‘Imagine’: AileyCamp 2019

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‘Imagine’ performance is Thursday, Aug. 1, 7 p.m., Zellerbach Hall

by Wanda Sabir

On a warm summer afternoon, boys and girls ages 11-14 were at the Hearst Women’s Gym, UC Berkeley. Designed by Julia Morgan in 1933, the structure houses pools and studios and, along with campus performance venues Zellerbach Hall and Zellerbach Playhouse, is now the site for the 18th annual Berkeley-Oakland AileyCamp, run by Cal Performances. Artistic Director David W. McCauley spoke about this year’s class, 45 youth who represent a microcosm of children brave enough to cross peer lined precipices to try something new.

Not everyone who enters has been exposed to performance arts or is interested. However, this unique opportunity is something 11-year-old Mario was well aware of in advance and Jamaica was so excited to learn about from a friend who is a former AileyCamp student.

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Mario Barragan, 11, in his first year at the AileyCamp and one of the younger campers, is already an accomplished performer. – Photo: Wanda Sabir

Mario Barragan, one of the younger campers, is so excited to be a part of the 2019 Ailey Camp. Wearing his AileyCamp sweatshirt, the articulate youngster starts reeling off his accomplishments and performances; for one of them, I was in the audience – when the sentence of Puerto Rican Political Prisoner Oscar López Rivera was commuted by President Obama, January 2017, and he came to Berkeley May 31. Dressed in white, the children – Mario and others – were marvelous.

“When I first saw the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre perform ‘Revelations,’ I was amazed,” Mario rhapsodizes, “so when my teacher brought up the Alvin Ailey Camp, it seemed like a great opportunity [especially] since I want to move into something bigger, and what’s bigger than Alvin Ailey?” What indeed? When Mario’s mother was pregnant, she was a part of an Afro-Puerto Rican folklore group on tour. Mario starts his resume there.

“And then I was born,” he says, “and I just started dancing. Then, at the age of 1, I started playing bomba, which is Afro-Puerto Rican folklore music. It has a combination of singing and dancing and drumming. At the age of 2, before I could speak, I knew eight rhythms. I started dancing a lot when I was in fourth grade, and we toured to Puerto Rico and performed all over the country. It was the best experience ever! I got to dance in front of like 10,000 people in San Juan.”

I left an excited Mario to speak to Jamaica Rodriguez, who agreed with Mario that AileyCamp is the hot ticket this summer, as she shared a bit of wisdom from her Personal Development class, about setting boundaries. She also looked forward to taking a dance class with her mom at the AileyCamp Open House for parents the following day. The choreographer and budding photographer says: “When I dance, I feel in this moment.” Dance helps ground her.

Each year the summer camp has a national theme – this year: “Imagine” – that includes a bit of Ailey Company choreography that the campers learn and integrate into the culminating program, Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019, 7 p.m. Admission is free, but tickets are necessary. Tickets may be obtained in person at the Cal Performances Ticket Office at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus in advance (limit four per person).

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Berkeley-Oakland AileyCamp Artistic Director David W. McCauley – Photo: Wanda Sabir

The camp, celebrating its 20th anniversary nationally, 18th anniversary locally, is situated in certain rituals, which given its founding company legacy, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre which just celebrated its 60th Anniversary last year, is not unexpected. One of the rituals is the “Daily Affirmation,” which each day has a different camper selected to lead the entire group.

“It is just one of the traditions that extends to all AileyCamps across the country,” Artistic Director McCauley says. The first is, “I will greet this day with love in my heart,” followed by others like “I am a winner,” “I think before I act,” “I will pay attention with my mind, body and spirit” to “I will not use the word ‘can’t’ to define my possibilities.” Imagine each camper embodying such truisms, which in practice for six weeks can become habits which guide further behaviors for a lifetime.

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At the AileyCamp, Celine O’Malley teaches Creative Communication. – Photo: Wanda Sabir

As I peek quickly into the classroom of Celine O’Malley, the Creative Communications class. The room is papered with sticky note butcher paper filled with poetry, images and art where the campers are responding visually to the lesson: Boundaries and Communication, sharing stories through an “I Am From” poetry lens as well as reflections on the National AileyCamp theme: “Imagine.”

I meet briefly with camp managers, Joyce Ting and Erik Lee whose relaxed poses hide, I am sure, all the planning that goes into the pre-, during and post-AileyCamp. The two hired all the staff, who not only “reflect the ethos of Alvin Ailey, but also are really ready and passionate to be part of an ensemble [of artist teachers and mentors].” AileyCamp is about character development, similar to Katherine Dunham and her legacy offspring – Ms. Ruth Beckford, Dr. Albirda Rose, Ms. Deborah Vaughn, Ms. Latanya Tigner, Mr. Reggie Ray Salvage and even Mr. Alvin Ailey, who saw the company when still a youth in Los Angeles.

A chartered bus picks up the Oakland campers at three stops each morning: Elmhurst, Calvin Simmons, Westlake, beginning at 6:30. Each young person has what Erik Lee referred to as a “shepherd,” an adult who accompanies the child to all of his or her classes perhaps as an advocate friend, maybe a process buddy. When the children, all 45 of them, arrive, they have breakfast. Lunch is also provided during this fun-filled full day which ends at 3:30 p.m.

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Berkeley-Oakland AileyCamp co-managing directors Joyce Ting and Erik Lee. Erik is pleased he can put at ease the boys whose mothers had insisted they attend, modeling that it’s OK for Black men to dance. – Photo: Wanda Sabir

The commitment to this free opportunity to translate art into positive attitudes is six weeks, June 24-Aug. 2. All children are not here for the same reasons, Mario and Jamaica expressed. Some youth are signed up by parents who hope their children, often the boys, stay. Erik Lee says that he sees the look in some boys’ eyes who feel affirmed by his presence at AileyCamp, while other boys look ready to bounce.

