Marcus Jarrell Willis and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: A Story of Grace

Marcus Jarrell Willis, a former Houstonian and HSPVA alum, has been a member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for six years now. (Before that he was a member of Ailey II.) He's a different dancer now, says Willis.

"For me, things have changed in that I used to be focused on getting everything perfectly right," he tells us. "Dancers are perfectionist and we always want to be standing at the right angle, to have the lines of our bodies perfect with that turned out, this turned in. I was so focused on getting it right that I actually wasn't living in the work at the moment.

"Now, I've performed [the works] so many times, it's in my body. I know the steps. I still strive to make sure everything is psychically correct but now I'm able to live in the work as well. Like with I Want to Be Ready (a meditative solo in Revelations), I can move past just performing the right moves and begin to experience it while I'm performing."

Ronald K. Brown's GRACE from Alvin Ailey on Vimeo.

One particular work especially meaningful to Willis is Ronald K. Brown's Grace, which shows various individuals on their way to the promised land. Music for Grace includes Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday," Roy Davis' "Gabriel" and elements of Fela Kuti's Afro-Pop.

"You know, you can perform every step correctly and still leave the stage with nothing. Grace really takes me, as a dancer, through so many different things, physically and emotionally. For me, performing it reminds me of how grace has been given to me so that I can be where I am right now. It's a very special work for me.

"I started dancing because I loved it. Every moment that I'm on stage I remind myself that I'm dancing because I love it -- it's just there's just happens to be an audience watching," he laughs. "I'm at the point now where I can give the audience what it wants, what it needs and still pay attention to my own feelings, to what I want and need while I'm on stage. Ironically, while that sounds selfish, that attitude has actually freed me up to give even more to the audience. By my living in the moment, I'm more able to have the audience live in the moment with me."

Willis says being a member of the Alvin Ailey company is more than just a job. It's also a responsibility. "At the end of the day, we're professional dancers and we're on stage to do a job, we're there to 'entertain' the audience. But none of us look at being in this company as just entertaining people. Even though we're always rushing from one performance to the next, one city to the next, once we get on stage we take a moment to stop and think about the work that we're performing, about what Mr. Ailey was trying to say. That has to stay in our minds because it's our responsibility to uphold his legacy."

The cornerstone of Ailey's legacy is, of course, his groundbreaking Revelations. "It's amazing to me that no matter where we go, people know Revelations. We have so many different works that we perform now and every season, we get more new work, but that's the piece that really touches people. When we're standing on stage about to start, and the curtain's down ... and people realize we're about to perform Revelations, you can hear the excitement in the room."

Willis says he understands the attraction. "A few nights ago we were in Miami and I went out into the [audience] and I watched Revelations. It took me back to the first time I saw [the Alvin Ailey company]. I was sitting there crying. I'm sure the people around me thought that I was crazy, but that work touches you in a really profound way. That's the responsibility we have, to perform that work as well as we can and hope that we can touch the audience."

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, in town for a two-day, three-show stint courtesy of Society for the Performing Arts, will perform Ailey's legendary signature work Revelations. Also on the program is Bill T. Jones's D-Man in the Waters, Ronald K. Brown's Grace, Kyle Abraham's Another Night and Ohad Naharin's Minus 16.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs at 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, 615 Louisiana. For information, call 713-227-4772 or visit spahouston.org. $45 to $105.

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