MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we find out what Wajeed, from the hip-hop group Triple P, is listening to. That's our In Your Ear segment in a moment.
But first, it's time for our Wisdom Watch. That's the part of the program where we talk with leaders in politics, policy and the arts who can draw on a lifetime of accomplishment, people who aren't just smart, but wise.
Our next guest has spent her life bringing the art of dance to diverse audiences. Renee Robinson has been with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for more than 25 years. Founded by the late Alvin Ailey in 1958, the dance theater has touched, inspired and entertained not just families, but generations. And Robinson is someone who inspired Ailey himself. He personally invited her to join the company in 1981. She is the last dancer to be so honored, who is still an active performer with the dance theater.
She's now traveling on the company's 50th anniversary tour, and Renee Robinson joins us now to talk about her career in dance. Welcome, Ms. Robinson. Thank you for joining us.
Ms. RENEE ROBINSON (Dancer, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater): Well thank you for having me. I am very, very happy to be here with you and I'm very, very excited to share with everyone my wonderful journey here at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater as a dancer.
MARTIN: Start at the beginning, if you would. How did you fall in love with dance?
Ms. ROBINSON: You know, it was an after school program, and there was a dance department, and I went to it every day. Mostly, I think, it was just I enjoyed the physicality, but I enjoyed that you had to use your mind. You had to use your mind to connect to your body to tell it what to do.
I was introduced to a dance camp one summer, and the instructor told my mother that she thought that I had talent, and she gave her the name of Jones Haywood School of Ballet there in Washington, D.C., told her take me over, let them look at me, see if I was a little more serious about maybe one day becoming a professional dancer, and that it would be a good school for me to be a part of.
In the beginning, it was something that I did that was fun, but the Jones Haywood School of Ballet, classical ballet, that's what my training was right at the beginning, and my teachers were teachers of color, African-American females. So that was my exposure. I only had the idea that if I wanted to do this, I could do it.
I knew that there was an avenue out there for me. I knew of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. At that young age, though, I did not have an idea of where I wanted to dance.
MARTIN: Last year, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Judith Jamison, a former principal dancer, now artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and I asked her about when she first met Alvin Ailey, and this is what she said. Here it is.
Ms. JUDITH JAMISON (Artistic Director, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater): Alvin was at the first rehearsal I went in. That's when I met him. It was a television special on the Roaring '20s, and I went there. I was terrible. I was awful. I mean, I couldn't take a step because I hadn't danced for three months, because after that ballet theater gig was over, I working at the World's Fair, pushing buttons at the log flume ride.
We walked out of the audition. I passed this man on the steps, didn't even know it was Alvin, because I was so distraught, called my mother and said mom, I've got to stay in New York, stayed there. Three days later, two days later, somebody called me on the phone, said my name's Alvin Ailey. I'd like you to join my company. I walked into the rehearsal. That's when I met Alvin.
MARTIN: Well hopefully, your first experience wasn't so dramatic. I don't know if you knew about that, but what about your first meeting?
Ms. ROBINSON: You know, I left Washington, D.C., after I graduated high school, and I was a student at New York University and with a dance major and an economics minor, because at that time, I wasn't sure if I wanted to become a professional dancer. I had ideas of becoming an arts and entertainment attorney, and for the summer after the first year at New York University, I was looking for something to do in New York.
It was a toss-up between staying in New York City or going to Paris, France, wait on tables and just spend the whole summer in Paris. And a few of the students at the school said you know, you should audition for the Ailey school. We think you could get in. And I was like oh, you know, I don't know. Me and a girlfriend had already planned Paris.
And so I went to the school, received a full scholarship for the summer, and the love affair has not ended yet, and just being in the school, I would see Alvin in the hallway or he would come and look in on a class. I was also a part of the Workshop Company headed by Kelvin Rotardier who had also been a company member.
As an exchange, we had been invited to Trinidad to perform, and Mr. Ailey said that he would allow us to perform "Revelations" as one of the pieces that we would perform when we were in Trinidad. And after we learned it, he came in to rehearsal to actually watch us. That was the very, very first time, you know, of being in the studio with Alvin Ailey. Terribly nervous.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: I was going to ask, were you nervous?
Ms. ROBINSON: Very, very nervous. At the time, I was going to be performing the duet in "Revelations" called "Fix Me, Jesus."
MARTIN: And of course "Revelations," for those who don't know, the signature work of the dance theater. Of the Alvin Ailey…
Ms. ROBINSON: Of the company choreographed in 1960 by the founder Alvin Ailey. And very nervous, very nervous, hoping that he would say to us, you look great, you know, have a good time, but that was my first time being in the studio with him.
MARTIN: I had the opportunity to speak with Virginia Johnson, a prima ballerina who has recently been named as the new director of the Dance Theater of Harlem.
Ms. ROBINSON: Dance Theater of Harlem, yes, yes.
MARTIN: And one of the conversations we were having was this whole question of why dance is still not as diverse as it could be, and you know, where's the next African-American prima coming from - that sort of thing. And she feels that sometimes parents today don't value the arts as much as they used to. That people would rather their kids be, you know, a lawyer, as you thought about being, or an investment banker, well maybe not that anymore.
