Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returns: out dancer Vernard J. Gilmore celebrates 25 years with the iconic company

  • by Philip Mayard
  • Tuesday March 22, 2022
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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Having danced with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for an astounding 25 years, dancer Vernard J. Gilmore has been interviewed almost as many times as he's performed the company's signature work, Revelations. Yet his love and passion for the company, and in particular Revelations, is still radiant.

When asked what the secret to his longevity is, Gilmore says, "It's pretty simple. I just love the art form. I love the Ailey company. I love seeing how movement manifests you into different ways of being. This is a true gift that very few people are allowed to have. I believe in striving for perfection so you can achieve excellence."

For Gilmore, physical and mental self-awareness have been key to his success. He says, "I wasn't the most gifted dancer, I had to work hard. I continue to work hard and to learn about my body. Like a musician, you need to understand your instrument and how to use it efficiently. That's what's created the longevity. I have built a reputation because of that commitment; my partners know they can trust me."

Growing up in Chicago

Having grown up in Englewood on the south side of Chicago, dance has always been a part of Gilmore's life. He said, "My mom took dance classes, so she would bring us along and every year she'd put us in the Englewood Back to School Parade. My mom's teacher was constantly trying to get me to take classes, but I wasn't really into it, until I got into high school."

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Vernard J. Gilmore in Alvin Ailey's 'Revelations'  (Source: Andrew Eccles)

It was during that time that Gilmore also became more aware of his identity as a gay man. But he always had the unconditional support of his family.

"My mom is my everything," he said. "When I was a junior in high school, she and I had 'the conversation,' and all of that heaviness was lifted. My mom has always been supportive of the LGBTQ community. My grandmother sewed dresses for the drag queens back in the day! They both had many gay friends and mom always said, 'It's your life, I want you to live it. I just want you to be safe and take care of yourself.'"

Gilmore studied in the dance program at Curie Performing and Creative Arts High School in Chicago, and earned a scholarship to Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre's Chance to Dance program when he was 17.

"When I was in high school, a friend took me to see the Ailey company at the Shubert Theatre in Chicago," Gilmore recalled. "I remember seeing Revelations and it just floored me, I was blown away. I had never seen Black men and women dance like that, that level of tenacity. I just knew that's where I wanted to be."

A teenager in New York
Less than two years later, Gilmore was accepted into The Ailey School in New York. When asked about his early years in the city he said, "It was a struggle. I received a scholarship, and someone found a little corner of their apartment for me. I was just 18, taking classes all day and working at Blockbuster at night. Sometimes I wasn't able to eat, but it was also a time of discovery, I wouldn't trade it for anything."

After two years in The Ailey school, and two years in the troupe's junior company, Ailey II, Gilmore earned a coveted spot in the main company in 1997.

As an out gay man, he believes the company culture at Ailey is different than most ballet troupes, saying, "I've done guest appearances all over the place and it's almost always much more conservative. Mr. Ailey wanted us to be ourselves. He always talked about being truthful through movement. You can only do that when you're totally yourself. I never felt that anything had to be suppressed or that I needed to be something that I wasn't. It's just expected that you do your job well, be professional, and respectful of the situation."

A Daily Revelation
Although he has performed it thousands of times, one of the forces that continue to inspire Gilmore is Ailey's jubilant 1960 ballet, Revelations, widely recognized as one of the most important dance works of the twentieth century.

"The ability to revisit that ballet almost every day is such a joy," he said. "I never get tired of it. It continues to transcend through time, through my own experiences, and drive me forward."

Revelations is featured heavily in the 2021 documentary Ailey (streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime), which Gilmore watched last year.

"Hearing Mr. Ailey talk about how he wanted his movement to have truth, how nothing is thrown away, everything has a reason," Gilmore explained. "Watching that film really reawakened me. I came out on this tour with a new understanding. I know that if I can be truthful in my movement, then I'm doing what he wants me to do with his work."

Vernard J. Gilmore  

Gilmore also feels a great sense of duty to carry the torch that Ailey lit more than 60 years ago, saying, "I have a responsibility not just to Mr. Ailey, but to all those dancers who came before me, and to the next generation. They need to understand what it means to bring yourself to the stage through movement, to not just do the steps. The younger generation moves fast and sometimes they just want their 'Insta moment.' Sometimes you have to say, 'I hear you, but you have to hear me too: you can't cut corners. Do the hard work, that is your responsibility.' It's like [longtime Ailey muse and the company's Artistic Director Emerita] Judith Jamison said, 'Hold on to the past, live in the present, and reach fearlessly into the future.'"

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley campus, March 29-April 3. $37-$95.

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