As part of Lincoln Center at the Movies: Great American Dance series, there will be a nationwide showing of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater ( AAADT ) Thursday, Oct. 22.
An integral part of AAADT ( which is based in New York City ) is Chicagoan Vernard Gilmore. Having grown up in Englewood, Gilmore has toured globally with Ailey II and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for 20 years.
He is also a choreographer, including for the Ailey Dancers Resource Fund, a benefit performance held annually which raises money for current and former Ailey dancers in order to assist with career transitions, choreographic projects, and loans for injury-related emergencies.
Windy City Times: You reside in New York, but you're a Chicagoan at heart?
Vernard Gilnore: Of course! [Laughs] I try to come back two to three times a yearfor my grandmother's birthday, our dancing and just hanging around. I don't have any favorite spots, but normally I catch up with friends; a couple of friends from college love to take me to that restaurant, RL [Ralph Lauren]. Everyone loves it because it's so chi-chi, but I love gyros and French fries, or some rib tips.
WCT: I thought dancers lived on kale.
VG: Don't get me wrong; I do like the kale. But I'm a Libra, so it's all about balance.
WCT: Switching gears, would you say that performing at the White House [in 2010] was a highlight of your career?
VG: Oh, yeah. I was lucky and blessed enough to grow up with the company while [Obama] was running for president. We got to meet the family on several occasions while we were in Chicago. I went out to St. Petersburg's College in Jersey to hear him speak, and I was just enamored. And then watching him come full-circle and become the president, and then watching us becoming more connected to the White House because Michelle loved the companyit was just magical, really. I have my picture with them sitting on my mantel; I'm very blessed.
WCT: You came to Chicago back in 2012, when a plaque was dedicated to Alvin Ailey at the Legacy Walk. What did that mean to you?
VG: Ohany time I can give back to Chicago fills my heart. I'm so thankful I grew up here and that I'm the man I am because of core values. Going back to the city always reminds me of who I am and why I do what I do. For me, I know I'm supposed to give backthis city has done so much for me. If I can just change one person, that's the most powerful thing, because that's what happened to me. Mr. Ailey was so giving of himself. I'm overly honored to do something like thatto give back. Representing the company in my hometown is something I don't take for granted.
WCT: I'm assuming you didn't get to meet Mr. Ailey [who passed away in 1989]. What would you say to him if you had five minutes with him?
VG: AhI'd have, like, 500 questions! I'd first say I was lucky enough to have met his spirit through his dancers and people such as Judith Jamison, which was really phenomenal. Dudley Williams, another person who [reflected] Mr. Ailey's spirit, taught me "Revelations."
I'd definitely ask him about his genius and his process. I get images and see them very clearly and distinctively, but I'll sometimes look at his works and say, "Wowthat's genius." It's something I strive to have. He also had this amazing way of communicating; I try to pride myself on being a great communicator, although I don't know if everyone would agree with that. [Both laugh.] It's important to be a great communicator.
I'd also have a thousand questions about his ballets, why he'd want to have a repertory company, where did he see the company going and how he stayed connected to the pastjust thousands and thousands of questions.
WCT: A while back, I asked [Chicago dance legend] Joel Hall if it's easy being gay in the world of dance. He said that being gay isn't the problem, but that there was a racial divide regarding opportunities and jobs. Would you agree?
VG: Well, you realize that you're in the entertainment business. But when you're in thatand what I had to learnis that people have their vision about what they want to put out to the world. You have to respect their decisions, like you want them to respect yours.
You just put it on the marley [dance floor]; just put your work out there on the dance floor if you feel you're not being respected. Nothing has been given to me; I've worked hard to get where I amand to stay where I am. Someone is going to see your light if you're doing your work.
I grew up in a dance environment where there were no color barriers; that started at Joseph Holmes. That was my first experience understanding that I don't have to think of myself as being in this box. What's important is the danceand if we dance, we can dance together.
I'm not blind about what's happening in the world. There was this big thing about Misty Copeland [who made history this year as the first African-American female principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre], but there were so many other wonderful Black ballerinas before her. I'm happy for her, but we can't ignore that there are so many other wonderful artists out there. Just worry about what you can control; you start to elevate yourself and you start to bloom as a human being.
I was in school when people would ask, "You dance?"but I never let it define me. Even my homosexualityI don't let that define me. I let my morals, values and "innate intelligence" define me.
WCT: Let's talk about Lincoln Center at the Movies. It's actually a series, right?
VG: It is. When you dance for Ailey, you have to be "on"but sometimes it may look a little routine. We got a chance to sit back and watch the movie on Oct. 6, and it was pretty amazing. I'm not usually a fan of watching myself dance on video, but there were some really nice moments that I enjoyed, and I think capturing those moments was really important.
WCT: And it's not just dancing, right? Are there also behind-the-scenes moments?
VG: You get a little of behind-the-scenes. I wish we could've talked a little more about "Chroma," because Wayne McGregor was one of the most amazing choreographers I've worked with, and I've been with the Ailey organization since '95. He's a great communicator, and he knew how to get what he wanted from you in a way that felt like you were working together. Every moment with him was [educational] and inspirational.
We also show Ronald Brown's "Grace" in the movie, and I've been with "Grace" since its conceptionso it's kind of hard to step away from it. It was a bonding moment for me and nine other dancers, so it holds a very special place in my heart. This ballet was a way for us to exhale, to let ourselves go. At the end, someone would be crying on stage; it was that moving.
WCT: October is National Coming Out Month. Who was the first person you came out to?
VG: I guess it would have to be my mom, and I came out to her my junior year in high school. My mom was great; I was very lucky. My family had been well-exposed to gay people before I was born. It wasn't a great shock or something that was forbidden. More than anything else, she was probably afraid for mebut she became my best friend at that moment. My mom is totally great. [Laughs]
Sometimes, I meet younger guys who haven't come out to their families. I always tell them, "Your mom always knows."
WCT: How would you define dance?
VG: Dance is a universal language; that's as simply as I can put it. When you say that, it encompasses the ability you have with that universal language. The power of art is that it's a universal language because it can move people, no matter what the discipline. That's the most powerful thing about danceit can speak to anyone. It just connects you, and I think that's one of the tools the Great One has given us.
To find out where Lincoln Center at the Movies: Great American Dance is playing, visit LincolnCenterAtTheMovies.org .