January 29, 2020 at 4:48 pm EST | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Queer Alvin Ailey dancers ready triumphant Kennedy Center return
Alvin Ailey, gay news, Washington Blade
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Judith Jamison’s Divining. Chalvar Monteiro is in front, center. (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

The world-renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returns to the Kennedy Center Feb. 4-9 for its annual winter engagement. Led by Artistic Director Robert Battle, this year’s program will include regional premieres of three works, two entirely new productions and two company premieres. 

Tickets start at $49. Full details on time, dates and more is online at  kennedy-center.org.

We asked three of the company’s LGBT dancers to share their training, favorites, goals and more. 

Ghrai DeVore-Stokes and Michael Jackson Jr. in Alvin Ailey’s ‘Revelations.’ (Photo by Pierre Wachholder; courtesy AAADT)

NAME: Ghrai DeVore-Stokes

HOMETOWN: Washington, D.C.

AGE: 30

RELATIONSHIP STATUS: Married

IDENTIFY AS: I don’t subscribe to labels but if forced, I would say either queer or pansexual.

CURRENT CITY OF RESIDENCE: Brooklyn

HOW LONG WITH ALVIN AILEY: 10 years

WHAT DREW YOU TO THE COMPANY: Mr Ailey died on the day I was born so I always felt a connection to him. Also I was inspired by the work that the company has done to celebrate and illuminate the African diaspora and the lives and legacies of people of color in America.

BRIEFLY DESCRIBE YOUR DANCE BACKGROUND: I have studied and trained extensively in ballet (Vaganova) and modern (Horton and Graham). I have also studied jazz and some tap.

HOW LONG DANCING PROFESSIONALLY? 14 years

FAVORITE CURRENT PIECE TO PERFORM: A mix between Jamar Roberts’ “Ode” and Aszure Barton’s “Busk.”

HOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU DANCED AT THE KENNEDY CENTER PREVIOUSLY? This year will be my 10th. My first was 10 years ago in my first year with the company. 

THOUGHTS ON THE VENUE/AUDIENCE: The Kennedy Center stage is one of the most beautiful stages and theaters I have performed in. I might be a bit biased because D.C. is my hometown, but in all honesty it’s beautiful to come to such a majestic stage as our first stop on our domestic tour usually. The audience also loves us. We always feel the energy from the audiences at Kennedy Center.

BRIEFLY DESCRIBE YOUR PERSONAL PHILOSOPHY OF ARTISTIC EXPRESSION/DANCE: It’s really important to me that I tell a story every time I walk on the stage. I want to invoke a feeling in the audience. I want people to remember their humanity when I’m on the stage. I want people to be able to relate to me as well. I want the audience to have left the theater feeling something.

BRIEFLY DESCRIBE YOUR PERSONAL FITNESS PROGRAM: I got into the company when I was quite young and as the years have passed, it’s become necessary for me to start slower and build up to more strenuous activity. I like to start with some sort of floor work. Maybe a bit of rolling around, feeling my muscles and bones on the floor waking up the joints. Then perhaps a bit of stretching to release the tendons and ligaments. I like an all-inclusive class. That usually means something that incorporates all of the things I will be required to do during the rehearsal day. It’s very important that my back, my neck, my hips and my feet are thoroughly warmed up before I start trying to throw my body around. On the off time I like to do a bit of gym work. Resistance band, elliptical. I also just learned to swim and that’s good for stamina and breath monitoring.

OF ALL THE ARTISTIC MEDIUMS AVAILABLE, WHY DID YOU CHOOSE DANCE? I chose dance because it encompasses so much. You must have a working understanding of musicality. You must be a bit of an actor. Sometimes you must use your voice. All while finding the best angles and being cognizant of the people around you. You’re constantly using your brain and all of your body. It also important to know the aspects of the theater so that you help the crew run the show smoothly. Being a performing artist means you are always learning.

WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE DANCERS OF ALL TIME? I don’t really have a favorite dancer of all time. My astrological chart doesn’t really allow me to choose one person out of the many who move me. I like dancers who are virtuosic and push boundaries. I like to feel as if at any moment the dancer will fly off the stage and into the cosmos. I love to see someone dancing both with technical prowess and complete abandon. 

