Dance In Conversation
JEROBOAM BOZEMAN with Erica Getto
ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE COMPANY
June 8 – 19, 2016
Jeroboam Bozeman began his dance training in middle school at the Ronald Edmonds Learning Center. Each time that he entered the studio, he passed two posters. Both featured dancers from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. “I would look at them,” he recalls, “and I would just be in awe.” Bozeman soon joined Creative Outlet, where he worked with artistic director Jamel Gaines. He then danced with Philadanco, under Joan Myers Brown; Spectrum Dance Theater, under Donald Byrd; and Ailey II, under Troy Powell. Now in his third year with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company, Bozeman is a breakout star. He will perform with the Company at Lincoln Center from June 8 – 19. The Rail’s Erica Getto spoke with Bozeman about his upbringing, his latest work at Ailey, and his mission to cultivate the greater good.
Erica Getto (Rail): How have your Brooklyn roots shaped your professional career?
Jeroboam Bozeman: There is this place in Brooklyn called the Von King Cultural Arts Center. I remember going there to be in taekwondo classes, and then hearing the dance music upstairs. I was like, “What is going on up there?” And I remember seeing the older kids dancing and thinking, “This is what I want to do.” The experience of performing at a very young age—it’s all out of excitement, no notes included. I think those classes were the beginning of my trying to find my voice and what it is I really enjoy.
Rail: You spoke with the New York Times last year about your childhood, specifically a move from Brooklyn to a Bronx homeless shelter. How do you feel about opening up, and what has been the response to your story?
Bozeman: I had been holding this burden for so long, and always felt “less than” because of my struggles. I didn’t feel as though I was worthy enough. So it was time to let go. Getting an opportunity to share that story was only to inspire others. I wanted people to hear it and say, “Oh my God, I had no clue. But if he can do it, I can as well.” And that’s what I have been getting back. It was just an overflow of positivity and I’m so grateful.
Rail: When you danced with Philadanco and Spectrum Dance Theater, you lived in Philadelphia and Seattle, respectively. You’ve mentioned that you preferred the slower pace of living in these cities. Can you explain that preference?
Bozeman: My friends laugh at me because I operate very slowly. I walk slowly, sometimes I talk slowly, I warm up slowly—everything just needs to marinate for me. Sometimes the fast pace is tunnel vision, and we don’t get an opportunity to take a moment and go, “Okay, where am I? What are my surroundings? What’s going on around me?”
Rail: You first toured professionally at the age of sixteen, and you have continued to perform in different cities and countries with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Do you have a standout memory from these travels?
Bozeman: We were on tour in South Africa in October and I got an opportunity to meet this young boy named Judah. His mom told me this incredible story about how even at the age of four he had overcome all of these adversities. In my first encounter with Judah, he jumped out of his parents’ car and sprinted past his mother, teachers, and friends to me with his arms open. And when I gave him a hug, I immediately burst into tears because I felt so deeply connected with him. And that’s been one of my most memorable experiences, and I think why it’s one of my favorite places. When you’re touring, you get an opportunity to cross paths with kindred spirits.
Rail: You take care to mention people who have supported you in some way during your career. What has mentorship been like for you, on both sides of the picture?
Bozeman: I am always searching for guidance and in need of clarity. I think it’s necessary: that’s what our elders are here for. They hold so much information, and I feel as though we don’t take advantage of that enough. We’ve gotten so accustomed to social media and other types of networks—and those are great outlets, but the true stories and the authenticity comes from your elders. They’ve experienced it. They’ve witnessed it. Being a mentor now feels a little awkward because I’m only twenty-five, so I still have so much to learn. But I think there is a high level of responsibility within this organization, and the platform that we’re given is so huge. It’s my duty to cultivate the greater good. My friends will be like, “Yep! Cultivate the greater good. We get it! We get it!” But that’s always been my focus.
Rail: You were determined to join the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, auditioning for the company five times. What did it mean for you to finally make it into the Company?
Bozeman: When I first auditioned for Alvin Ailey, I was very young. They probably don’t even remember it, because they see so many dancers. It wasn’t until I joined Philadanco that being a professional dancer and dancing at that caliber was possible. When I was in Ailey II, my mindset was to train myself as if I were in the main company. I remember I always came [to rehearsal] with my dance bags, and the dancers were like, “Oh, do you know that there are lockers downstairs?” And I was like, “No, I’m not going to put my stuff in a locker. I don’t intend to stay here that long.” [Laughter.] Being in the Ailey organization meant a lot to me—[the main company] was so close, so tangible, and I think, “Wow, it became possible.”
Rail: You’ve used the hashtag #blackboysdancetoo on social media, and you’ve mentioned that the first thing that you recognize about yourself is that you are a black man. What has been your experience performing Alvin Ailey pieces like “Revelations” that grapple with questions of race and cultural heritage?
Bozeman: They say you haven’t become an Alvin Ailey dancer until you perform “Revelations.” It’s the company’s signature work; it’s our masterpiece. That ballet comes from Ailey’s blood memories—things that he experienced and watched. And it is a reflection of American culture. These are the trials and tribulations of our country. But it can still be joyous and show a sense of resilience—and I think that’s the beauty of it. I think that’s why the piece is so powerful. Every time I get a chance to perform it, it’s an opportunity to share my story and to share the greater story.
Rail: As the artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater, Donald Byrd also touches on this dynamic between rawness and resilience in works like “Love”. What have you taken away from your time performing under Donald Byrd?
Bozeman: Donald Byrd is a genius. He’s not afraid to take risks; he’s not afraid to share what’s personal—in its rawest form. Usually I shy away from that approach because I am not a confrontational person. But what I love is that he’s not afraid to say, “This is what it is.” Or, “This is what I’m feeling in that moment.” Or, “This is what my focus is.” And I appreciate that. I think he has given me a sense of confidence.
Rail: So, what’s the next step on your personal journey?
Bozeman: I am not a “short-term person.” I think that’s why I’m in love with the organization. Maybe it’s the stability and the security that I enjoy. So thinking far ahead, I just want to continue to inspire individuals. When we’re younger we have all these crazy dreams, and as we get older we call them frivolous. But I want to keep that adolescent energy alive. The idea that dreams are possible and you can obtain them. It requires work, but it’s possible.