Refined zest: only the second African American principal in New York City Ballet history, Albert Evans brings an extra dedication to his coolly contained dancing.
The twenty-nine-year-old Evans may appear cool onstage, but he is anything but reserved about dancing. Being chosen by visiting choreographers for their commissioned ballets, as he regularly is, delights him. And thanks to his versatility, musicality, and quick learning ability, the feeling is clearly mutual. In the 1997 Diamond Project, the company's recurring festival of new works, he was cast in Robert La Fosse's neoclassical Concerto in Five Movements; Kevin O'Day's funky take on classical technique, Open Strings; and Christopher d'Amboise's surprising and mysterious Circle of Fifths. Particularly memorable were his imperturbable saunter and the slinky blues duet with Stacey Calvert in the O'Day, and his enigmatic, gestural power and gravity in the d'Amboise (its pas de deux with Wendy Whelan suggested two strong force fields interacting).
D'Amboise says, "I don't think I've ever seen a better mover than Albert. I went through a lot to make sure that I got [him, along with Whelan and Peter Boal]. Everybody wanted them, and they were in lots of other things. I wanted Albert because I had some movements that were unusual and required both a fluidity and good diction in dance, so to speak--being able to choose what you're going to highlight in a phrase. I tell him once, and he's got it. So that was a thrill! He's really extraordinary."
"I love what I'm doing here," Evans says. "There is no other company like New York City Ballet. There really isn't. The Balanchine style is what intrigues me the most. What he wanted and how he felt, how ballet should continue through life after [his] leaving [when he died in 1983]. That's what I get from being here, because our generation never knew him; we never worked with him." Evans feels a personal rapport with Balanchine that comes through the ballets. In a 1989 interview, he told me, "It's very hard, just joining, with so many people telling you, `Balanchine wanted this, Balanchine wanted that.' So you have to kind of do it as yourself and [imagine] Balanchine saying to you that he likes you doing it this way--as if you're a Balanchine dancer when Balanchine was there. But it's hard." ["Dancing on Hope Street," Dance Magazine, December 1989, page 40.]
So far, his Balanchine roles tend to be the more modem or off-beat ones: Symphony in Three Movements, where, straight out of school, he showed his authoritative stage presence in the central Balinese-style duet; A Midsummer Night's Dream (his Puck has not only a well-developed sense of mischief but an airy dignity as he circles the stage in space-eating jumps); Agon; Union Jack; Kammermusik No. 2; and Stravinsky Violin Concerto (he's in the ginchy, acrobatic pas de deux).
Although he is enthusiastic about what he does and where he is doing it, he'd like to expand his work in the company. He would very much like to be dancing more of Balanchine's classical ballets. "That's what I'm trained as--a classical dancer," he points out. "That's why I'm here, to be a classical ballet dancer. I do have some that I do"--he mentions Symphony in C--"but for me right now it's not enough."
And he would like to be dancing more in general. Two or three years go by between the festivals where he is in such demand. He's in some ballets by company director Peter Martins, but few by the late Jerome Robbins. He especially loves Robbins's 1953 classic, Afternoon of a Faun, which he has performed just twice. "I love dancing the pieces of his that I do," Evans says, "but I would love to dance more, definitely." He had hoped to have the opportunity of working directly with the company's senior choreographer.
Watching him teach a variations class for SAB boys provided an unusual opportunity to see Evans's dancing in detail, to see his classical technique and placement as clearly as in a slow-motion film. The class also shows his astuteness and generosity in analyzing and sharing the way steps are done and how they are presented to the audience. The 5610 being taught was the principal's classical-bravura one from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes. He demonstrates fully this role that he has never danced for NYCB--arms, steps, classical style--with such ease and panache that you want to get up and join in. He's wearing sneakers, but ones so flexible that he can point his feet as meticulously as he does onstage.
Suggestions are detailed, immediately useful, and positive in tone: "That's coming along. You can do it." For a jumped fouette turn, "Think of this as going up. Don't give the whipping leg too much force," he calls out. In tricky traveling air turns, he tells one student that he is spotting too low and that it's throwing his upper body forward. He demonstrates the shape of the arms in various jumps and tells the students, "Don't throw your arms behind you." He sees everything, catching sight in the mirror of every student who practices a step in the comer, and offering encouragement and suggestions. His class has a high energy that never sags but never feels rushed--very much like his dancing.
Dance life began for Evans in Atlanta when he started taking classes at his grade school. His first ambition was to be a modem dancer. He also had some jazz training. "I think that having those different trainings really helped me with classical ballet," he says. "You go from one extreme to the next. And here we have so many neoclassical pieces, so you have to know about modem dance. But I really got serious about ballet training when I was twelve or thirteen."
What did his family think about his wanting to dance? He chuckles gently: "My mom sat me down and said, `It's your decision if you want to be a dancer. It's all up to you.' She said I would have to do all the research, because she didn't know anything about dancing. My brothers and my sister thought I was crazy. They were so concerned about me making a living. But I knew that being a dancer was something I wanted to do. Even as a child, I knew. I just knew."
