'It's about connections': Alicia Graf Mack remakes Juilliard Dance

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'It's about connections': Alicia Graf Mack remakes Juilliard Dance
Alicia Graf Mack, bottom row middle, the dean and director of Juilliard’s dance division, with graduating students after their final ballet class at the school in New York, May 15, 2023. Mack began her career as a ballerina with Dance Theater of Harlem. (Elliott Jerome Brown Jr./The New York Times)

by Brian Seibert

NEW YORK, NY.- When Alicia Graf Mack taught the final ballet class for students graduating this spring from the dance division of Juilliard, it was a gentle, valedictory session: a lot of laughter, inside jokes and memories, a few tears. She’s a warm, gracious teacher who sometimes calls herself Mama Mack, and she got a little teary herself.

“I’ve had this feeling in my chest all week,” she said.

These were the first students who Mack admitted after taking over as dean and director of the division five years ago. She and the students had been through a lot together, including the pandemic and the many changes she has brought to one of the most prestigious and influential dance programs in the country.

Mack, 44, represents change. She is the first Black person to hold the position, and the youngest. Speaking in her office a few weeks before graduation, she said all her decisions flow from the goal of increasing equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging. But a look at those decisions makes clear that her work is also about continuity. During the class, she kept slipping in allusions to her teachers and to teachers that she and the students had in common. She called the class a meditation on what bound them together, saying, “It’s about connections, y’all.”

She has added hip-hop and West African dance. She’s made sure that Spring Dances, a series in which students learn and perform classic works, includes choreographers of color — it didn’t before — and more women. Specialized ballet classes that used to be divided by gender no longer are. Now, anyone can take pointe class.

Some of those changes might trouble traditionalists. But to imagine such a shake-up as contentious would be to get the wrong impression. Mack leads as gracefully as she dances. She understands balance. The Juilliard dance department, under her leadership, seems like a happy place.

“Shifting the atmosphere” was one of her core goals. “When you create a place where people feel like themselves,” she said, where they don’t feel judged “about who they are, their body type, what they want to do with their lives” — concert dance or Broadway or commercial work — “then you create a place where they can learn and grow.”

She added, “What are your dreams, and how can I help you get there? That’s what I’m about.”

This attitude has roots in her own experience. Raised in Columbia, Maryland, she joined Dance Theater of Harlem at 17 and was an immediate standout: a tall, long-limbed, exceptionally graceful ballerina. But after three years she had to quit because of injuries eventually traced to a rheumatic disease. She enrolled at Columbia University, and by the time she graduated with a degree in history, she had recovered enough to return triumphantly to Dance Theater — only to see the debt-strapped company go on hiatus a year later.

Told she was too tall by American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet, Mack reinvented herself again, becoming a star of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and greatly expanding her stylistic range into modern, contemporary and hip-hop. When her condition flared up three years later, she returned to school, earning a master’s degree in nonprofit management. Asked back by the Ailey company, she squeezed out a few more years, then moved into teaching dance at Washington University and Webster University in St. Louis. A child of professors, she found her “happy place” at universities, she said, and realized that helping serious students on the cusp of their careers was what she wanted to do.

By this point, she was married with two small children. When a mentor — Sharon Luckman, a former executive director of Ailey — told her about the Juilliard opening, she thought Luckman was fishing for recommendations. But Luckman wanted Mack to apply. “And with encouragement from my husband, I realized that everything I’ve done prepared me for a moment like this,” Mack said.

As it happens, the person who would hire her was himself a new hire, and a former dancer: Damian Woetzel, a star of New York City Ballet who became the president of Juilliard in 2018. He said that Mack, with her varied experience, seemed both “an embodiment of the tradition of Juilliard” and “someone who is going to take us forward,” a figure of change who brings people along and inspires. “You see her walking down the hallway and everybody rises,” he said.

There is quite a tradition to embody. The Juilliard dance division was founded in 1951 by Martha Hill, a trailblazer in dance education who was an early member of the Martha Graham Dance Company. Hill’s vision for Juilliard was innovative in teaching both modern dance and ballet, then seen as opposing camps. She gathered the best of both worlds — José Limón, Antony Tudor — and produced a steady stream of field-changing alumni, like Paul Taylor, Pina Bausch, Ohad Naharin and Robert Battle.

Mack is aware that the dance world has changed. “There’s been a narrowing of opportunity in concert dance,” she said, and there are fewer jobs in companies. More broadly, the whole system of dance companies has become more precarious and the former post-Juilliard trajectory for students less viable. “So the idea is that you graduate students who have an extraordinary range,” she said, “but are also entrepreneurial and think of themselves as a brand, so if the job isn’t there, they create the opportunity.”

Mack now requires two years of composition. “In my generation,” she said, “we saw ourselves as a tool for the choreographer, but our students will be asked to improvise, collaborate, create. We need to give them more tools.” A new media course she added in 2019 showed its worth when the pandemic hit the next year.

Mack’s vision, she said, is for Juilliard dance to become a model for the professional world: “So that when we have a program that’s all female choreographers or represents different races and cultures, that’s not seen as a trend or exception but the norm. We’re graduating students who are going to be the leaders making those decisions.”

That starts with the audition process, which has been adjusted to encourage diversity. “They don’t all look the same or want to do the same things,” Mack said. “A Juilliard student has something magical and is curious, and they don’t do it like the person next to them.”

Mack hasn’t jettisoned Juilliard’s past. The required dance history course — which, she said, has been “somewhat problematic” because of who gets left out — now focuses more on the history of Juilliard itself, “so the dancers who come from many different places understand where they landed, what lineage they are now part of, why they take the classes they do.” More connections.

Juilliard students still study the techniques of Graham, Límón, Merce Cunningham and Lester Horton. Terese Capucilli — a former member and artistic director of the Graham company who has taught at Juilliard since 1999 — said Mack “respects the lineage” and “has taken great care to uphold the techniques of the masters.”

Mack has altered the order of courses, so that the first two years establish a foundation and the second two branch off and experiment, exposing students to an array of contemporary practitioners. “It’s the same material, but the way we get at it is a little different,” she said.

Some of these shifts are in response to today’s students, who Mack said “get a bad rap.” It’s not about entitlement, she insisted; it’s about engagement. “The students want to be seen and heard and have more agency in the way they’re learning.”

Haley Winegarden, a member of this year’s graduating class, recalled a moment during her Juilliard audition when Mack stopped the dancers and said, “We just want to see you.” That attitude, Winegarden said, encapsulates why she feels at home at the school.

As someone aspiring toward a career in ballet, Winegarden wanted to dispel a pervasive idea that Juilliard isn’t serious about the form. “We take ballet classes every day,” she said. What Juilliard has given her, she added, was a newfound passion for choreographing and a much wider range. “All the ways of moving enhance your ballet training rather than take away from it,” she said.

Another student, Isaiah Day, has one more year at Juilliard, during which he will also be a new member of the Ailey company. This is another change Mack has instituted: making it possible for students to accept a job offer and start living the dream while still completing their education.

“When you grow up in dance,” Day said, “the question is always ‘Are you going to get a degree, or go straight into a company?’ And there are stigmas around both. It’s such a blessing that I can take this opportunity without three years of work going down the drain.”

Day called Mack “our biggest cheerleader.” He credited her leadership for the feeling that everyone is accepted: “You see all kinds of body types and colors, different expressions of what people wear in class and what they’re interested in.”

Thinking about leaving that environment makes him a little nervous, he said — “in the real world, it’s not going to be like this all the time.” But he also said that he feels inspired: “We’re going to go out into the world and change it. We’re going to make our little blueprint here the standard.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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