Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Chalvar Monteiro on living dance history

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Tuesday March 26, 2024
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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Chalvar Monteiro and Yannick Lebrun (photo: Dario Calmese)
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Chalvar Monteiro and Yannick Lebrun (photo: Dario Calmese)

Since its inception in 1958, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has broken new ground for innovative dance works that have become classics. The company, created by Alvin Ailey (1931-1989), has performed around the world in multiple countries, wowing audiences in the millions.

The company returns to Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley for its 55th annual residency, with concerts, classes for students, and a gala fundraiser, from April 2 to 7.

With five programs of dances, from the classic "Revelations" to new and West Coast premieres, the company continues to innovate. To get the best enjoyment, fans will want to buy more than one ticket to the different programs.

It's impossible to fully describe the breadth of the company and the late Alvin Ailey's influence on modern dance, specifically for providing performance and training opportunities for dancers. Scholarships with the Ailey School have aided hundreds of Black students and broadened opportunities for many others.

The other choreographers' works in the current tour — by Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrish, Amy Hall Garner, Hans van Manen, and Alonzo King — range from abstract to emotive and narrative styles, set to jazz, blues and hip hop music.

Dancer/choreographer Chalvar Monteiro (photo: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater)  

One of the many Ailey dancers coming to Berkeley is Chalvar Monteiro. While on tour, he answered a few questions via email about his experience before joining the company, and what it's like to perform such classics and new works, as well as setting dances on other companies.

Support system
"My first dance class was tap and I was immediately in love with generating rhythms and sounds with my body," said Monteiro. "I remember seeing Dance Theatre of Harlem on 'Sesame Street' and had the itch to dance ever since."

While he had support from his family, "Scholarships were a bit hard to come by," he said. "It wasn't until I was able to train consistently that a career in dance seemed within my reach."

Monteiro saw Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater shortly before he started high school.

"That's when my world was forever changed," he said. "It was at that moment that I knew pursing Ailey was a way to focus and hone my natural talent of movement into a refined language that could impact audiences around the world."

Monteiro studied at The Ailey School before receiving his BFA in Dance from SUNY Purchase, and performed and choreographed with other companies.

Yet it was Ailey's company where he grew into becoming an essential performer, and an assistant in setting Ailey dances on several other companies.

"Learning the classic works excited me more than they were intimidating," he said. "It was finally my turn to bring myself into a role and get to bring an era, musical score, or character to life."

Repertory and new dances
With both new and classic Ailey works, Monteiro said he enjoys performing both.

"What I appreciate about the repertory of Ailey is the range of style, musicality, theatricality, and personal flair we all possess and highlight through our work. The new works this season range from very individual experiences to broad topics that affect us all. Each work invites dialogue, encouraging our audiences to engage with each other just as much as the love they pour onto us."

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Chalvar Monteiro, Patrick Coker and James Gilmer in Alvin Ailey's 'Revelations' (photo: Dario Calmese)  

Asked about some of his notable touring experiences, Monteiro said, "Performing at The Kennedy Center is always a highlight of the tour for me. Life on the road is challenging as we bounce in and out of different time zones, climates, hotels.

"Keeping up with family and loved ones can also get tricky, which also makes every trip back home all the richer. You come back with a firsthand account of what the country is like in 2024 and the art that connected you to so many people."

In addition to performing, the company provides a unique learning experience. Monteiro also benefited from his university years.

"College is where you build a distinct voice and approach to life," he said. "It's a safe space to fail, succeed, and try new things with the time to build a character that will sustain many important life decisions in and out of the industry.

"I learned how to work with people from many backgrounds and varying principles and values and still find common ground. College was the first place I had ballet and modern classes on a daily basis, affording me an opportunity to build an artistic foundation and social network that continues to grow year after year."

And in helping to set Ailey dances on different companies, Monteiro said, "The first thing I do is invest in the world the choreographer created; movement language, costuming, lighting, and sound, as all of those elements inform the other. Depending on the time I have, I approach the process differently. But I do my best to get a collective understanding of the work while prioritizing individual attention and exploration. As a professional, memorizing the vocabulary is just the beginning of storytelling."

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, April 2-7, Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley campus. $50-$125. April 4 gala tickets start at $500.

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