Talley Beatty's Road of the Phoebe Snow

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre Tours a Masterwork

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Masazumi Chaya with the Ailey dance company

Masazumi Chaya (front/center) with the Ailey dance company in Talley Beatty's Road of the Phoebe Snow. Photo courtesy of Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation Archives.

For nearly 50 years, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre (AAADT) has been a national and international cultural force. "We've been called by more than one U.S. President ‘America's cultural ambassador to the world,' " said Development Director Bennett Rink. "That's really important to us, to take the work that's onstage . . .and make it accessible to the broader public. We are the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. The inclusion of the word American was not an accident on Mr. Ailey's part. He wanted this company to represent the modern dance heritage of America."

AAADT received an American Masterpieces grant of $40,000 to support the reconstruction of Road of the Phoebe Snow, a jazz-soaked ballet for 14 dancers by Talley Beatty. Rink called Phoebe Snow a "quintessential American piece. You've got the choreography of Talley Beatty, who's a true modern dance pioneer and a great influence on Mr. Ailey in his early years, and you've got music by two bonafide geniuses -- Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn."

AAADT Associate Artistic Director Masazuma Chaya -- who danced Phoebe Snow in 1976 -- is restaging the work for the current company. "I think Road of the Phoebe Snow is very interesting because [Beatty] choreographed this in the 1950s and young people are still interacting in the same way. It's very universal," said Chaya.

What makes Beatty an American master is his fluent, concurrent use of movement from classical ballet, modern dance, and jazz. As Chaya explained, "Classical ballet is about stretch and balance; modern dance is about going deeper to the ground, weight-wise; and jazz dance is sassy and sharp with a little bit more of an entertainment flavor to it. Talley is amazing in that his ideas about movement were always based on those three elements."

The company's 25-city U.S. tour in 2008, which kicks off in New York, will bring Phoebe Snow to more than 250,000 individuals. AAADT also will host outreach activities, including mini-performances for children, lecture-demonstrations, and master classes. Rink added, "We'll be developing a special educational component around the production of Road of the Phoebe Snow. We anticipate that it will involve a Web site to learn more about the ballet, and about Talley Beatty's role in American modern dance and the influence he had on others."

As he rehearses the company, Chaya ensures that this new generation also feels Beatty's powerful influence. "I love talking to dancers, saying, ‘When Talley was choreographing this. . .,' sharing every single thing that I remember. I want them to know how he did his work, how he talked, and even how he got angry if you weren't doing it right!"