You can’t talk about the history of dance in the United States without focusing on the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It made its first stamp on history in 1958 when Alvin Ailey and a group of African-American dancers put on a tide-changing performance in New York City. In the nearly six decades since, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has been amazing crowds the world over with its unique modern-dance style influenced by African-American culture.
The company has had an incredible touring schedule, chalking up shows in almost every state and at least 71 different countries. It takes an amazingly talented crew to put the show on town after town, performance after performance. And with that much time spent on the road, the dancers and the crew have become like family.
In 2014, the Alvin Ailey family invited me to see the show when the tour stopped at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. I got the opportunity to interview the tech crew about their work, the history of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, life on the road, and what goes into lighting a touring show. As a lighting geek with a dance background, I Grand Jeté-ed at the chance!
Over the course of the next few months, I’ll share these interviews with you on our blog. The first one is my interview with Edward “E.J.” Corrigan, the technical director. I had a blast talking with him, and saw immediately his enthusiasm for his job and how much he loved both his biological family and his Alvin Ailey family. Sadly, just a few weeks after the interview, E.J. passed away unexpectedly. This is the now seemingly poignant interview.
Me: How long have you been with Alvin Ailey?
E.J.: I started in 1987. In 1993, after my daughter was born, I left the road, went to culinary school, graduated from culinary school, moved to California and started a couple restaurants. And about five years later, I was sitting pretty cushy in San Diego, and Judith Jamison, who was then the artistic director of the company, called and said, “What are you doing for the next 10 years?” I was like, “Uh, can I get back to you on that?”
I took my daughter – she was seven at the time – to Disneyland and told her what the situation was. She had met the company before, any time they came through San Diego. I told her what the offer was and she said, “You really love them, don’t you, Dad?” I said, “Yeah,” and she said that I should do this. Coming from a seven-year-old girl, it was pretty amazing.
She toured with us for seven years, until she started high school. She has pretty much a full passport, has been to eight to 10 countries, and spent probably four to five months in Paris and other parts of France, because we hang out in the south of France a lot and rent a house on the beach. It’s very cool.
Me: So your daughter pretty much grew up with the troupe?
E.J.: Yeah, she grew up in the company. She went to a school from the time she was seven until she was 14 where she could set her own curriculum, set her own work and her deadlines. She didn’t have to be in school. And we tour a lot during the summer. In the fall when we’d tour internationally, we’d work on her homework after performances or during the day.
What was really cool about it was when she started high school. You know how girls that age tend to think they’re all that? Because she saw women that were all that, and she grew up with them, and she knew she wasn’t all that yet, and if she wanted to do something or become something, it was going to take a lot of hard work and dedication and focus. That’s what we’re surrounded by. No one just came up and said “Do you want to be an Alvin Ailey dancer?” They worked really hard from the time they were kids and they’re still working on it. They never stop. They’re an amazing group of people.
She didn’t see the world through the same eyes as her peers. She saw the world in a much bigger picture, which was really cool. She’s still the coolest kid I know.
Me: Is it hard being away from other family members on tour?
E.J.: I really miss being around my daughter. I miss my mom. I talk to her every two or three days. She’s 83. But, now if I move home for two or three months at a time, I start getting like I need to just go to the airport and hang out.
I prefer to be on the road. The maid comes every day. The room’s clean every day. The towels are clean. You never run out of shampoo. And when you put the sign on the door that says ‘do not disturb,’ they actually pay attention to that.
You’re more alive when you’re on the road. You’re always surrounded by different folks in different locations, so nothing gets tired or boring. We have hard and long days, but none of it is ‘work.’ Actually, when my daughter was touring with us, she used to make us pay her a quarter anytime somebody said “Oh, I have to go to work.” She would say: “Dad, you can hardly call that work.” I’ve never considered it work. It’s never been a ‘job’ per se. It’s a life; it’s a passion. You tour around the world with 50 of your best friends, sharing something that you love and believe in, and you get paid for it.
Me: Sign me up!
E.J.: People ask that all the time. There’s no one route to get to where we all are. You just have to start in the beginning being passionate about what you do and not worry about the money. The money will come, because when you do what you do better than anyone else, somebody’s going to pay you money. That goes for any profession. I’ve always told my daughter to just be passionate about what you do and don’t worry about the money. It’ll come. She’s gonna be fine. She’ll be richer than me in 10 years.
Alvin Ailey Lighting Director Al Crawford: We’ll all be working for her!
