Perfect kickoff Ailey dancers raise money and hopes


THE ALVIN AILEY American Dance Theater performed before a sellout crowd at the Mechanic Theater last night in what appeared to be the perfect kickoff to a three-year residency in Maryland.

After an enthusiastic audience gave the dancers a five-minute standing ovation, nearly 500 of the company's staunchest supporters, who had paid from $100 to $250 a ticket for the evening, retired to the Omni Hotel for some dining, dancing and all-around celebrating.

The Valentine's Day party marked the beginning of a fund-raising campaign by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater Foundation of Maryland, the local group that hopes to raise $2.5 million to support the company's many workshops and performances in the state during the next three years.

Two more performances will be given tonight and tomorrow night at the Mechanic. They, too, are sold out.

As politicians, artists and business and community leaders mingled, sharing champagne and roast beef and listening to the music of Brenda Alford and her jazz trio, superlatives about the Ailey company and the potential for dance's growth in Maryland flowed freely.

"My hope is that the foundation really takes hold and is able to replicate what we saw tonight in every county in Maryland," said Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a member of the Congressional Arts Caucus who has supported efforts to raise money for the statewide program.

Ideally, the residency program will bring the professional dancers into Maryland from New York City for extended periods over the next three years to spread their expertise and enthusiasm, not only in the local dance community but to potential devotees of dance.

On the agenda are workshops, school and community demonstrations, master classes, rehearsals, performances by the company's junior troupe and a summer dance camp at Morgan State University for underprivileged youth.

The first "outreach" portion of the residency is set for April 27-May 19, said Marsha Reeves, marketing director for the foundation. Company members will give performance workshops at 20 public schools in Baltimore City and at 20 more schools throughout the rest of Maryland as well as at a few community centers and hospitals.

If they incite nearly the response then that they did last night, success seems inevitable. Several times during the program the audience erupted into applause at the dancer's prowess, and when the final selection ended the crowd stood for five minutes, until at last the 18 dancers persuaded the audience to clap them through an encore of "Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham."

"It was wonderful," said Sylvia Brown, who at a pre-performance cocktail party was one of many admirers who stood in line to meet Judith Jamison, the company's executive director. A fan of modern dance since her college days at Howard University, Brown nevertheless had never seen the Ailey company perform live. "This is the first time I've seen them perform in person. And am I impressed," she said.

It's just that sort of dance patron the foundation hopes to inspire with the Ailey company's presence in Maryland, said Ann McIntosh, executive director of the foundation. The ultimate goal, she said, is to improve the popularity of the entire dance community in Maryland, including the smaller, local groups that often struggle for an audience.

"People come out of this company's performances loving dance," said Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, director of the Maryland Film Commission, who stood out in the crowd of tuxedos wearing an anti-censorship T-shirt instead of a formal shirt. Schlossberg-Cohen, who has followed the Alvin Ailey dancers for 20 years, said their ability to engage the audience is what makes them so successful.

"They're energetic, athletic, enthusiastic -- I think they're the best dance company in the world."

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