Shall We Dance?

Photo by Melissa Dooley

Photo by Melissa Dooley

What’s new this fall with the Alabama Ballet.

by Phillip Ratliff


When Alabama Ballet Artistic Director Tracey Alvey called me, she was in her car, en route from her rustic home in Winston County to her company’s studio on Third Avenue South. A persistent hum of road noise permeated our conversation and I could tell she was in work mode.

“I live on Smith Lake, in a cabin near Arley,” she says in her dulcet British way.

“Ollie? Where’s Ollie?” I ask.

“Arley. Arley, Alabama!” She’s slipped into an exaggerated southern accent. “I don’t know how to describe where it is. It’s between Jasper and Double Springs. And Cullman. Between Jasper and Double Springs and Cullman. Every time there’s a tornado, we’re the place that’s hit,” she says, back in British. “The phone will ring and we’ll get a weather warning. I’d rather just sit here and be surprised. We’re on Smith Lake. Where are you going to go?”

The commute is an opportunity, for one whose professional life is often a whir of physical motion, a chance to settle in, make phone calls, clear her head. Contrary to her title, Alvey doesn’t enjoy a purely artistic existence. She balances budgets, commissions new works, contracts personnel, and keeps her fingers on the public pulse. She does all this with one goal in mind: presenting artistically and financially viable productions to Birmingham audiences.

This September, Alvey and the Alabama Ballet hope to engage a special thrill-seeking segment of their public with their annual At Home performance. Presented in a black box theater setting inside the troupe’s studios on Third, At Home allows audiences to hear dancers breathe and grunt, see muscles flex and sweat drip. It’s a view of ballet stressing physicality over the effortless elegance one perceives from greater distances.

As Alvey describes it, At Home will be an eclectic evening of dance, built up out of several past and upcoming performances. Chief among those works is Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo. Besides being an undisputed masterpiece, Rodeo is a quintessentially American work, rich in folk idioms, both musical and choreographic. You probably know the score from the beef commercials of decades past. Its associations with American mythmaking led me to ask an impertinent question: “What does a British-born artistic director see in this piece?”

“I think it’s indicative of a bygone era. It’s about a love triangle. It’s the pathos of being the ugly girl, overlooked by the man she adores. She realizes that what she had craved was right in front of her. That’s a universal story, even though they’re dancing to western music and wearing cowboy boots. It’s so sweet. It’s a wonderful ballet. Cowboy hats and boots make it that much more enjoyable,” she says.

Photo by Melissa Dooley

Photo by Melissa Dooley

To mount the production, Alvey brought Paul Sutherland from the Agnes de Mille Foundation. Sutherland danced in Rodeo several years ago and has staged it and other Agnes de Mille pieces all over the world. For four weeks last March and April, Sutherland coached Alabama Ballet dancers on the execution of the beloved piece. Besides ensuring that staging and choreography stayed true to de Mille’s vision, Sutherland influenced the production in less tangible ways. “It wasn’t just him putting the sets up,” Alvey says. “He told stories, offered up anecdotes, gave examples of what dancers should be thinking and the thought processes of the choreographers. It was really enlightening.”

Alvey says she will close off the season with another evocative period piece, Sir Frederick Ashton’s pretty Victorian scene, La Patineurs. Ashton’s is a whimsical story about ice skaters gliding across a make-believe frozen pond. “Look for girls in bonnets and ear muffs, gloves and scarves,” she says.  Alvey danced La Patineurs some 20 years ago with Alabama Ballet choreographer Roger Van Fleteren in a London City Ballet production.

We continued to talk for some time, about the ballet’s upcoming season and how the company will reimagine the technical direction of Van Fleteren’s Dracula and mount a new production of Cinderella. As we talked, the white noise from Alvey’s car increased to something of a roar. “It’s about an hour and ten, an hour and twenty minutes, from home into Birmingham.” We’re both yelling now. “I’ve been living there about five years, but it’s easy driving. When Corridor X is fully connected it will be even easier. Eventually this road will stretch all the way to Tupelo,” Alvey says.

She continues: “Being English, I’m used to a commute. In London, everywhere you go takes at least an hour. It’s not that I don’t like the driving. I do. With Bluetooth I can do all my calls!”

I paused a moment to savor the irony, that Alabama has somehow managed to enlist at least one Brit in its never-ending discussion of Corridor X.

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