Mr. McCauley, AileyCamp artistic director since its Bay Area inception in 2001, is a professionally trained dancer, enjoying 15 years with Alvin Ailey as student, instructor and performer, now with Wing It! Performance Ensemble and Omega West Dance Company. He comments during our recent interview on the many boys who swallow their interest because of peer pressure.

It is not mandatory for any of the children to have dance experience, yet some do – like Mario who performs professionally and Jamaica who recently had choreography in Destiny Art Center’s “JEWELS.” However, the goal is to have participants who are outside these performance circles. Lee says: “I didn’t see a lot of Black bodies encouraging me to dance and so I think for me as a Black man it’s a huge honor and a privilege to be able to model that for other young men.” Though no one is called out, Lee says staff notices boys who initially resist slowly begin to open up.

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At the AileyCamp, Sierra Marie Gonzalez teaches Personal Development. – Photo: Wanda Sabir

I popped into visit Sierra Marie Gonzalez, who teaches Personal Development, one of the core courses in AileyCamp. The Chicago transplant with roots in educational theatre, wholistic wellness and resiliency, said that she had the youth reflect that afternoon on what they’d learned so far in PD now that they were halfway through the program. Gonzalez sees AileyCamp in alignment with her values, ones that believe, “Arts are a powerful tool.” She asks: “How can we utilize the arts as a way to transform and evolve humanity? To make healthy impactful transformational decisions?”

“Every day, every moment, depending on where these young people are going [where we are headed] could change, you know. It’s real fluid and it’s wonderful if you can talk about sort of how holding imagination and holding, you know, holding space for the fluidity of it – like not expecting things to be static. How do we do imagination? It’s going to look different in PD than it does in ballet or than it does in Modern or African Dance or even in Creative Communications. We use imagination here for creating empathy [and] as a tool to get the students out of their own heads and out of the ‘I can’t’ or ‘I don’t know.’”

Imagine 12-year-old Alvin Ailey leaving his small Texas hometown for Los Angeles, where he excelled academically and came to love dance and decided to pursue it. He was introduced to dance by watching performances of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Katherine Dunham Dance Company. His formal training began when his friend, Carmen de Lavallade, introduced Ailey to Lester Horton, whose company Ailey would eventually direct in 1953. Horton founded one of the first racially diverse companies in the United States. Ailey still inspires through the institutional vision he has created and his life, which shattered social sound barriers, because he dared imagine himself in a world he was absent from. Learn more about Ailey at https://www.alvinailey.org/.

“Imagination has really been useful and powerful in this space,” Gonzalez says. “There is a reluctance to do an activity they can’t imagine or they can’t access. So that’s how we really use [the theme: imagine] to really just keep it going. Keep it moving, get there. Right? And then we have Alvin Ailey [as our guide].

“AileyCamp is really more about personal development through the discipline that it takes to become a dancer. This discipline is really shaking up [campers’] world. Many of these children haven’t had [this] level of accountability [or this] level of support, at least not on a daily basis. When they’re in school, you know, they’re just sent off. [There is no one watching over them, looking out for them.]”

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Berkeley-Oakland AileyCamp Jazz Dance Instructor Ashely Gayle – Photo: Wanda Sabir

When Jazz Dance teacher Ashely Gayle says: “The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in particular is really inspirational because when I was about 8 or 9 (1998), I actually saw the Alvin Ailey Company perform right here on the Zellerbach stage. It was my first time being exposed to professional dance. I’d never seen it before. I remember just moving in my seat. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I felt it in my soul. Like Mario, it was ‘Revelations,’ the sections, ‘I’ve Been Buked’ and ‘Wade in the Water.’ The soloist moved so powerfully, and in ‘Wade in the Water,’ energy was cleansing,” Gayle recalls.

“And I remember just looking at my mother [and saying] I want to do that. She’s like, ‘OK, sure, let’s figure it out.’ I was blessed to have a mom who [thought] she didn’t know anything. I didn’t know anything. We pieced it together and you know, it worked out for me. So when this opportunity came up to teach at AileyCamp, it just felt like a Dream Come True— a full circle moment for me. So I taught in 2017 and I wasn’t here last summer. So this is my second summer coming back this year.”

Fast forward, Gayle tried out for Ailey Camp in New York from 2007-2009 before she got in. Each time she was told what she needed to do to prepare for the rigorous summer intensive, and each time Gayle would return home and develop her skillset and fly to New York to audition again. A UC Irvine graduate now with a BFA in Dance Performance and a minor in Business Management, you can catch Gayle this fall in the Bay Area Deaf Dance Festival, Aug. 9-11, at Dance Mission, and the Pushfest, Sept. 20-22 at ODC.

Ashely Gayle has three takeaways for her students: 1) Have confidence in who you are and what you can do; 2) Know that you are deserving of all joy; and 3) Find a calling – a purpose, a passion a thing that makes you happy.

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AileyCampers in their African dance class – Photo: AileyCamp

She says for many of the children, they have not had an opportunity to be in their bodies, to allow their bodies to be in conversation with the music or emotions the music might inspire. In this class, the children will choreograph new work on themselves and each other. On Aug. 1, 7 p.m., when the lights are low and the performances lift the audience into the imaginal realm, we witness where magic is born.

Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at wanda@wandaspicks.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.