Ailey's new secret weapon: James Gilmer, a heroically devoid of manners

December is never child’s play for an Alvin Ailey dancer, but recently – amid rehearsals and with a show looming that night – James gilm...


December is never child’s play for an Alvin Ailey dancer, but recently – amid rehearsals and with a show looming that night – James gilmer ended up in an empty closet on the studio side of downtown New York. Armed with a late lunch, he used his only break of the day for an interview. But for him, it is better not to waste time.

Omicron isn’t just threatening. It’s here. Even Gilmer’s plans to attend a dance performance right after Thanksgiving were thwarted: Dyed canceled the second half of its season at the Joyce Theater after groundbreaking cases of Covid-19 were detected among the dancers. So when it comes to his post at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Gilmer has a perspective.

“I continue to be very careful, and I never let a day go by without remembering that it is such a gift,” he said. “As much as it is an opportunity and a privilege to perform on stage already, it is even more so now.”

Gilmer, 28, an Ailey member since June 2019, has reason to be both grateful and a little hesitant. After joining the company – it took him two auditions – he moved to Harlem from San Francisco, where he had performed with ODC / Dance and The images of Amy Seiwert. He settled into “Revelations” after learning Ailey’s masterpiece from veteran dancer and associate artistic director, Matthew Rushing. (“An incredibly expensive experience,” Gilmer said.) He toured internationally with the company and finished his first season at City Center. But then the pandemic struck.

What was it like to finally have work and then be confined? Gilmer might have made his mark again, but it was clear from the start that he stood out.

Stuck at home, unable to perform, he did a lot of yoga, which he devoted himself to while living in California. “To feel like my body was mine,” he said, “I really needed to center myself using this practice.”

But Gilmer’s first serious dance language was ballet. Quite unusual for an Ailey dancer, he had an impressive career before joining the company. Classically trained from a young age – he studied in his hometown at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater School – Gilmer spent six seasons with the Cincinnati Ballet, where he reached the rank of soloist.

A strong partner who, at 6ft 2in, fills the stage with a sort of peculiar grandeur, Gilmer is almost heroic without manners – his dance has an ease, a casualness that can be rare among ballet dancers. Robert Battle, artistic director of Ailey, remembers being struck by her size and agility, as well as her versatility.

“I remember asking a friend of mine in California, ‘How is he?’ And it was, ‘Oh, it’s not a drama, he’s easy going, but really good.’ “

Battle admires Gilmer’s nobility and what he called “an authentic heart”.

“He’s really nimble in every sense of the word,” he added, “which generally means flexible. But I mean something a little more touching: he’s not a peacock, you know. “He’s very attached to work and devoting himself to work in such a wonderful and beautiful way.

Gilmer could be a peacock: with his elegant build and line, and scrupulous technique, he could veer to a more distant place as a performer – or be a show-off. “He has a wonderful economy with the way he shows his colors – his feathers if you will,” Battle said. “He is able to meet the challenges of the different choreographers who come because he is very open.

The battle was struck when he dragged it into Aszure Barton’s “Busk” with the way Gilmer listened. “His whole body is one ear,” Battle said. “You get an immediate response to what you ask him to do. And it might sound simple, but trust me, it isn’t.

Gilmer first saw the Ailey Company perform around the age of 9 or 10. He’s always been a fan. “Even when I started focusing on ballet, there was a part of me that always wanted Ailey and always dreamed of Ailey,” he said.

For Gilmer, being an Ailey’s dancer has to do with the ability to convey a story, something he said he wanted to do on stage all his life. Finding drama – and your own personal drama – in a classic Ailey’s role isn’t the same as being a prince in ballet.

Whereas in Cincinnati, Gilmer has performed in works by George Balanchine and contemporary choreographers, and has danced prominent classical roles in “Cinderella”, “The Nutcracker” and “Romeo and Juliet”. (He played Tybalt. “Dying on stage,” he said, flashing a quick smile. “So much fun.”)

When he moved to California to dance, he had no plans to give up ballet altogether. But he wanted to leave a company that focused so much on full story ballets. “With their usual narratives and characterizations, although fun to play,” he said, “I felt invisible and somewhat unexpressed as a person and an artist.”

Gilmer wanted more than “pantyhose and tunic type roles,” he said. “I could also feel pressured to find a place where there were more bodies like mine, not just black dancing bodies, but also athletic and versatile dancers with long limbs.”

He enjoyed working for Victoria Morgan, artistic director of the Cincinnati Ballet, calling her a “very visionary boss.” He loves working with women in general, he said, including Twyla Tharp, who premiered him for the premiere of “Second duetAgainst Jacquelin Harris, also of Ailey, for her program “Twyla Now” at the City Center. During the labor process – it was long – Tharp told him to train like a boxer.

What did this mean? “Footwork,” he said. “To have a feeling of lightness on the ground. It’s being able to move in any direction and how that correlates to your heart and where things are released and inhabiting your body on stage as well. Being able to be fair in your bones and muscles. And it is the performance.”

Is that why her feet were particularly supple and lively in Rennie Harris’ hip-hop work Lazarus this season? He was so anchored, so relaxed despite, at times, the vertiginous speed of the choreography. Yet Gilmer’s performance, especially in the dance’s most dramatic moments, was not exterior, but interior: private, purposeful, haunting.

It might also have something to do with Tharp, who got him involved in both his dancing and his acting. “Learning from someone of that caliber after so much time away from dancing was really satisfying that huge void and this urgency to create and move again,” said Gilmer. “I was really able to take that and run with everything. There are obviously certain ways to train, but there are so many things that she made me realize that I can adapt to any dance space and really transform the way I play.

He’s laughing. “She’s so cool,” he said. “I hope it wasn’t that.” (It probably won’t; at the very least, Battle plans to bring “Second Duet” into Ailey’s repertoire.)

Reflecting on why dancing has become such an important part of his life – Gilmer said his parents enrolled him in classes because he was always on the move – he considers his upbringing in the upper middle class and them. privileges of becoming a professional dancer. “When you have two parents as a black person and you can grow up in a Victorian style house with your own bedroom and living room and a second floor and a third floor and have the flexibility to move around. ” he said. “Like physically moving my body in space and going up and down the stairs. And the yard: having a front yard, having a back yard.

He grew up, essentially, in a world of space, and that gave him a restless mind: “I can feel it generating in me,” he said. “It always brought me back to the studio.”

As a dancer, Gilmer wants to share it, to be, like the women with whom he has worked, as generous as possible. “It also almost elevates the responsibility because I have received so many amazing things,” he said. “So giving it back to the public that way is really all I’m going to do.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Ailey's new secret weapon: James Gilmer, a heroically devoid of manners
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