The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater makes dancing look like magic. When you watch them it’s like a physical manifestation of grace. But, did you ever wonder what inspired them to dance like that?
Answer: Michael Jackson.
Okay, maybe not all the dancers. The King of pop did, however, move Sean Aaron Carmon a dancer going into his fifth season at Ailey.
“Michael Jackson was my very first teacher,” Carmon says via a phone interview. “I was borderline obsessed it got so bad that I would record everything. Remember VHS? I would watch it over and over.”
Is it really that easy? You grab your crotch a few times and you’re in New York?
For Carmon, like many other dancers, the road to being a professional is a combination of talent, support, circumstance, and just luck.
Carmon was born and raised in Beaumont, Texas. His father was very athletic and his parents encouraged him to channel his energy into physical activities.
“I was very much focused on school work,” Carmon says, “but my mom realized I needed to do something more.”
Suddenly Carmon was playing basketball, soccer golf, tennis and running track. He was busy all year round. While commuting back and forth from school to practice, the Carmon family also drove Sean’s cousin to dance class.
“I saw her, doing it (ballet) and the teacher asked me if I wanted to come in,” Carmon says. “I said yes as long as I don’t have to do tap.”
Carmon started in acrobatics and quickly moved through jazz and yes tap. Then at 17 he started ballet – with one caveat.
“As long as I could wear sweat pants,” Carmon says. Being the only boy in the class, he was offered some allowances. The young dancer was taking five classes a week, plus school when one of his teachers showed him Ailey’s Revelations. He didn’t get it right away.
“All I knew was competition dance which was tricks and showmanship. It was a routine. I didn’t understand artistry or quality of movement.” Carmon admits. “My teacher said ‘I think you’ll change your mind.’”
Why are some teachers always right?
Flash forward to this week. Carmon is mentally preparing for performances. The Alvin Ailey company is constantly on tour. And, in case you are wondering, there is no rest time. There are rehearsals, classes and performing for most of the week. Eight shows a week in fact.
When asked about Revelations today, you get a very different answer.
“It’s literally a complete 180 regarding Revelations,” Carmon says. “It’s so strange. I thought I would never want to do it. Now I do it almost 150 times a year. It really did change my life.”
“The first performance I did of Revelations was in Norway. I performed the third day. They put us on stage I remember looking up, my eyes cast up to the rafters, and I knew this is exactly where I wanted to be.”
“I felt completely calm no nervousness, no anxiety, no doubt. It was very clear. It was clarity that there is nowhere else that I was supposed to be except performing Revelations.”
When asked about what he thinks draws people to Ailey’s work and the company, Carmon is quick to offer an answer.
“I think it speaks directly to Mr. Ailey’s directness. He didn’t beat around the bush when it comes to his choreography. He said exactly what he wanted to say. One of my biggest regrets was that I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to meet him.
I ask Carmon to expound on the directness of Ailey’s work.
“It’s so simple and direct in a positive way that you never have to question and I think that is what brings people back. They can’t experience [that] anywhere else. They may not be able to put a finger on it, but they have no doubt that it is a positive experience. They have indeed felt something.”
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We Were There: Sojourners & Her Portmanteau
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Playwright, educator, opera singer, and Queen, Mfoniso Udofia has two plays running at New York Theatre Workshop. *pause* TWO PLAYS. In the SAME season!?!? *ends congratulatory gasp* Sojourners and Her Portmanteau are performed in repertory, as two chapters of Udofia’s sweeping, nine-part saga, The Ufot Cycle. Admittedly, before researching each show, I didn’t know the definition of either word; and in the spirit of keeping it consistent with the honesty, I didn’t like either play. I loved them.
Minimalism seems to be the name of the game these days. I sat down to a completely black stage, sans a multimedia display lodged on the ceiling at a 45-degree angle. Clutching my all white program and bobbing my head to the ‘70s pop rock pre-show music, I prepared my heart for the story of Sojourners, well at least that was the plan. The stage begins to rotate and we meet Abasiama (Chinasa Ogbuagu) and Ukpong (Hubert Point-Du Jour), Nigerian expatriates sojourning in Houston, Texas with the plan to start a family, earn their degrees, and go back to Nigeria until life happens.
