I first witnessed the rarefied kinetic poetry of Anthony Burrell in April of 1999. A friend who was the business affairs manager of Ailey II -- Alvin Ailey's junior company in residence -- invited me to see them perform in Harlem. At a post performance reception he introduced me to Burrell, who at 18 had just joined the company, and said with the certainty of a veteran sports agent, "this kid is gonna be a star."
A year later, after graduating to Alvin Ailey proper, Burrell was soon poached by Beyoncé Knowles, and he left the company in 2003 to serve as her lead dancer, choreographer, dance captain and rehearsal director. He would go on to work with the best of the best of the hip-hop and R&B world, including Destiny's Child, Rihanna, Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige. By 2008, Burrell had firmly established himself as the Dance King of Bling. But it was the pursuit of pure artistry that led him back to Ailey. He returned in time for the company's 50th anniversary tour and to perform for President Obama at post-inaugural festivities. I linked back up with Burrell during rehearsals for this week's run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
How and why did you decide to return to Alvin Ailey?
I felt there was a void... there was something missing. When I think of dance and what makes me happy I think of Alvin Ailey. So I gave [Alvin Ailey artistic director] Miss Jamison a call and asked if she would allow me to come audition for one of the open spots. "Only come if you're really ready," she said. A year later here I am.
You and Rihanna were rumored to have been romantically involved. True?
I was Rihanna's choreographer and dance captain. We became very, very, very good friends. We just had a good working relationship. Because we were so close and hung out 24/7 I guess that was the perception. She even invited me on Christmas vacation to see her island, Barbados. Who could turn that down for two weeks?
What was it like to perform for the Obamas?
It was one of those surreal moments in life where you're overjoyed to be a part of history and to have someone so monumental be touched and inspired by something you're doing, when in all actuality you're goo-goo ga-ga over them. The whole company was on a natural high.
Tell us about your performance this Thursday. I understand you'll be featured in three works.
The program for Thursday night is "Hymn," which is one of my favorite pieces in the repertory besides "Revelations." The night before my first audition for the company, I watched "Hymn" about three times and slept with my Bible, with my Alvin Ailey poster inside, beside my bed. It's always been something close to my heart and to be able to perform it now... it's like I'm an Ailey dancer. I'm also one of the lead soloists in "Suite Otis," which is a very soulful piece featuring the music of Otis Redding. The third piece is "Revelations." I never get tired of it. To hear the audience jump to their feet and roar at the end of the "Revelations" -- there's nothing like that! It's something you cannot exchange for anything in the world, man, and I think that's one of the reasons why I'm back here at Alvin Ailey.
The 50th anniversary celebration of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre culminates with performances from June 9-14 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. For ticket information visit www.alvinailey.org.