Watching the dancers of Ailey II is like looking into a crystal ball and seeing the future of the dance world.
These exceptional performers take up residence at the Folly Theater beginning Thursday when Ailey II opens a four-show run of two different programs: one featuring four new works, the other serving up three favorites.
The secondperformance troupe of the esteemed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Ailey II exemplifies the wide-ranging influence of the Ailey brand. While its main company serves as America’s dance ambassador to the world — on the road touring nationally and internationally for most of any given year — Ailey also operates summer camps and educational programs that introduce dance to thousands of kids in cities nationwide.
At its New York City headquarters, the Ailey organization operates a distinguished instructional academy that serves as the starting point for many professional dancers’ journeys. The school has students from all over the world. A select few are then chosen to join Ailey II, a “finishing school” of sorts that polishes student-dancers into professional performers.
Established in 1974, Ailey II was one of the country’s first “second” companies. Today countless American ballet and modern troupes have them — there’s Taylor 2, Boston Ballet II, Ballet Austin II and Dayton Contemporary Dance Company 2, to name a few.
But it was a novel concept when the institution’s founder, Alvin Ailey, pioneered it 41 years ago.
“His idea was to take 12 of the most promising dancers from the Ailey school and create a situation for them to work with emerging choreographers, to perform, and to learn what it’s like to work in a professional company environment,” said Ailey II artistic director Troy Powell.
Yet dancers spend only two years in Ailey II. After that they move into careers in all spheres of dance. Some will be accepted into the main Ailey company, others move into ballet troupes, Broadway shows, television or contemporary dance companies in the U.S. and abroad.
“The tradition is that these dancers are being groomed for the best professional jobs out there,” said Powell, who since taking over from Sylvia Waters in 2012 is the second artistic director in Ailey II’s history.
A former Ailey II dancer himself, Powell selects company members from invitation-only auditions.
“I look for dancers who are ready to reveal themselves, ready to step out of the classroom, ready to take that leap from the studio to the stage,” Powell said.
Not only does a performance by Ailey II provide a preview of the performers who will populate the dance stages of the near future, but it also offers a chance to see work by fresh choreographers whose styles are likely to be setting movement trends.
Tailor-made for longtime Ailey II fans who may have seen much of the company’s repertory, the Friday night and Saturday matinee program will include three world premieres: “Gemeos” (Portuguese for “twins”), a funky duet choreographed by Jamar Roberts, a dancer with the main Ailey company; “In and Out,” a multistyle ensemble work by Jean Emile, an African-American choreographer who has been working in Europe for a long time; and “I am the Road,” a hip-hop piece by Kyle “JustSole” Clark.
Rounding out the program is another work never before danced in Kansas City, “Something Tangible,” choreographed by Ray Mercer who, according to Powell, “has a real gift for challenging the dancers technically as well as psychologically.”
“Gemeos” was rehearsed in New York this summer:
“This is an accent, everything else falls off of it,” said Roberts to the dancers as he gave an awe-inspiring demonstration of a powerful chest contraction. “There are no more accents after that. Don’t tense your body, it ruins the flow. Think octopus, squid. Feel like a breeze, not a brick. Set it free.”
Full of spectacular jumps, tricky partner work and quirky gestures, Roberts’ piece is set to energetic Afrobeat music.
“It’s about the dynamic between my brother and me growing up. He was a jock, a sports player, an all-star athlete, and I was a free-spirited, frilly little dancer. We used to bump heads a lot,” he said.
Roberts’ squiggly movements require a highly articulate torso, which suits the talents of first-year company member Courtney Celeste Spears. Winner of a 2015 Princess Grace Award (a scholarship recognizing supremely gifted young performing artists), Spears said, the dancers are asking their bodies to do crazy things, much like professional athletes.
“I’d like audience members to remember that that one section of movement that you see onstage and find so beautiful, you see it happen once, but we’ve probably gone over it many, many times and broken it down so specifically to get it to that point,” Spears said.
On Thursday and Saturday evenings in Kansas City, the company will perform “Hissy Fits,” “Wings” and “Revelations,” Ailey’s signature work and a classic of the American modern dance canon.
Company member Jacob Lewis, who hails from St. Louis, is just as excited about performing that program as he is about the new pieces.
“My favorite thing about being in this company is getting to dance great works that I’ve seen performed so many times and read about in dance history classes. Being able to try on the costumes, learn the choreography, and finally put myself in those shoes is very rewarding,” he said.
What Spears finds so rewarding about being an Ailey II dancer is the opportunity to perform repertory that resonates with just about everyone.
“Many people think you need to have an extreme amount of knowledge to appreciate a dance concert. That’s not true with Ailey,” she said. “Just come as you are. Come with your emotions. Be ready to cry, be ready to laugh, be ready to scream and shout. And you’ll all be touched by the magic of Ailey.”
Lisa Jo Sagolla is a New York-based arts critic, dance historian and author of “The Girl Who Fell Down: A Biography of Joan McCracken.”
Ailey II performs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday and at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the Folly Theater. Tickets are $25-$65 through FollyTheater.org. A Saturday gala at the Folly and the downtown Marriott hotel starts at 6:30 p.m., with tickets starting at $175 available at kcfaa.org. On Thursday and Saturday evenings, dancers perform the company’s classics. The Friday night and Saturday matinee program will include three world premieres.