You know, a business person or something - something more stable. Do you think that that's true? Do you feel that perhaps despite all of the accomplishments of Alvin Ailey, the Company, Jamison, the Dance Theater and so forth, that we really just don't value it as much as we used to. We value more tangible success, more material success. What do you think?
Ms. ROBINSON: I do agree with that, that people feel that if you're going to work that hard, you should be compensated accordingly. But the other ways that you are rewarded, and I will stick with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the opportunity to travel the world in the way that we do and meet so many different wonderful people who are expressing how much they enjoy what you've done on the stage, or having young people say to you, oh my goodness, I didn't know that dance could be that way. I had such a good time. Whatever the feedback is, that is a way of being recognized or paid, so to speak.
MARTIN: But do you have a 401(k), for example?
Ms. ROBINSON: I do. I have a savings. I have a few savings accounts. Because you're not paid a great amount of money, it also teaches the young dancer or the dancer the discipline of learning to budget your money, and that's something that we all need to be able to do or understand how important that is, to recognize and be able to handle your money well and in a disciplined way.
And when you have a lesser amount of it, then you really need to know how to do that. As dancers come into the company, they are very, very smart these days about being aware of, you know, I have this amount and there are things that I want. I work very hard for a living and there are things I want to have, but I know that with this amount of money that I receive, this is what I'm going to have to be able to do in budgeting and understanding okay, can't do that, can't do this.
And those moneys also have to be used and put back into taking care of your tool, looking the best you can, because you are being exposed off the stage as well.
MARTIN: Is it ever difficult, though, because many of the patrons of the art are quite wealthy. Is that ever hard? I mean, you go to the galas and you're expected to go and represent the company and…
Ms. ROBINSON: Right.
MARTIN: …you go to the opening nights with people who might spend more on their outfit than you make in a month.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ROBINSON: You know, I tell you, I'll just give you a little piece of where it does become difficult. A great deal of money goes back into taking care of myself, whether that's through massage, whether that's through paying for extra classes outside of the dance. When I start to have to spend money on those things, that's when I personally am like, you know, it really would be nice to make more than I do, because it requires a lot of money to keep your instrument and your person at a certain level.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TEL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and I'm speaking with Renee Robinson, principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. And she's currently touring on the company's 50th anniversary tour.
How have you been able to maintain such a standard of excellence for so long, such a physical standard? But you know, even as you become more mature and more intellectually aware, more worldly, and all those life experiences that go into deepening the art, the body does, inevitably, deteriorate. How have you been able to stay at it for so long and to continue to keep up with these young folks?
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Not that you're not young, younger.
Ms. ROBINSON: Yeah. They give me energy, I have to tell you. You know, it's a few things, and I'll start with one thing that I did immediately that was a part of me when I first joined the company. I'm a dancer with very developed muscles. That's the type of body I have, the muscles get developed very quickly, so when I had, when I…
MARTIN: You don't need to make us feel bad, Renee. This is why I will never be standing next to you for a picture.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: But I digress.
Ms. ROBINSON: The muscles have to be long and lean and my muscles, you know, I have to give it attention so that they stay in that direction. But from the beginning, when I got into the company, I would go to other classes that would help me to be aware of how to keep my muscles lengthened and long and keep that aesthetic. I believe that since that was a part of how I took care of myself early on in the company, it has helped me to stay healthy.
MARTIN: What's next for you?
Ms. ROBINSON: You know, I'm super interested in nutrition. I've taught myself to speak French over the years. I love languages. I love traveling. I might end up in the studio. I don't really see myself as a choreographer, but I have to say in the last few months I have given it some thought. You know, I'm open. I'm open to that next step. What the journey will be, I'm excited about it, and I am glad that I've been exposed to a lot being in this wonderful company, being in this environment for this many years.
I have had wonderful examples, being under Mr. Ailey when he was alive, being a dancer, listening to him speak and encouraging the dancers in the way that he did, and then having the wonderful luck and blessing to be a dancer under the brilliant direction of the artistic director Ms. Judith Jamison. You know, I'm excited about the next step.
MARTIN: Do you have any wisdom to share?
Ms. ROBINSON: Whether you're a dancer or you have other professions, take care of the body, take care of the spirit, the soul. Eat well, not only good food, but quality food, but make sure that you're around good people and read the things - things that inspire you. And remember that when life deals you challenges, you have two choices. You have the choice of letting it bring you down or looking at it as a way to grow and to become stronger.
I know that sometimes it is hard to make the choice to letting those challenges enable you to grow and to become a stronger person, but if one can remember, one path brings you joy and the other one just keeps you in a sad space, and so just go ahead and choose the path that's going to bring you joy.
MARTIN: Renee Robinson is a principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She's been with the dance theater for almost three decades. She is the last remaining dancer to have been invited personally into the company by the late Alvin Ailey. She was kind enough to join us from member station WLRN in Miami while she is in the middle of a 26 city tour celebrating the Ailey Company's 50th anniversary. Renee Robinson, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Ms. ROBINSON: Thank you for having me. It was great.
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