WHAT LGBT THEMES ARE IN YOUR REPERTOIRE? The fact that the company is made up of dancers who are spanning the spectrum of sexuality means that whenever we walk on stage, we are living and showcasing the truth of our very existence. Take “Ode” for example. There is a cast of men and a cast of women and no matter how we identify, we must love and acknowledge the humanity of our fellow dancers. Our pieces don’t often center around LGBTQ themes but we bring it to the forefront simply because of who we are as people. 

WHAT’S THE MOST ARDUOUS/TEDIUS PART OF THE DISCIPLINE/LIFESTYLE? Making sure our bodies are at 100 percent no matter what. More often than not these days it’s difficult for me to get out of bed. It might be hard because I need more sleep or it might be hard because my body is in pain but I have to figure out to get my body working efficiently in order to perform at the caliber that’s required. It’s also hard balancing the personal and the professional. My wife is a teaching and performing artist currently based in Dakar and trying to match our schedules is always tedious. Sometimes you just want to break down but in those moments I think we take comfort and strength from each other as a company so that we can support each other.

WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE DOING IN 15 YEARS? I’d like to be fluent in at least five languages with three or four more tattoos. I would like to be living in either Japan or Europe and own either land or property somewhere. I’d like to be a model and or working on the silver screen. I’d also like to be a rehearsal director or be setting works for a company. I have a lot of different interests that span all walks of life. I want to be continuing to explore life in 15 years. 

NAME: Chalvar Montiero

HOMETOWN: Montclair, N.J.

AGE: 31

RELATIONSHIP STATUS: Single

IDENTIFY AS: Gay

CURRENT CITY OF RESIDENCE: New York, N.Y.

HOW LONG WITH ALVIN AILEY: five years

WHAT DREW YOU TO THE COMPANY?: I was drawn to this company because they looked like me. I had never seen something like that before. On top of that, the control, personality and finesse of each artist are unmatched.

BRIEFLY DESCRIBE YOUR DANCE BACKGROUND: I started my formal training at Sharron Miller’s Academy for the Performing Arts. I attended a few summer intensives at The Ailey School before going to Purchase College at SUNY (state university of New York) and getting my degree in dance. From there I freelanced and worked with great talents, spending most of my time with Kyle Abraham’s Abraham.In.Motion. I joined Ailey II the summer of 2014, and joined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in the spring of 2015.

HOW LONG DANCING PROFESSIONALLY? 11 years.

FAVORITE CURRENT PIECE TO PERFORM: Judith Jamison’s “Divining”

HOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU DANCED AT THE KENNEDY CENTER PREVIOUSLY: four

THOUGHTS ON THE VENUE/AUDIENCE: This theater is one of my favorite venues of the entire domestic tour. The audience is so generous and tickets are always sold out. D.C. is one of my favorite cities to visit. 

BRIEFLY DESCRIBE YOUR PERSONAL PHILOSOPHY OF ARTISTIC EXPRESSION/DANCE: Dance is a natural way to communicate for all humans. I think we are naturally drawn to the arts because it’s the healthiest and most fulfilling way to convey any message. The more we invest in our modes of communication through the arts, the more we heal ourselves as a community/nation.

BRIEFLY DESCRIBE YOUR PERSONAL FITNESS PROGRAM: Outside of dance, the amount of time I spend cross training depends on the demand of the repertoire. I don’t do much cardio because I do that all day in rehearsal. Instead I focus on strength training in my shoulders, back and glutes, making sure those muscle groups are supported.

OF ALL THE ARTISTIC MEDIUMS AVAILABLE, WHY DID YOU CHOOSE DANCE? I didn’t choose dance. I’ve tried it all but nothing felt natural to me besides this form of expression.

WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE DANCERS OF ALL TIME: Matthew Rushing. Clifton Brown. Bahiyah Hiba, Linda Celeste Sims. Sylvie Guillem. Darcey Bussell. Desmond Richardson. (I can go on and on.)

WHAT LGBT THEMES ARE IN YOUR REPERTOIRE? I don’t see any specific themes of LGBTQ identity in the repertoire. Instead, it’s the responsibility of the artist to bring their truth to whatever they’re given and make sure their authenticity shines through, regardless of the subject matter  

WHAT’S THE MOST ARDUOUS/TEDIUS PART OF THE DISCIPLINE/LIFESTYLE? The most tedious, but beneficial, thing is rehearsing. Making sure everyone is on the same page, with the same information is the part that takes the most time, but there’s nothing more rewarding than sharing a stage with your peers when everyone is comfortable and confident in what they know and who they are.

WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE DOING IN 15 YEARS? In 15 years I see myself being in the other side of the room, cultivating and grooming dancers by way of being a rehearsal director/choreographer. It’s a dream of mine to give back to the next generation of performers, making sure that integrity, excellence and consistency are a few of the core values that are focused on.

Chalvar Monteiro in Alvin Ailey’s ‘Revelations.’ (Photo by Paul Kolnik; courtesy AAADT)

NAME: Michael Jackson, Jr. 

HOMETOWN: New Orleans, La.

AGE: 32 

RELATIONSHIP STATUS: Single 

IDENTIFY AS: Gay 

CURRENT CITY OF RESIDENCE: Bronx, New York 

HOW LONG WITH ALVIN AILEY: This is my eighth season.

WHAT DREW YOU TO THE COMPANY: I had never seen black people, especially men, move and shown so beautifully elegant and commanding. 

BRIEFLY DESCRIBE YOUR DANCE BACKGROUND: Started dancing at the prestigious Duke Ellington School Of the Arts. I first danced professionally with Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble company in 2005. Then going on to dance for Dallas Black Dance Theatre and Philadanco before joining Ailey in 2012.

HOW LONG DANCING PROFESSIONALLY? 14 years 

FAVORITE CURRENT PIECE TO PERFORM: Jamar Roberts’ “Ode”

HOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU DANCED AT THE KENNEDY CENTER PREVIOUSLY: My first performance at the Kennedy Center was at the age of 17 back in high school where I attended a Dance Theatre of Harlem Residency led by the spectacular Lorraine Graves. I returned years later with Ailey in 2012 and have been back every year. 

THOUGHTS ON THE VENUE/AUDIENCE: The Kennedy Center is beautiful all around. The theater is dripping in elegance and the audience is always lively and engaged. So many historical moments for African-American artists here so that makes it just all the more special.

BRIEFLY DESCRIBE YOUR PERSONAL PHILOSOPHY OF ARTISTIC EXPRESSION/DANCE:  I feel that dance is my language and medicine. I am a nervous person and performing most times challenges that. So when the lights and people are stripped away I know that dance on my body heals me. 

BRIEFLY DESCRIBE YOUR PERSONAL FITNESS PROGRAM: Our work schedule is so intense so mostly the dancing is enough. But I truly enjoy the gym. I use it for muscle building and rehabilitation. I like getting to choose the intensity of my workout. Mostly based on the intensity of my dance schedule of the season.

OF ALL THE ARTISTIC MEDIUMS AVAILABLE, WHY DID YOU CHOOSE DANCE? It just felt very natural to me from day one. I say it choose me. I didn’t start dancing at a really young age like most. I was thrust into the dance world in high school and never looked back. I know it’s cliché but it was so just much fun!

WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE DANCERS OF ALL TIME: Alvin Ailey and Arthur Mitchell 

WHAT LGBT THEMES ARE IN YOUR REPERTOIRE? Jamar Roberts new work “Ode” is about the victims of gun violence. And a group that knows that subject extremely well is the LBGTQ community. It’s a work with an all-male cast as well as an all-female cast. Though it’s not necessarily token “gay,” I do find dancing with the other men in this work brings a sorrowful yet prideful feeling about my experience as a gay black man. 

WHAT’S THE MOST ARDUOUS/TEDIUS PART OF THE DISCIPLINE/LIFESTYLE? The most difficult part for me is the fight for balance when it comes to work and play. Dance is my life and it not only requires a physical demand but emotional as well. I find myself still working on dropping all the emotions of work and focus of personal ones. And vise versa. 

WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE DOING IN 15 YEARS? That’s the question of 2020! I have been dancing for so long and only now am I starting to think about a true next step for me. It’s extremely scary but exciting. But it’s nice to know I can maintain my craft, do what I love, see the world and get compensated for it while I figure it out. 

Michael Jackson, Jr. of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. (Photo courtesy AAADT)

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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