First Ranks of Second Companies, Part 1
Ghrai DeVore dances with Ailey II
In a rehearsal for Judith Jamison’s Divining, the dancers of Ailey II move with fierce concentration, obvious emotion and superb technique. One of the brightest fireballs of the bunch is petite powerhouse Ghrai DeVore. With lithe limbs and an exotic face reminiscent of an Egyptian goddess (and matching Ankh tattoo on her back) she’s a mesmerizing, mercurial creature.
Waiting for the music to start, her wide grin and almost boyish presence speak of her youth; she’s just 20. But once she slinks onto the floor to begin her solo, her eyes steady with determination and her fingers twitching with energy, a powerful woman emerges. When she turns, her arms float into shapes as if boneless, demonstrating the legato movement she calls her best asset. In a sharper sequence, she dips into an arabesque, until she has achieved a 180 degree angle without a moment of hesitation. “Ghrai has a unique way of moving. But whatever she’s doing, it always comes from inside,” says Troy Powell, associate artistic director of Ailey II. “She always has something to say via shapes, breath, her face. It’s rare to see that from a dancer her age.
Perhaps the Washington D.C. native’s emotional and stylistic versatility is reflective of her intense training and independent upbringing. Like many dancers, DeVore (her first name is pronounced “grey”) says she “started dancing in the womb.” Her mother, Elana Anderson, was a dancer in the contemporary troupe Deeply Rooted Dance Theater in Chicago, where DeVore moved at age 4. She began classes at the company’s studio and then added ballet training at the Chicago Multicultural Dance Center.
In those early years, DeVore was constantly inspired by her mother. “I was always in the studio with her and I quickly noticed she didn’t ask questions,” she says. “She listened and watched. That’s how I learned to pick up detail and be respectful of the process.”
But it wasn’t until high school that DeVore fully committed to dance, choosing a professional career instead of college. Meanwhile, summer programs at the classical Kirov Academy (in D.C.) and American Ballet Theatre (in New York) moved DeVore into the upper echelons of training. “At one point I thought I’d be a ballerina,” DeVore says. “But I didn’t have the feet, and I wasn’t getting the attention I hoped for.” Study at the more contemporary Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet in San Francisco helped DeVore discover a world that not only thrilled her, but also utilized her particular gifts.
She continued to hone her skill and style when she earned a job with Chicago’s Hubbard Street II (the second company of the jazz dance giant) after graduating high school at 16. Along with the new gig came a new life. “My mother moved back to D.C. to get her doctorate, so I was living by myself,” DeVore says. “It was hard: I didn’t know how to manage. But once I calmed down, it helped me grow up.”
Her dedication and focus were noticed by Sylvia Waters, artistic director of Ailey II. After seeing DeVore at various conferences and asking her multiple times to attend the fellowship and apprenticeship program at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, DeVore finally agreed in the summer of 2008, having always gravitated toward the company. “I grew up watching the Ailey dancers and could identify with them,” she says. “Mr. Ailey was a genius, a leader in expressing the African-American aesthetic. I love getting to bring that to the stage.”
After only a few months, she was asked to join Ailey II as a full company member. Now in her second season, DeVore is enjoying the tight-knit family atmosphere as the group tours and performs at schools and residencies. Though she says it’s sometimes difficult to “get into it” without the lights and costumes (as is the case in many educational situations), the thrilled reactions of the students make it worthwhile.
Even more so, DeVore is grateful that within Ailey II, she has discovered her own artistic voice and hopes to someday join the main company. “I’ve developed my own way of thinking about dance,” she says. “At Ailey I found a real balance between the flowy dancer I think I am and being dynamic and staccato, as well.”
With a smile, Troy Powell suggests DeVore’s dreams of the main company aren’t unrealistic: “I can definitely see a future for Ghrai with many concert dance companies, especially this one,” he says. “She’s diverse, smart, and her future is filled with promise.”
Lauren Kay is a dancer and writer in NYC