This post is written by guest writer Katie Dean.
After a decade of being in transitional spaces, modern dance company Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company recently moved into their permanent home at 70 E 4th St between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, sitting in between La MaMa and NYTW’s scene shop, a half flight down from street level. Currently in its 44th year, Alpha Omega is one of FAB’s founding members and an acclaimed repertory company and educational nonprofit that provides a platform for performers, choreographers and young dancers. Their space, which includes a studio with a lighting plot, dressing rooms, bathrooms, office space and a shared backyard, will serve as both company home and theatre space for Alpha Omega-curated events such as a choreographers’ showcase.
“Alpha Omega was formed to provide a platform for multi-cultural choreographers, who at that time didn’t have a platform to showcase their work,” says Enrique Cruz DeJesus, current Artistic Director, who began his artistic career as a dancer with the company and went on to become a commercial dancer and actor. “Ronnie, the founder, taught for a theater company where New York Theatre Workshop used to be, and the professor offered to give Ronnie free space in exchange for dance classes for actors, and he started choreographing his work and showing other people’s work.” Formed in 1972 by Ronn Pratt, Dolores Vanison-Blakley, and Miriam Greaves, the company would then build a youth program.
“This is where I come in. There was a hub for 26 minority students, who Ronn gave classes for free, all day Saturday, all day Sunday, sometimes Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and he brought choreographers to us,” Enrique says, “At a young age, we were working with choreographers who talked to us as if we were old people, because they didn’t have a filter and we didn’t shy away from exploring [in] that way.” Several of the students, including Enrique and current Associate Director Donna Clark, went on to become members of the dance company, working with choreographers with a range of theatrical interests.
Alpha Omega’s extensive repertory includes work by Eleo Pomare, (including his iconic ‘Narcissus Rising’, created in the 60s and restaged in the ’00s for AO dancers Donna Clark and El Tahra Ibrahim), Martial Roumain, and Andy Torres, in addition to DeJesus’ own choreography. Alpha Omega continues to preserve choreographic repertory works and to instill appreciation of traditional modern dance forms, with work characterized by theatricality, energy and passion. As “a traditionalist to Americana modern dance,” Enrique works to convey the importance of reverence and respect for formative techniques to young dancers, “Dunham, Limón, Graham, techniques [which] took years to create,” while encouraging students to find their own voices.
Mentorship and preservation lies at the heart of Alpha Omega’s mission. The average company dancer begins with the company post-college, stays with Alpha Omega between 7 to 10 years, and many keep in touch with even through moves and marriages and careers. There is a strong sense of home and care cultivated that results in an environment for people to return to, a gravitational pull that brings current and past members together.
Enrique reflected with Donna (who began dancing with Alpha Omega at 15) on what they learned as young dancers with the company and how it molded the artists they became, including, among other things, the need to be versatile. “The people I was introduced to shaped me and changed me, even about how to see other people’s work,” Enrique says. ” I remember Andy [Torres], who was a veteran choreographer, and also a concert dancer, said, ‘your evolving never stops. You start out as a dancer and you become an actor, or a singer, or a choreographer, or a director, or a scenic designer, or a lighting designer.’ And it’s funny, because I had to learn all those things. And he said, ‘you’re going to start seeing yourself sewing your costumes.’ And sure enough, I did,” Enrique laughs.
Together, Clark, DeJesus, and Executive Director Dolores Vanison-Blakely have led the company to their new home. Clark and DeJesus recounted challenges of teaching dance in spaces not designed for it, especially with kids who have never been exposed to dance before; After many interim spaces and years in limbo, having a new dedicated space on 4th Street has been transformational. “Sure enough, when we opened these doors, they saw a mirror and they just started dancing.”
In looking to the future, the company wants to create a space for new dancemakers to push the craft forward. “Even though we will celebrate our 45th anniversary next year, as an organization doing work in the community and beyond, part of what we have brought and want to keep is the freshness of art making,” Donna says. “Because we have history, we have plenty to refer back to, and redo and remount, and we do that from time to time, but it’s really important to also have new creative ideas. Let’s offer the space to young people to keep the art fresh and new and very 2016 and forward-moving. History means you have a reference point. You have something always to ground yourself with, where you came from, and the people who are teaching you now, where they came from, to learn always from the people who came before you. So now this is your opportunity to be the artist, be the vessel, be the person who’s going to think about what is going to happen in the next 20 years, and what you’re going to pass along.
“To know that you came from some lineage of true artistry- we are going to offer you that, so you don’t feel lost in this process of trying to be a working artist. To be yourself, a creative person in New York City, is a hard thing to do, so we have a home to offer you, a home to finally do what we’ve wanted to do, 100%.”
Alpha Omega is hosting a “Back on the Block” Celebration at Peridance on July 30, 2016! Visit their website for more information, or connect with them on Facebook @aotdc.
Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company
Back on the Block Celebration!
Saturday, July 30th at 8PM
Salavatore Capezio Theater at Peridance
126 East 13th Street
Katie Dean is a writer, designer and performer, currently writing occasionally for Culturebot. She has a BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University where she studied Dance and Choreography. She has performed recently with artists including Phoebe BerglundXavier Cha, Melanie McLain and others, and is currently in projects with artists Kim Brandt, Julie Mayo and Nadia Tykulsker.