E.J.: Yeah, we’re all going to be working for her!
Me: What do you think is different about being on the road with a touring show than being in one place?
E.J.: After I left the company, when going to culinary school, I worked on a Broadway show at the Neil Simon Theater, called Cyrano. Every night it was the same gig. I was ready to pull my hair out. There was a lot of sword-fighting in Cyrano that was cool, but it was so choreographed that it was the same thing every day. That just drove me crazy. I hearkened back to the days when I was young, working a followspot at Madison Square Garden for Ringling Brothers and at that time they used to come for three months. It was a good gig, we did lots of shows – 13 shows a week or something like that – but after a while, it was just the monotony. Sitting in the same spot, doing the same thing, day in and day out without any nuances or anything like that just was not for me.
This? Every day is different. Every program is different. I’m about ‘houselights out; curtain; go. Here we go; no turning back now.’ When something goes wrong, you need to wing it.
Me: So you work on the fly a lot?
E.J.: We all work on the fly. That’s all we do.
Me: Any particular challenges working on the fly, especially in different venues?
E.J.: Not with the group of people that we have, because we do this not just in established theaters in the United States, but we could be in Greek ruins, or some slab of concrete in Cyprus, or the middle of Central Park. We do the entire gamut of things and then you get to Moscow or to St. Petersburg and you’ve got a bunch of army guys unloading trucks. And you play in China and instead of load bars, they have human beings to hold packs in trucks. You know, different countries, different customs. We all know what the end product wants to be. You just gotta take whatever situation you’re in and make it look like Alvin Ailey, which I think we do an amazing job of.
Me: How do you keep on the same page?
E.J.: Everyone knows what it wants to be. We sit and talk prior to tours and during tours, and prior to going into City Center in New York, where it’s our home season. It’s very well-scripted, what we’re going to do minute by minute, because a [expletive] in those places is going to cost you five digits, just in ‘Oops, we’re not going to be done by 5, we got to go to 6. That’s $13,000 we just lost.’ So prior to gigs like that we sit down and dissect everything that everybody is doing. And everyone knows what their gig is.
At Alvin Ailey, I think that the average length of our crew people being here is 13 or 14 years. It’s not a big turnover. Some of us have been here longer. A lot of people have been here longer.
Me: Why do you think that is? Why do you think people stick around so long?
E.J.: It’s because Alvin Ailey is a very special organization. Number one: Mr. Ailey fought really hard back in the day to establish the company. And then a lot of people worked through a lot of lean years in order for it to be as successful financially as we are now. We’re a big organization; we have a huge building in New York. Pretty much every part of the organization is successful financially. Yes, we count on donors and everything else like that, but the building makes money, the extension makes money, the second company makes money, the first company makes money, so it’s not like we’re cash-poor anymore.
It’s not a job, you know. You’re sharing something that you really love with other people and getting paid for it. You don’t need someone to come up to you and tell you that you did a great job; there are 3,000 people screaming at you every night. You don’t need that constant affirmation that you’re doing your job right, because you know when you’re doing your job right. If you’re not doing something right, we’ll all let each other know, but in an affirmative way.
Me: There must be a lot of trust among everyone.
E.J.: Implicitly. In this group of people, if you say, “I’ll do it, I’ll be there,” and you’re not there and you didn’t take care of it? People are worried about you physically; not pissed off at you. Because generally it means something went really wrong; either you’re in jail or in the hospital or something’s up. You can implicitly trust anyone. The people you’re going to speak to? I’d put my life in their hands in a moment’s notice and have. We do, on a daily basis.
Me: Has the culture of trust always been established in the company or has that been built over time?
E.J.: It’s different, like with different groups of people, but this group of people here right now has been here so long. [Pointing to David Kerr, head electrician] I could probably tell you what time he went to bed last night and [pointing at Al] when he went to bed last night. And I wasn’t even with them. It’s like that. And it was like that when I first joined the company, even though it was with different people. It was just the same way. It just wore off on me.
Me: Where do you think that stems from?
E.J.: It came from Mr. Ailey. If he hired anybody back in the day, back in the mid-80s – and we still maintain this – we don’t give up on people. We really put in a lot of time and energy so you don’t give up on folks. You hired them for a reason in the beginning. We’ll look at a résumé, but it’s a gut feeling. We don’t really hire anybody as per their credentials. It’s when people answer simple questions that are really important, like ‘What are you most proud of in your life?’ and somebody’ll say, “Taking care of my mom.” You can’t prompt that answer out of anybody. If you ask someone about the most important part of their life and they start talking about designing the lighting system for some show in college, we’re sitting there, going, ‘Yeah, right, this ain’t going to work.’ That’s the way it goes.
