NEW YORK When Matthew Rushing was a young boy growing up in Inglewood, Calif., his mother was concerned he might fall prey to the gang violence that plagued the area. So she signed him up for an after-school arts program.
It kept the boy off the streets, but also did something his mother could never have predicted: It propelled him into a love affair with dance, a passion thats led him to the very pinnacle of the art form.
If youre a fan of modern dance, chances are youve seen the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, surely the most visible modern dance company in the world. If you have, chances are youve seen Revelations, the companys defining work. And if youve seen Revelations, youve likely seen Rushing slowly undulating his spine in the Wade in the Water section, or pointing joyously skyward in the finale, Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham, both his body and face so immersed in the moment that its difficult to look away.
Dance writer Wendy Perron has that blissful problem. When he enters in Revelations, undulating that spine, I dont want to watch anything else onstage, says Perron, editor at large at Dance Magazine and author of Through the Eyes of a Dancer.
Rushings movement, she says, seems to spring from him like a fountain. You cant imagine him being still.
Perron adds: It would be almost a crime for him to stop dancing.
But three years ago, Rushing almost did.
He was in his mid-30s, often a crossroads for dancers, and had been appointed rehearsal director, a step in a new direction. He felt overwhelmed by the prospect of doing both. But Judith Jamison, the troupes famous artistic director who stepped down a year later, had other ideas.
She was adamant about me continuing to dance, Rushing says. And so he did.
Audiences will benefit from that decision next week, when the company devotes an entire performance of its New York City Center season to honoring him. It will mark some two decades since Rushing, now 38, joined Ailey in 1992, just a few years after another crucial decision by his mother. The company was performing in Los Angeles, but the show was sold out. A ticket scalper offered two seats.
One was in the front row, and one was in the balcony, Rushing says. My mother put me in the front. I saw Revelations, and I saw Cry, which seemed to be about all the women in my life. I hadnt known dance could do that comment on my life experiences that way.
Rushing launched into learning about the company. He spent hours memorizing the biographies of top Ailey dancers, past and present incredibly, 100 of them, he says. Hed write them out on chalkboards at school.
When I tell you I was obsessed with this company, he says, shaking his head, unable to complete the sentence. I knew this was where I was going to be.
At 17, a senior at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, Rushing felt ready to audition for the Ailey school in New York, but couldnt afford the airfare. So a teacher accompanied him to Berkeley, Calif., where the company was appearing. Rushing was offered a full scholarship and a spot in the junior company. A year later, he was in the main troupe.
What I remember is someone so young, but with a desire and a seriousness about the joy of dancing, says dancer Renee Robinson, a longtime mentor. He had a huge, passionate connection to dancing. He also and I was surprised when I saw this had a humorous side. I was so drawn to him when I heard him laugh.
As he rose quickly through the ranks, a journey that led to dancing before four U.S. presidents, Rushing also became deeply involved in a non-dancing activity: outreach. The company spends more than half the year touring the country and the world, and Ailey dancers often teach and perform for youngsters.
I love it, Rushing says. Its part of the Ailey fabric. Youre an ambassador, as well as an artist.
Gaining seniority also meant progressing through the various sections of Revelations, a rite of passage for an Ailey dancer. Its no accident that Rushing is front and center at the end, and last to take a curtain call. He insists that despite dancing the work for more than two decades, he doesnt tire of it.
Im not gonna lie, when youre on tour for months and youve been dancing every night, you ARE tired of dancing, he says. But tired of Revelations? Never. Year to year, I find theres more to experience.
Rushings ability to stay fresh and healthy comes with huge effort that perhaps only fellow dancers understand. Most days start with a gym workout machines, weights, swimming. That warms him up for 9 a.m. company class, which warms him up for a day of rehearsals. If he isnt performing that night, he may go back to the gym for more swimming. He also does yoga and Pilates.
Im dancing next to people half my age, Rushing says. The last thing I want is to look old onstage.
But theres a deeper reason for the effort, explains Robinson, who retired last year after a 31-year Ailey career. You know, Matthew is one of these dancers whos been blessed by the universe with longevity, she says, and its so important for the younger dancers to see it, to see that hes evolved and developed into a richer place.
Its a gift to the audience, too, she adds. THEY experience his maturity, and its special for them as they bring a new generation to the theater, she says. They tell their kids, Wait til you see Matthew Rushing.
Of many experiences Rushing has had as a top Ailey dancer, one is very personal. About seven years ago, his father, who had left the family home when Matthew was young, appeared unannounced at a performance. It was their first meeting in 15 years. He was very supportive, Rushing says of the happy reunion.
Though inevitably, one day, Rushing will stop dancing, he professes to have no idea when.
Im just listening to my body, he says. But you know, when the time comes, Ill be happy, because Ive been so fulfilled. I really couldnt ask for anything more.
Will he become a choreographer something hes dabbled in, but admits he isnt yet comfortable with or even a company director? Rushing laughs off such predictions. The best thing for me is to take it one day at a time, he says. But this company is my life and my home. I have no desire to be anywhere else.
Most Ailey fans would agree.
Every time I see him perform, I think, this is what its like to be born to dance, says Perron, the dance writer. This is a human being doing what he is meant to do.