It was a few months after Hurricane Katrina, and eighth-grade dancer Courtney Ross faced a big challenge.
Her job: to become an unofficial ambassador of the city of New Orleans.
The middle-schooler had been studying ballet and modern dance with The Center for Dance, an organization that provides free classes through partnership between the New Orleans Ballet Association and the city-run New Orleans Recreation Development Commission.
Like many programs in New Orleans, the Center for Dance was threatened after the storm, as officials struggled to reinstate city programming. So while displaced, and taking classes around the country at prestigious venues like Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival, Ross and her peers were drumming up support for their hometown, said Jenny Hamilton, NOBA’s director. Now, thanks in part to support from around the country, the Center for Dance is stronger than ever, with programming in nine different centers throughout New Orleans. It offers more than 100 classes a week to more than 1,000 students in ballet, modern, jazz, tap, hip hop, Haitian and other classes.
And Ross has recently become a testament to the program’s success, having been named a member of Ailey II, one of the most popular dance companies in the United States.
The 23-year-old will return to New Orleans Saturday with the critically acclaimed company, marking the first time since she became a professional dancer that she will return to perform onstage in her hometown.
“I think it’s going to be really special for me,” Ross said in a phone interview from New York, where Ailey II is based. “I’ve been with NOBA since sixth grade. The teachers have seen me grow up into a woman, and have been an integral part of who I am. They’ll be able to see the seed they have planted.”
The company, Ailey II, was initially founded in 1974 by famous modern dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, through a workshop comprised of the most promising scholarship students from The Ailey School.
Ross, who grew up in Harvey, was one of those students. After beginning her studies with the Center for Dance at the age of 9, she graduated from Lusher Charter School in New Orleans. She went on to study in a bachelor of fine arts program with Fordham University and The Ailey School in New York, where she was chosen to join Ailey II.
Today, Ailey II has become one of the most popular companies in the country, merging young dancers with emerging choreographers. The company’s dancers travel all around the world to perform new works and classic pieces under the eye of artistic director Troy Powell.
February’s program will feature Ailey’s classic and best-known work, “Revelations,” dedicated to African-American heritage in the South and performed to classic hymns, sermons and blues. The work, which premiered in 1960, was born from Ailey’s “blood memories” of his childhood in rural Texas and the Baptist Church, he said in interviews before he died.
The performance will also include “In & Out,” created by choreographer and Ailey School alumnus Jean Emile. Set to music by Alva Noto, Alberto Iglesias and Jun Miyake, the piece creates a snapshot of contemporary life.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer Jamar Roberts will make his Ailey II choreographic debut on Saturday, with the piece “Gêmeos,” which is Portuguese for “twins.” The work is loosely based on the relationship of Roberts and his brother growing up as children, according to a release describing the program. It’s set to Afrobeat star Fela Kuti,
Lastly, dancers will perform hip-hop choreographer Kyle “JustSole” Clark’s piece “In I Am The Road.”
Powell has described the company as “cutting edge,” with a “distinctive vibrancy.” In an interview, he also said the company aims to preserve the legacy of Ailey, perhaps one of the most famous modern dancers in history.
It’s been oft-repeated that Ailey, who grew up in Texas, had a dedication to foster inclusiveness in an art form that had largely excluded minorities, and “bring dance to the people” by making it accessible to everyone. In that sense, he said, Ailey’s mission resonates with that of the Center for Dance in New Orleans.
In fact, Powell said, Ailey has had a longstanding relationship with the organization in New Orleans, for that very reason.
“I absolutely fell in love with the program and thought it had a great mission,” Powell said, recalling how he, like many of NORDC dancers, grew up in an inner city and fought to find ways to dance. “When we come, I know we’re going to change perspectives. This will definitely be a life lesson.”
As for Ross, she credits her promising career largely to the local organization, which is now in its 24th year in New Orleans, and continues to provide tuition ,as well as costumes for performances — expenses that quickly add up for serious students.
Her story is important, Ross said, because it may encourage other students pursue dreams of making it as a professional dancer, even if they can’t afford private classes in some of the more upscale studios around town.
“If you see a dream for yourself, go for it,” Ross said. “Me, I just kept believing that if I kept putting feet on the ground and walking every day, I’d get to that destination.”