When the dancers have to miss the last dance

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When the dancers have to miss the last dance
Akua Noni Parker and Jermaine Terry perform in the "Fix Me, Jesus" section of "Revelations" in New York, Nov. 20, 2017. Parker’s final performance with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Andrea Mohin/The New York Times.

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- It was May 10, and Hope Boykin was a wreck. “That was the day,” she said. “That was supposed to be the final performance.”

Boykin, who radiates power in her fearless, generous dancing, has been a poetic force at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for the past 20 years. But recently she has found herself in a strange place. Battling injuries, first an ankle and then a knee, she had devoted herself to a goal: dancing with the company for a final year.

She was getting close to her last performance when the pandemic struck. In March, the company canceled its tour.

“I was like, wait, I just did this and all I asked was for another year — give me a break!,” Boykin said. “I was just trying to get through to the end because I wanted to have a finish, and the finish was just riddled with aches and pains.”

For dancers, as for most people, it’s been a rough couple of months. But how do you wrap your head around the end of your dancing career when there is no last dance?

At Ailey, two other dancers, Akua Noni Parker and Danica Paulos, had decided to leave the company at the end of its spring tour. All three are featured in the Ailey Spirit Virtual Benefit, which had its premiere on June 11 (and be will available online for a week).

And it was around the same time, on June 13, that another dancer, Stella Abrera of American Ballet Theater, had been scheduled for her farewell performance. Abrera, the company’s first Filipino American principal and an elegant fixture with the group for 24 years, was to have danced “Giselle” at the Metropolitan Opera House. Along with missing out on her final performance, Abrera, who turns 42 this week, lost out on a ballet curtain-call tradition: the glamorous send-off with cascades of flowers and confetti and roaring applause.

But she’s gratified that what turned out to be her final performance was a memorable one: a “Giselle” with James Whiteside, who would have partnered her at the Met. It took place at the Kennedy Center in February, on a stage that she loves. “Before the curtain went up,” she said, “I also had told myself, ‘This might be your last show,’ and you know what? It was.”

Abrera sees it almost as a blessing. Thinking about her final show, she said, “I imagined it was going to be fraught with emotion and nerves — just a very intense experience. So I was preparing myself for that. And now that I don’t have to sit through to that or I don’t get to do that — I guess it depends on how you look at it — I can feel really, really grateful that I had that ‘Giselle’ in D.C. with a lot of my family who came to that show. And with James.”

While her future is set — she was recently named the artistic director of Kaatsbaan, a 153-acre dance center in Tivoli, New York — she recalled her final “Giselle” as vividly as if it happened yesterday. For one thing, she concentrated on being present, to notice details: She made eye contact with her fellow dancers. Her gaze lingered on the darkness of the audience.

“It’s an image I’ve been really savoring in the last few years,” she said. “Just feeling the energy from that glorious abyss with the spotlight and some of the twinkly lights that come from the aisles. You see it and then you feel it. There’s definitely energy coming from all those people.”

Such moments are part of why considering the future of theaters is such a weighty, emotional topic, Abrera said. “I really hope that we’re all going to find a way to hold out strong and be patient for the time when we can return to that magic: that big, black abyss and the magical exchange of energy. It’s so fleeting, but that’s why it’s so magical.”

At Ailey, Parker, who is 41 and has danced with the company for 12 years, will miss the institution in general — what it stands for, and the people. “It’s just always about giving,” she said.

Both she and Paulos, 26 and a member for six years, decided to leave the company to explore other projects. Parker, known for her impeccable ballet technique — she was a member of Dance Theater of Harlem before joining Ailey — will likely continue to dance and teach, but she is also passionate about cooking.

Her plant-based recipes are the subject of a show she hosts on Facebook. (Some videos are also available on Instagram at @cookingwithku.) “I want to give you the grocery list and then talk you through everything,” she said. “I actually gave some of my co-workers a cooking course right before we came home.”

Her plan is to create a platform focused on health and wellness using her expertise in dance and body awareness. And for Parker, starting something new when the world seems so isolated and unwelcoming isn’t such a scary prospect.

“I’ve always been that type of woman that just puts her foot out on the ledge and then just jumps off,” she said. “And I found that when I can cook, I feel better. So I always thought that I was going to cook when I retired, and I think the pandemic just plummeted me into what was already going to happen. I’m just not sure about doing it outside and what that looks like.”

Paulos, who creates Instagram content for Ailey, is in a similar position. She knows more or less what she wants to do, but the way it will manifest is up in the air. Certainly, she is young to be leaving the company and even more so to be leaving dance itself. Her family was confused, too.

“It does seem really strange,” she said. “You made it to the top. People call this the Olympics of dance. You made it to the NBA. Why would you stop now?” She couldn’t fully explain why, she said, only that she knows she was ready for the next chapter. “It has nothing to do with wanting to leave or wanting to be done. It’s just like I really have to follow my heart on this.”

She would like to continue to develop her relationship with dance in ways that don’t have to do with the stage — at least for now. “I’ve been learning a lot about how else to take care of myself mentally, spiritually and emotionally with things like yoga, breath, work, meditation,” she said. “It’s endless.”

With her husband, she has plans to attend workshops and training sessions this summer — yoga in India, Holotropic Breathwork in Spain and Vipassana meditation in Thailand.

“I’m realizing things will be canceled possibly,” she said. “But even though it’s so crazy now, it feels really good to know what I want to do, what I’m interested in. And I may not know exactly what that looks like yet, but I do have a vision of the person that I’m becoming.”

Boykin, 48, will remain in the dance world: She teaches and choreographs, making work that, increasingly, incorporates her writing. In 2019, she created and performed in one such dance featuring Lauren Lovette, a New York City Ballet principal, for the Vail Dance Festival. And “We Dance,” a recent Ailey Instagram video responding to the killing of George Floyd, as well as many others, is set to her text; she is shown reading alongside images of the dancers: “Our train, this train, this journey forward will not slow or stop,” she states in her clear voice.

She is busy. Boykin is artistic lead of the Kennedy Center Dance Lab. And on June 14 she will show choreography as part of Virtual Works & Process, BalletX.

As she reflected on her Ailey career, Boykin shared a life lesson that she often thinks about: “I wish I had tried olives earlier,” she said. “I think I might have been 27. If I tasted an olive earlier, I would have known that this thing that looks like grape, but was not sweet at all and had a barrier in it that I needed to be careful of when I bit down, had a salty, savory flavor that I just adored. I feel like my mind was closed.”

As she finds herself not onstage, but teaching and performing virtually, she needs an open mind, and it has brought rewards.

“I thought I had my last ‘Revelations,’” she said, referring to Ailey’s 1960 masterpiece. “And then I taught a ‘Revelations’-inspired master class that was streamed everywhere. I was like, ‘Oh, so that, that wasn’t my last.’ And then we have our virtual gala and we’re dancing from home, and I’m still a part of this: I get to dance ‘Revelations’ again.”

Boykin is comfortable with technology — “I have a whole rig,” she said — but having to film from home creates a heightened performance experience. Is the camera angle right? How is the lighting? On top of that, she said, you have to dance.

“So you’re the crew, you’re production, you’re everything,” she said. “I just broke myself. I literally took a nap after I filmed my portion. And I’m thinking, oh — I continue to have my last dance.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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