Here’s great news for Maryland balletomanes and local dance fans. The prestigious Juilliard Institute has chosen Columbia’s sweetheart ballerina to lead the dance division.
Phones have been ringing off the hook (is that even a term anymore?) and social media continues its buzz with news that Alicia Graf Mack, former leading dancer of Dance Theatre of Harlem and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, will soon become director of the Juilliard Dance Division.
For the record, Juilliard Dance is recognized as one of the most prestigious training programs in the world, offering both ballet and modern techniques to create the best in contemporary dance and choreography.
This appointment is a big deal for the gal who stole our hearts as the “Siren” in Balanchine’s masterpiece ballet, “The Prodigal Son.” Or when she lifted that umbrella towards the heavens in “Revelations,” the Ailey signature that her mentor Judith Jamison made famous.
Besides dazzling dance journalists with these companies, and before being sidelined by a leg injury, she also danced with Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, Complexions and with Beyonce at Radio City Music Hall. And the list goes on…
Alicia can astound, whether performing astonishing feats of classical ballet, modern spirals, her own brand of undulating hip swings and head rolls, or that signature move of hers that consists of holding one leg stretched toward the ceiling while remaining solidly balanced.
And few will forget that moment when Alicia appeared at the 2003 “Rising Stars” competition and captured the audience with her spiritual celebration to honor women, especially her mother, Martha Graf who once said, “As a little girl, she started to dance before she started to walk.”
For this writer, the memory of Alicia’s recent appearance at the recent Kennedy Center Honors remains vivid. Now in her late 30s, Mack paid tribute to Carmen de Lavallade (83) in a powerful solo where she contracted her body to show pain then released her arms with a “hallelujah.” It was a moment of pure joy that brought a smile to the honoree and the audience to its feet.
Alicia Graf Mack honors the tradition of early dance pioneers like Carmen de Lavallade.
So what does this amazing dancer/teacher/choreographer (and mother of two little ones) say about her next move, back to “The Big Apple” for this prestigious position? What are her goals for the new batch of dance majors who will arrive in the fall?
Alicia Graf Mack spoke from St. Louis, Missouri where she is wrapping up her semester as visiting assistant professor of dance at Webster University. As a dance educator, she is also on the faculty of the University of Houston and the co-founder (with younger sister Daisha Graf) of D(n)A Arts Collective, an initiative created to enrich the lives of young performers through master classes and intensives.
“I am beyond thrilled to join The Juilliard School and community in this capacity,” she said with more than a hint of pride at her new position. “And I am really excited to be back in New York as it feels like home to me. I’ve just spent so many years here and have so many family and friends,” she said with much enthusiasm.
“When I was in Manhattan for my interview, I ran into a cousin and a colleague while just walking down one block. And, yes, it’s nice to be nearer to my family in Columbia (Maryland) and the idea that my kids will be closer to cousins…this is very exciting to all of us.”
When asked her thoughts on the education of young dancers who leave high school to train at a ballet academy or a ballet company and maybe or maybe not get a GED, Mack chose her words carefully.
“I think there are many ways to enter the dance world. The landscape of dance is shifting. Even for my generation when it was understood that if you wanted to be a ballet dancer you would go straight into the profession from high school or earlier,” she acknowledged, her words shaded with intelligence over the phone.
“That in some ways is still true, however in the contemporary modern dance world, if a dancer chooses to go to college and gain a BFA in dance, that could be an advantage because it challenges them to think in different ways and gives them the time to explore their own voices, how to collaborate, and to integrate ideas into their own artistry.”
Mack believes college programs allow dancers the time to mature. As she puts it, “Many companies are looking for dancers who can bring something to the table as opposed to being just a tool or instrument for their choreography.”
She discussed the value of a traditional ballet class with embellishment and what she hopes to bring to the Juilliard program.
“I believe that the training and discipline that ballet gives a dancer is of utmost importance but I do think because of the physicality of dance is highly demanding, dancers need to supplement their education with many more forms of modern dance, with contemporary dance, with improvisation, and then with some cross training, Pilates, or gyro-tonics, or cardio work in the gym so they are prepared to do all the amazing feats that choreographers dream of.
“But the ballet is still essential to the understanding of their instrument,” she added, “and I wouldn’t change a ballet class but would supplement them with other modes of training to keep up with this trend.”
As for thoughts on how she will recruit for the Juilliard dance programs, she turns to the younger generation who continue to impress her with openness and acceptance of all dancers.
“I think the conversation is much more present than it was in the past, and it not only involves dancers of color but involves diversity in companies. My generation and those older are stuck in the past. This generation will become the leaders, the thought provocateurs of the arts and they are not only accepting diversity…they are embracing it.”