Enter his ballet teacher in Atlanta, Patsy Bromley. A group of students from the public school started taking class with her on scholarship. Among them were Evans and his friend Cedric Rouse, now a member of Dance Theatre of Harlem. (Several of Bromley's students from that time went to SAB, including Rouse and Rebecca Metzger, who joined NYCB and is now a physical therapist.)
"Albert is the most musical dancer I ever worked with," Bromley says, adding that he has become like part of her family. "He didn't have a natural ballet body, although some areas were natural, and he looks natural in ballet." She helped students mold their bodies to what was best for them--to a long, lean look, not overdeveloped, using Pilates machines to work on necessary areas and to reduce injuries. Bromley used many kinds of movement and music but encouraged students to master ballet so that they would not be limited in their later choices. She adds that she hopes Evans will have the opportunity to use the acting talents she saw in him.
Evans says that Bromley's own experience at SAB helped him prepare for the school. He spent two summers at SAB, then stayed two years for the winter course. He feels himself very lucky to have been in a group of young men who worked intensely with the late, much lamented teacher Stanley Williams, renowned for developing male dancers. "We considered ourselves the luckiest people, to have him twice a day," Evans remembers. "It was a pleasure. Stanley made me so much more aware of my lower body--the preciseness, the quickness, and also the shape and speed and dynamics of certain steps. How you presented your feet, how you presented yourself. It wasn't something he learned; it was part of his personality. We're going to miss that terribly."
Evans was attracting attention before he joined New York City Ballet in spring 1988 as a corps member. William Forsythe saw him at SAB and chose him for his rock-tinged, all-out Behind the China Dogs, premiered at that spring's American Music Festival. Eliot Feld cast him in his AMF entry, The Unanswered Question. The sudden responsibility of leading roles did not faze him. "I loved the festival," he said in the 1989 interview. "I had fun with it." He liked the latitude that Forsythe gave him to put in something of his own. That piece, he felt, got him into the company. There, he continued to dance some major roles. He was named soloist in 1991, principal in 1995. Being made a principal "did give me new confidence," he says, "but then it also scares you in a way, because you put more pressure on yourself than anyone else does. So in that sense, it can be tough."
His goal now is to work on "the artistry of the ballets." Asked what is special about Balanchine for him personally, he says, "It's more of a goal that I have, that I've set myself with his ballets. For instance, I would look at Merrill Ashley and say that he must have loved her, because she did everything, from her technique, which is unbelievable, to the artistry that she has. What's so fascinating to me about what he's created here at New York City Ballet is those ballets you have to be an artist in."
Taping Phlegmatic in Four Temperaments with Bolender for the Balanchine Foundation was a great challenge, as well as a reminder of the effect of time's passage on NYCB repertory. (The Four Temperaments, for example, was created in 1946.) "That was so fascinating" Evans recalls. "I was so nervous. I have never been so nervous, never, ever, not even for a premiere: Never me. I was more nervous in a room with Todd by myself than anything, because you have someone that the role was choreographed on. He worked with Balanchine!
"He was telling us a story, that Balanchine said, `Oh, maybe just run over here and then sort of collapse; I want you to start from your [upraised] hand down to your head. You just sort of melt. You lose all energy.' And it was so interesting to see someone get up and demonstrate this--after how many years? It was just perfect. You knew right away the feeling, the atmosphere, everything, just from that one move that he did. It was also interesting to see how the role had changed over the years for each dancer.
"I want to take Phlegmatic in the direction that Todd took it, to a level where it's more than doing the steps. There's so much more to it--the style, the attitude, I guess the message you're trying to convey, because especially in that role there is one."
Evans is also getting the urge to choreograph, "not really for ballet dancers, but other [kinds of] companies. I want to take the challenge and not just be comfortable with what I know."
An issue that particularly concerns him is how few black dancers there are in American ballet companies, outside of Dance Theatre of Harlem. He, for example, is only the second African American principal dancer in NYCB, following 1960s star Arthur Mitchell, founder-director of DTH (who also danced Phlegmatic and Puck, a role Balanchine made on him). We talk about other noteworthy company members in between them, such as Debra Austin, Myrna Kamara, Mel A. Tomlinson, and Andrea Long (now with DTH). Evans feels that greater exposure for ballet is important: "As a culture, we have to make ballet more accessible to the public, so that they can be introduced to it, and it won't be such a foreign thing. Like having it in after-school programs. And on television, just to show that there are African American dancers in ballet, which is not something you ever see as a child growing up."
What about DTH's extensive television work? I ask. "But, see, that's another issue I have" Evans responds. "DTH is not the only [ballet] company that [an African American] dancer can dance in. Just because you see the one company on television doesn't mean that that's the company you have to dance with. I think that that's when people get the wrong idea sometimes. Like I prefer to be here. This is where I want to be: New York City Ballet. Definitely."
Marilyn Hunt is a senior editor of Dance Magazine.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 1998|
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