Charming and handsome, Ukpong becomes defined by his leather jacket, shoulder work and shimmy which match the fascination and yearning for freedom that illuminates his eyes every time he talks of peace, protest, and Prince–all shaping his view of 1970s America, and consequently, the American Dream. But does leather compensate for grit? Is a movement or vibe really a panacea for disappointment, aimlessness, and a need to find yourself? Abasiama enters the play pregnant, purposed, and outfitted in pieces of Nigerian garb, grounded in duty showing a stark contrast to Ukpong who floats in desire. What’s lost in your household is found elsewhere, and this is when we start to see, and root for, Abasiama’s transformation from timid to tenacious.
Enter Moxie (Lakisha May), a colorful prostitute turned protector and friend. There is a mutual respect despite great differences between her and Abasiama, with their love for one another creating moments that make you believe in the beauty of humanity. Enter Disciple (Chinaza Uche), another warm and determined hearted immigrant who has come to the United States to study, rounding out the timely additions of love, support, and security when Abasiama needed them the most.
Through and through this is Abasiama’s story and she glows. Her kindness, her sisterhood, her strength, her worthiness, and the realization of her American Dream, guide her decisions—which is the catalyst behind the entire Ufot Cycle.
Her “portmanteau”, or red suitcase, makes a return as 30 years have passed. Abasiama now has two daughters, one raised in America and the other who has come from Nigeria to reconnect with her family.
This is a good moment to mention that each story is informed by the other, but can certainly stand alone on substance, content, and the amazing direction of Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. The staging is exciting and deliberate, while minimal, putting the full focus on the tension and growth to be expected of a family reunited after a substantial amount of time and distance.
Chinasa Ogbuagu returns to the stage, this time as the American-born daughter, Adiagha Ufot, Adepero Oduye as Iniabasi Ekpeyoung (Ukpong and Abasiama’s daughter), and Jenny Jules as the mother, Abasiama Ufot.
Seated on a couch in Adiagha’s small New York Apartment, no amount of preparation readies your mind and spirit to form the words to make up for 30 years of life, connection, and memories missed. We’re taken on a ride of resentment, hurt, love, and forgiveness, as the portmanteau is literally unpacked. We watch the teeter-tottering between offense and defense as one sister tries to assimilate into American culture, and the other attempts, albeit stubbornly, to fall in formation in honoring a family she shares blood with, but little time or tangible history.
It’s powerful to see a story of history and continuing a legacy despite lost time, faulty promises, and difficult choices explored with an all-woman cast as far too often the idea of legacy is framed in patriarchy. Jules admirably takes Abasiama through the fire to heal, to feel, and to fix her family. The narrative allows us to empathize and understand the struggle that comes with upholding family values versus cultivating a space to achieve personal dreams and happiness.
Her Portmanteau (and Sojourners) is written in a way that finds your soul, gently massaging it with humor, while leaving it with very real questions. I’ve never felt a greater need to binge read nine stories and simultaneously study the story of my own family tree. I left changed. I left wrapped in the strength of my mom and my mom’s- mom’s sacrifice. I left pensive and with seeds of future forgiveness planted. I left changed.
For capturing our hearts with wit and with truth. For putting Black women at the center of a poignant narrative. For unapologetically telling a story you haven’t seen told and telling it in the way you want it to be told.
We thank you Mfoniso. We thank you.
Have you seen the #duetplays? Sound off in the comments below![/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
Our Story in 2 Plays for 1 Price: Mfoniso Udofia’s Sojourners & Her Portmanteau
Last winter, we reported on Sojourners by playwright Mfoniso Udofia, a new play about a Nigerian family who has come to America with the goal of earning a college education, starting a family, and returning to Nigeria. But not without the twists and turns that come along with every plan that seems straightforward.
Thanks to New York Theatre Workshop, we get to relive this moment and continue the dialogue, decades later, with Her Portmanteau. Performed in repertory, these two chapters of Udofia’s sweeping, nine-part saga, The Ufot Cycle, chronicle the triumphs and losses of the tenacious matriarch of a Nigerian family.
Ed Sylvanus Iskandar directs the two-part story in association with The Playwrights Realm, who premiered Sojourners last winter in a limited engagement world premiere production. Her Portmanteau also received the 2016 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award grant.
As if that wasn’t enough to get excited about, we have an exclusive deal for our Broadway Black readers!
Our Story in 2 Plays for 1 Price!
Yes. That’s two shows for one price! The discount code BWYBLACK will take 50% off tickets to ANY performance(s) if purchased by May 15th!
Go ahead and grab your tickets. We have ours!
Sojourners and Her Portmanteau plays at NYTW until June 4th.