wasn’t invited to. I even wondered, “Am I gay because I dance? Or because I can admit that that’s a good-looking guy?” It didn’t take long to realize that, while I loved my male friends, I wasn’t interested in them in a romantic way. At first, I was uncomfortable changing in front of gay guys in the dressing room. But once I got to know the people I was dancing with, there was so much mutual respect that it wasn’t a problem. They knew I was straight, and we wouldn’t make a big deal out of each other’s sexualities.
I realized how far I’d come when some friends from home visited me in NYC. I brought them to a party with all my dancer friends. In the elevator, I warned them, “No matter what, don’t say anything like ‘homo’ or ‘fairy’ at this party.” We stepped off the elevator, and the first person we saw was one of my gay friends—this tall, gorgeous black man—wearing a tiara and running toward me screaming, “Kyyyle!” My friends from home were in shock. But I loved how out and free people were at Juilliard. I’m glad they didn’t feel the need to conceal it or feel guilty about it.
Still, I found myself hanging out with actors rather than dancers at school. There were more straight guys in that major, and we’d watch sports and meet girls together. I don’t think I realized exactly what I was doing, but there were definitely times I went out of my way to “prove” I was straight. The side effect was that I was a little promiscuous with the ladies.
Kyle (second from left) at the L.A. premiere of West Side Story
Since graduation, I’ve danced with Aszure & Artists and Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, traveled with the first national tour of West Side Story and starred on the reality show “All the Right Moves” with Shaping Sound. I’ve seen how quickly people judge professional dancers. I’m told all the time I look more like a hockey player that a dancer, which I think stops people from automatically assuming I’m gay. Still, after I tell people what I do for a living, they’ll ask, “So are you gay or straight?” Nowadays it doesn’t hurt my feelings.
While filming “ATRM,” we had two straight guys (Teddy Forance and me) and two gay guys (Travis Wall and Nick Lazzarini) living in one house, and the producers had us talk about sexuality to no end. I’m pretty matter-of-fact about it, but I have to admit, discussing it constantly made me a little uncomfortable—mostly because it really wasn’t an issue for us. I loved living with those boys. Yes, Nick liked to get a little frisky with me; he’s definitely grabbed my butt once or twice. But a firm punch to the arm usually dissuades him from doing it again. I know he’s doing it in a playful way. And frankly, I find it flattering that he spends so much time throwing admiration my way.
My advice for any boy who loves to dance, regardless of whether he’s gay or straight, is to follow his passion. And definitely don’t let other people rain on your parade.