Me: Since Alvin Ailey is so iconic, and such a big part of American history and African-American history, does that put added pressure on your end?
E.J.: Yeah, especially since I’m a white guy! [Laughs.] Yeah, you think about it. You absolutely think about it, but not on a daily basis. We do it because we love what we do. I think we’re all proud to be here. [Pointing at Al] He wanted to work for Alvin Ailey – he knew when he was a kid. Same thing with Dave.
David Kerr: Yeah, I became a stagehand with the goal of trying to get to work with this company.
E.J.: [Pointing to Al] Same thing with you, right?
Al: I was 14, saw Alvin Ailey come to my high school and I thought: ‘Whoa! Okay.’
Me: What was it about it that grabbed you, that made you say, “I want to do that?” Was it something specific?
Al: The absolute power of what the dancers are able to do, what they’re able to communicate, and then ultimately, subconsciously – wow – how do they create the space around them, that was in my mind. So perfect, so clear, so powerful. How could I be a part of that? It was infectious. I wanted to be somehow associated with it and figure out how to do that. And that just became a passion.
E.J.: I was talking to Chaya, who is our associate artistic director, the other day. We do mini-performances for schoolchildren anywhere we go for more than two or three days. And as much as we hate having to get up at 8:30 to go do a one-hour mini-performance, because it busts up your day, you know that every one you do, you’ve just changed a dozen kids’ lives forever. You see it in their eyes. I was talking to Chaya, and we think that 80% or 90% of the dancers became dancers because they saw a kiddie show when they were 6 to 12 years old.
Me: This is every dancer’s dream. Every Dance magazine, every dance calendar, poster – you want to look just like that.
E.J.: Yeah. And what’s great about this company is that they’re all accomplished in every genre of dance – jazz, modern, ballet, classical ballet, they can all dance on pointe. It really covers the spectrum.
Al: That’s how Ailey works, right?
David: We don’t want to go out of business, but at the same time, this company, it’s not the most important thing. I think it’s more about the humanity and soulfulness of it, and being able to travel around the world and share this. It’s not always about the money. I mean, look at our salaries. We’re not doing it because we’re in the ‘million-dollar stagehand club.’
Me: From a technical standpoint, you said you were captivated by the magic – the humanity and soulfulness of it. So how do you create that from your point of view? How do you contribute to that now that you work here?
E.J.: It’s a famous Saint Francis of Assisi quote. “If you work with your hands, you’re a laborer. If you work with your hands and your head, you’re a craftsman. And if you work with your hands, your head and your heart, then you’re an artist.” I didn’t know he said that, but I guess he was a pretty profound guy.
Al: We saw that on a mural in a green room in West Palm Beach last week.
E.J.: It was last week, right? In the last two weeks, we’ve done Miami, Clearwater, Jacksonville, West Palm Beach and here [Chicago]. It’s not normally like that. This tour, I think we’re doing six or seven one-nighters, which is really unusual. We don’t normally do that. It’s just the way the tour worked out. They try to fill in; somebody wants a split week, somebody wants you for three performances, and you can’t find another split week and you fill it in with a couple one-nighters. You know, because we need to pay everybody.
David: We don’t want to go home. Might as well work.
Me: With all of that bouncing around, doing so many tours in so many cities and so many countries, how hard is it to adapt this show to each theater and each stage?
E.J.: Every day is a challenge.
Al: It’s really about understanding the aesthetic of the company – the space that the dancers need, the space that certain elements and effects need, which are really superfluory [sic]. Ultimately, we go into places that don’t have a proscenium, or don’t have a backdrop, or don’t have wings. And so how do you bring that same spirit to the stage?
E.J.: And there’s no such thing as ETC Source Fours, so forget about that.
Al: Yeah, you’ve got 300 “Source Fauxs” as I call them, and you’re lucky if you have enough dimmers to plug them in.
E.J.: It doesn’t happen often, but there will be days where it’s just not working out and we’re punting left and right, and when the dancers come in, at that point they can feel exactly what kind of day you’ve just had. They sense it immediately and we try to have the same uplifting energy in the theater when they get there, because as we go, so will they go.