Ailey dancer, Dot native Boyd takes stage by storm
While he was a student at the Boston Arts Academy, Kirven J. Boyd frequently replayed a video of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performing “For ‘Bird’- With Love,” a dance suite dedicated to alto saxophonist Charlie Parker.
“One section, danced to Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘A Night in Tunisia,’ is a fun number that turns the stage into a club scene,” Boyd told the Banner during a phone interview. “The trumpet player’s part is danced by Desmond Richardson. Watching him, I was amazed that people could move like that. Now I do that role.”
Boyd, 24, is now a principal dancer in the company, which last Sunday completed its 39th annual visit to Boston as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston. A lithe, muscular dancer of striking dignity, Boyd danced in all seven performances of the company’s 50th anniversary program.
“I didn’t expect any of this to happen,” said Boyd, a Dorchester native who said he was transformed after seeing the company perform live as a teenager. “I didn’t believe what I saw was real — it was so beyond anything I could imagine doing. But once enough people told me that the dream of being a dancer was attainable, I started to work as hard as I could to make that goal a reality.”
Boyd began his formal dance training as a member of the first four-year graduating class of the Boston Arts Academy, the city’s only public high school for the visual and performing arts. During high school, he also studied dance at Boston Youth Moves, a pre-professional dance program for teenagers, and took dance classes at the Boston Conservatory. He spent the summer before his senior year as a fellowship student at the Ailey School in Manhattan, where he met members of Ailey II, a company of gifted young dancers making the transition from classroom to stage.
During his senior year, when the Ailey company was performing in Boston, Boyd went backstage, seeking autographs. While talking on his cell phone, principal dancer Jeffrey Gerodias waved Boyd over and handed him the phone.
“It was Troy Powell, associate art director of Ailey II,” said Boyd. “He said, ‘Hi, we’re looking for dancers.’”
Dazed, Boyd then found himself talking with Sylvia Waters, artistic director of the Ailey School.
“They’d heard about this ‘boy from Boston,’” said Boyd. “They invited me to come out for an audition. A week later, my nana drove me to New York.”
Boyd completed the audition and left without any hint of the outcome. After graduating in 2002, he planned to enroll at the Boston Conservatory in the fall, but first, he returned to New York for a second summer at the Ailey School, where he was invited to join Ailey II.
“I’ve been in New York ever since,” said Boyd, who leased his first apartment in Harlem two months before his 18th birthday.
Dancing with the Alvin Ailey company no longer seemed like a fantasy.
“I was so determined to do well,” he said. “I felt there was no room for error. If I was going to be in the first company, I’d have to work as hard as I could. Receiving this opportunity drove me more, adding fuel to the flame.”
In 2004, at age 19, Boyd became the youngest member of the main company. He is developing his career with the same verve and passion that he brings to every performance.
“I’ve been very fortunate to be trusted with a lot of different roles,” said Boyd. “I’ve been given a lot of different opportunities I never imagined or expected. Each is another challenge that makes me want to be better, work harder and do more.”
Boyd relishes the variety of the Ailey repertoire and roles that pose harrowing challenges — such as leaping across an unlit stage, as he does in the opening moments of “Episodes,” choreographed by Ulysses Dove (1947-1996).
“While the stage is dark, you run out and jump over another guy’s head, and just as the lights come up, you have to be turning in mid-air,” he said. “It’s a test of nerve. It’s like being shot out of a cannon. You have to completely abandon yourself to do it well.”
Boyd has developed agility and grace as well as discipline, stamina and speed through formal training and a long performance season — the company has performed in 48 states in the U.S., as well as in 71 countries on six continents. But his physical daring and eagerness to perform came to him at an early age. As a 2-year-old, he insisted on joining his aunts in their Double Dutch jump-rope feats; by age 5, he was entertaining his family with his own version of Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” routine.
Whether supplying the boy with a wig to accompany that dance or paying for his dancing lessons as a teenager, Boyd’s family has been behind him from the start.
“I’m my grandson’s groupie,” said Gertrude Shaw, a youthful matriarch with salt-and-pepper hair and a ready laugh. Shaw was attending her third Ailey performance of the week, accompanied by a full-throated cheering section comprising Renee Boyd, Kirven’s mother; Joni Shaw, his aunt; and his sister, Teori Shaw.
“My nana has five girls,” said Boyd. “I’m her first grandchild, and I have a younger brother and sister and a bunch of cousins. Now she lives in Birmingham, Ala., but she sees me in Atlanta and Boston every year.”
Even if Shaw’s grandson is constantly touring, he is not beyond the reach of her home cooking. Shaw came to the closing performance on Sunday with a large bundle for him to take back to New York that included cornbread stuffing, peach cobbler, yams, and macaroni and cheese. The day before, she had brought Boyd his favorite lemon-vanilla pound cake. At the company’s third curtain call, Shaw darted up to the stage and shimmied a greeting to her beaming grandson.
“I’ve had an amazing support group,” said Boyd. “My family knew I had something special. They wanted me to be successful. And they’ve always been there to see the end product.”
Boyd includes his high school teachers in his circle of support.
“They were hard on me, because they believed there was nothing I couldn’t do,” he said. “I didn’t know that. But it was clear to them. The combination of the Boston Arts Academy and Boston Youth Moves got me where I am now. Everyone expected so much from me. So I expected more from myself.”
The company founded by Alvin Ailey in 1958 blends the visceral expressiveness and athleticism of American modern dance with the universal appeal, uplift and power of traditional African American blues, spirituals and gospel music. The company has inspired and developed generations of dancers and choreographers — and captivated audiences throughout the world.
Nurturing audiences and dancers alike, Ailey’s legacy continues to thrive under the leadership of Judith Jamison, the company’s director since 1989.
Formerly a stellar dancer with the company and an acclaimed choreographer, Jamison was Ailey’s protégé and chosen successor.
Boyd performs the spare, taut solo of the Ailey masterpiece, “Revelations,” a suite of dances set to spirituals and blues. His riveting, elegant performance to the old hymn “I Wanna Be Ready” transmits the Ailey legacy and makes it his own.
A shaft of exalting light illuminates the precise movements of Boyd’s body. Clothed in a white unitard, he folds his body back so that his torso is visible as he coils his abdominal muscles, building dramatic tension, and then springs up onto his toes as if drawn skyward. He should topple, but he doesn’t — his improbable triumph of balance a physical demonstration of hard-won grace.
“Every role is a blessing, another opportunity to dance as well as I can,” said Boyd as he arrived at a morning class, with matinee and evening performances still to come. “I’m just trying to do my best at what I’m given to do.”