She has the attention of dance companies, and she is prepared
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She has the attention of dance companies, and she is prepared
Chalvar Monteiro, front left, and Jacquelin Harris during a rehearsal with the Ailey company on “Century,” at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Manhattan on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023. Amy Hall Garner is readying the new work “Century” for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, on the heels of other premieres and with more to come. (Karsten Moran/The New York Times)

by Brian Seibert



NEW YORK, NY.- Recently at the studios of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, choreographer Amy Hall Garner was working on the ending of a new piece, “Century.” In choosing the music for this moment, she had picked a recording from the Count Basie Orchestra with a title that might have a special resonance for anyone who has been following her career: “This Could Be the Start of Something Big.”

It’s not that Garner, 46, is just starting. But “Century” — her first work for the main Ailey troupe, which debuts Friday as part of the company’s season at New York City Center — comes close on the heels of premieres for BalletX, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Miami City Ballet and the Paul Taylor Dance Company. In May, she will debut her first piece for New York City Ballet. Suddenly, she is all over the big leagues.

“I don’t take it for granted one single bit,” Garner said after the Ailey rehearsal. “I feel like this is the moment that I’m coming into my own, and I’m just enjoying it. Timing is divine.”

Garner also credited her recent success to years and years of hard work. “All the tools I have learned in school and as a performer, I take all of that into the studio with me, because I need it,” she said. “All the experiences come with me.”

Those experiences have been unusually broad. Born and raised in Huntsville, Alabama, Garner started private ballet lessons as a young child. She advanced up the ranks of the local “Nutcracker” production, from little sheep to the Sugar Plum Fairy, and for two summers in high school, she studied at the School of American Ballet in New York.

All along, she was also studying tap and jazz. Then, while enrolled at the Juilliard School, she learned the modern dance techniques of Martha Graham and José Limón. The school “stripped you down and built you back up in a pure way so that you could morph into all the genres,” Garner said. “I learned to see how that information was put through the body.”

That skill would eventually help her as a choreographer, but although she made a few pieces at Juilliard, she saw herself as only a dancer. Unlike most of her classmates, she didn’t audition for companies like Ailey or Taylor; she has never been a member of one. Instead, she joined a Broadway show, “Fosse,” and stuck with musical theater, working with figures like Gwen Verdon, Ann Reinking and Susan Stroman in shows like “Contact.” She also danced as a Radio City Rockette.

Then her best friend from Juilliard, Darrell Grand Moultrie, who had become a choreographer, asked Garner to assist him.

“She’s always had an eye,” Moultrie said. “And she’s very musical.” When he choreographed for Beyoncé’s “The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour,” Garner helped out, modeling movement and teaching it to the star. Years later, when he made his first piece for the main Ailey troupe — “Ounce of Faith,” in 2019 — Garner was by his side, making suggestions and helping coach the dancers.

“It was about us telling each other, ‘You’re not my assistant,’” Moultrie said. “‘We’re going in as partners, and we’re going to do that because we can all rise together.’”

Garner was also making her own work, mostly for students to start choreographing. She created her first piece for Ailey II, “Virtues,” in 2012. But it wasn’t until she made a dance for Juilliard, in 2019, that she caught the eye of the Taylor company’s artistic director, Michael Novak.




“There was an incredible musicality and a great deal of joy,” Novak said. “I kind of fell in love.”

By the time Novak commissioned Garner to make a dance, it was February 2020. The pandemic caused that plan to be postponed, but Garner did make a virtual work for the Taylor troupe in collaboration with Miami City Ballet that May. And not long after those companies returned to live performance, Garner was creating premieres for them.

By that point, everyone seemed to want her work.

But Garner, Novak said, is ready for the flood of attention: “She has been in so many different creative environments, and so she knows how to get out of dancers what she needs, incredibly fast, while making them excited about the process.”

Matthew Rushing, Ailey’s associate artistic director, said that Garner’s work reminded him of Ailey’s. “There’s a familiar spirit.”

Garner said that aspects of “Century” are in fact a tribute to Ailey and his theatricality. But mainly, for her, the work is personal. It’s a birthday present to her grandfather, Henry Spooner, who turns 100 on Dec. 30.

The musical selections, mostly hard-swinging jazz, are by artists Spooner likes: Count Basie, Ray Charles. Or they speak to his upbringing in Louisiana and his decades of service in the choir of Gloryland Baptist Church.

In all her work, Garner said, music is foundational. “I like to respect the music,” she said. “That genius is far beyond me. It inspires me and tells me what to do.”

Much of the choreography of “Century,” Garner said, responds to the music and the particularities of the Ailey dancers; she leaned into “the things that will make them look good.” But some movement also derives from Spooner’s personal style, and the way he danced with Garner’s late grandmother.

During the first 18 months of the coronavirus pandemic, Garner and her husband, as well as their son and her parents, lived with Spooner. “It was four generations of us in one house,” she said, “and we had a lot of deep conversations that probably would not have happened otherwise.”

With Spooner’s birthday on the horizon, Garner’s mother suggested a party. “And I said, ‘Yes, we should throw him a party,’” Garner recalled, “but why don’t I also make him a work of art celebrating him and what he’s given me?” She wants to give her grandfather what she always wants to give people who see her art: “Something that feels good.”

When Garner told Spooner about her plan, he asked if he would have to do anything. She told him, “No, you just sit and watch.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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