From Inglewood to the Main Stage: The Evolution of Matthew Rushing

Rehearsal Director and Guest Artist Matthew Rushing and members of the Company. | Photo by Andrew Eccles.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) comes to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the fifth time led by its new Artistic Director Robert Battle and when AAADT's Rehearsal Director and Guest Artist Matthew Rushing returns to The Music Center with the company, he will have perhaps traveled a road longer than most --even though he grew up only 10 miles away.

Rushing's journey to becoming one of the country's most acclaimed modern dancers began in Inglewood, Calif., where Rushing's parents enrolled him in an after-school program at Centinela Park as a way to keep their son from becoming entangled in the web of gang violence around him. It was here, performing in Playhouse productions directed by Cepheus Jaxon and dance instructor Kashmir Blake, that Rushing's life changed forever.

The program exposed Rushing to every facet of performance arts, including playwriting, theatre, drama, and vocal and dance classes. The troupe would regularly perform musicals, such as "The African American" which told the story of slavery through civil rights and to present time.

"A lot of the movement had to do with African dance and we even learned about the social dances of the 20s," Rushing recalls of the piece -- likely his first foray into modern dance. "I loved that [modern dance] was so accessible. I saw themes and images and ideas that closely related to my life and I was so impressed to be able to see my life on stage," he says.

Had it not been for that community recreation program, Rushing's raw talent and potential as an artist might have otherwise lay dormant.

"That early exposure to the arts sparked something in me," says Rushing. "I didn't take it extremely seriously until I went to L.A. County High School for the Arts, but I always had something that kept me occupied and kept my creative juices flowing."

Now, more than two decades later, Rushing hasn't stopped giving back.

In every major city around the world where the company performs -- it tours six to eight months out of the year -- Rushing joins other AAADT company members for extensive community outreach. The company's Music Center engagement on April 16 (for a six performance engagement from April 17-21) will be preceded by activities throughout the city including a free-to-the-public, all day celebration in Grand Park on Saturday, April 6 from 1-5 p.m., culminating with the largest-ever participatory re-creation of "Revelations" excerpts. "Revelations," choreographed by Alvin Ailey as a tribute to the African American culture and heritage, premiered in 1960 and has since become the most widely seen modern dance work in the world, according to the company.

REVELATIONS | Video Courtesy of Alvin Ailey

The Grand Park show -- RockaYourSoul: LA's Celebration of Gospel, Dance and Ailey -- includes gospel performances from local Los Angeles choirs, and workshops in everything from the Ailey classics to the construction of a community quilt.

Sponsored by the Glorya Kaufman Dance Foundation, the company will also hold "Revelations" student residencies and master classes for nearly 200 7th and 8th graders at the Sun Valley Middle School and San Fernando Middle School. The company will also hold a master class at A Place Called Home on Wednesday, April 10 from 4:30-6 p.m., a non-profit youth center in South Central Los Angeles.

"If you don't take a moment to go into the communities you're performing in, the productions can become monotonous, so it's wonderful to be able to have this exchange with the community," Rushing says.

In 1992 at the age of 17, Rushing joined AAADT and within five years he became one of its premiere artists. He is the recipient of a Spotlight Award and Dance Magazine Award and was named a Presidential Scholar in the Arts. Critics have described his movement as "mesmerizing" and "liquid"; the New Yorker called him "one of the country's greatest dancers." In 2010, then-company artistic director Judith Jamison named him Rehearsal Director with the caveat that he continue to perform and choreograph new works.

Recently, Rushing took a few minutes to talk to Artbound about his new post and what he brings to the position.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Matthew Rushing in Alvin Ailey's "Love Songs." | Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Matthew Rushing in Alvin Ailey's "Love Songs."| Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Your job sounds so interesting as Rehearsal Director. Tell me a bit about it.

Matthew Rushing: Two years ago Ms. Jamison appointed me rehearsal director. My initial thought was that I wanted to stop dancing so I could focus on this new position. But she also wanted me to continue dancing. I'm so grateful that I am still dancing because it's keeping me connected to the dancers. My job is to rehearse the dancers while upholding the integrity of the repertoire and maintaining each choreographer's vision. I also help the dancers if they have difficulties or challenges within the repertoire. Dancing next to them on stage keeps me sensitive to their needs as well. That's the most interesting.

It's very, very difficult right now because it's new to me and I'm learning my own way in the position. But it's challenging.

In what way?

MR: Trying to figure out how to meet the dancers' needs. Whether it's a dancer trying to get to the next level, trying to experience a different dynamic with their movement or if they're not much of a lyrical dancer and want to find different qualities on their movement, it's my job to learn those words that open up a new world to them and help them achieve their goals.

What do you mean by a "lyrical" dancer?

MR: A dancer who has a nice continuity in movement and flows from one step to another so it's not jagged or syncopated.

How is your approach different than the director before you?

MR: I am still dancing with them so I know their needs and I know their challenges. My first tour in the position I did not dance, and at the end of that tour I had already forgotten what dancers go through. People don't realize all the issues we have to fight just to get on that stage. It didn't take long for me to forget the aches and the pains and the mental and emotional issues. I was giving notes and corrections, and when the dancers didn't take them, I found myself getting irritated and confused about why this dancer wasn't taking the note from me. But I had completely forgotten that a dancer's mind can be elsewhere. Dancers were on stage fighting insecurities and fighting injuries, and there I was in the audience taking it personally, not realizing that there were other things going on.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater with Artistic Director Robert Battle and Associate Artistic Director Masazumi Chaya. | Photo by Andrew Eccles.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater with Artistic Director Robert Battle and Associate Artistic Director Masazumi Chaya. | Photo by Andrew Eccles.

You've been with the company for 21 years. Do you think the company has changed its mission and vision from when Alvin Ailey founded it?

MR: Mr. Ailey established the first "repertoire" company meaning he invited other artists to choreograph on the dancers. He was very involved in outreach and bringing dance back to the people. At same time a lot of the themes of the repertoire were based on the African American culture.

If I look at the company today, all those things still exist. Mr. Battle is bringing in current and contemporary choreographers to add to the repertoire. We're heavily involved in outreach and we're still doing Mr. Ailey's work as well as other people's work that still speak to the African American culture and the American culture. I feel we've evolved and changed with the times, but the actual vision remains the same.

Will you visit Inglewood when you're here?

MR: I'm not sure yet, but recently someone came to one of our performances and saw a piece I did and loved it. She wrote to me and said she would love me to come teach a class at her studio. So I thought I'll just come to L.A. and contact the person on my own. I was there visiting my parents. As it turned out, the school was just around the corner from the house I grew up in! That was really nice.

I know you've choreographed two pieces: "Acceptance In Surrender" (2005) a collaboration with Hope Boykin and Abdur Rahim-Jackson, and "Uptown" (2009), a tribute to the Harlem Renaissance. If you had a commission to choreograph a piece about Los Angeles, what do you think it might look like?

MR: It would embrace the energy of L.A. because I find it so inspiring; the whole Hollywood scene and the effect of the weather. I always feel inspired about trying new ideas for music or choreography. L.A. and New York have that same effect on me by opening my mind up to different ideas.


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