When the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater last performed at the Benedum Center in 2005, award-winning choreographer Kyle Abraham, an East End native, was in graduate school. Featured dancer James Gilmer, formerly of Highland Park, was beginning his performing arts education, and award-winning dancer Jau’mair Garland, from the South Side, was 3 years old.
These elite artists (all Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts High School alumni) return home when the Pittsburgh Dance Council and BNY Mellon present the New York City-based troupe on May 9. The program sandwiches Abraham’s “Are You in Your Feelings?” (2022) between Jamar Roberts’s “In a Sentimental Mood” (2023) and the late Alvin Ailey’s masterwork “Revelations” (1960).
“When I make a work for a company, I think about the next piece. I wanted to do something that creates a sense of joy for the dancers and the audience,” says Abraham, referencing his third commission from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Artistic Director Robert Battle.
Accompanied by a soul, hip-hop and R&B mixtape, the 32-minute opus focuses on “how people love and how we experience love and friendship,” says Abraham, who is intrigued by relationships.
While he possesses an extensive movement vocabulary — which he compares to the spaghetti sauce commercial that boasts “It’s in there” — he offers few words to explain the work’s title. “Those who know will connect,” he says.
The in-demand choreographer divides time between his Brooklyn-based company A.I.M by Kyle Abraham and a professorship at the University of Southern California, but squeezed in three weeks to choreograph “Feelings?” for the Ailey troupe.
“They are strong, great movers and do brilliant work,” Abraham says.
Gilmer, an Ailey dancer since 2019, was delighted with the opportunity to work with Abraham:
“Kyle was super-present. He came into the studio with some material for us and an outline, but tried out different movements on different bodies and with different pieces of music.”
Themes embracing Black culture dominate Abraham’s artistic output.
“I make works for the community I grew up in. Black culture is part of the process,” says Abraham, who counts a MacArthur Fellowship and a Dance Magazine Award among his credits. “I want to see the culture flourish and be recognized on and offstage,” a vision correlating with Alvin Ailey’s objective to encourage Black artists and disseminate Black culture via dance.
Ailey’s mission brought both Garland and Gilmer into the fold.
As a 2019 Ailey summer intensive student, Garland saw a company wall poster. The faces of color “were the most I’d ever seen. This spoke to me,” he says, but it was Abraham, one of his professors at USC’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, who encouraged him to audition last December.
Gilmer, intrigued by the varied repertory and deeply moved by Ailey’s iconic work, “Revelations,” — “I love this dance and Ailey’s company is the only place where I can perform it” — auditioned twice to land the job.
While Gilmer is onstage throughout the evening, Garland dances in four sections of “Revelations,” a 33-minute technique-based, modern ballet honoring African-American fortitude and faith through spirituals and gospel music.
Says Garland, “‘Revelations’ always connects me to a higher power and with my lineage as a Black male.”
Both men say their favorite section is the technically challenging trio “Sinner Man.” They will share the stage for the Pittsburgh performance. Garland dances the first variation; Gilmer, the second.
The ballet-trained men — Gilmer studied at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School and Garland at the Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh — enjoy the jumps, turns and virtuosic feats inherent in the work’s relentless choreography.
The challenge “no one sees,” says Gilmer, “is the quick costume change” that requires donning shirts, vests and shoes for the finale.
“Revelations” traditionally closes every performance.
“The audience already knows what it’s going to see and we have to live up to its expectations,” says Gilmer.
Keeping Ailey’s masterpiece vital and emotionally charged requires the dancers to stay present, vulnerable and connected with the energy flow between themselves and the audience, which Garland says, “does add to my performance.”
Gilmer and Garland underscore that the Pittsburgh show marks the first time they will perform here with the company and the first time Pittsburgers will see an Abraham work performed by Ailey dancers.
“Oh yeah! Pittsburgh party!” says Gilmer.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts (237 Seventh St.) on Tuesday, May 9, at 8 p.m. Buy tickets.