Monaco Life, in partnership with the Princess Grace Foundation-USA, is proud to present a monthly series highlighting the lives and artistic work of the Princess Grace Foundation-USA’s illustrious Award winners.
In this month’s exclusive interview, Princess Grace Foundation-USA’s Director of Programming Diana Kemppainen catches up with Princess Grace Award winner Jacqueline Green. After 11 years as one of the stars of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre (Ailey), Jacqueline retired from the company to build her own dance training center in Chicago. Below she shares some of her favorite moments with Ailey – from taking on iconic roles, how to maintain her physical and mental health during a rigorous tour schedule, and her favorite travel destinations – as well as the importance of mentors in dance, and her next steps.
For 11 years, Jacqueline Green was one of the stars of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. During her tenure, Jacqueline performed Ailey’s most iconic roles, including those originally set on Judith Jamison. She started her dance training at age 13, and since then has performed works by choreographers Wayne McGregor, Jirí Kylián, Ronald K. Brown, and Kyle Abraham, among many others.
In 2016 she was a guest artist with The Royal Ballet and is a 2018 ‘Bessie’ Award nominee for sustained achievement. Since retiring, Jacqueline is co-founder and co-director of The Dance Prep, a training institution based in Chicago that provides dancers with customised dance training and preparation for a professional career.
Looking at you, you clearly have the grace and stature of a dancer; but you actually didn’t start dancing until you were 13. That’s a little later than most dancers. Tell us how you discovered dance.
I was one of five siblings, and my mum was looking for high schools that were customised for each of her children. Something drew her to Baltimore School for the Arts. It was 2nd in academics in the state; I was a big nerd and was flexible, so she thought I would do well at an arts high school. The audition was my first class – I remember standing there and they were speaking another language, which I later learned was French. The class was ballet, musicality, and stretching. I remember the instructors saying “good, good” to me, and I was accepted. Once school began it was a lot to learn, and my teachers were very good at starting at a basic beginner level for me. When I finally got it, I was bit by the dance bug.
But I still considered it as a hobby because I didn’t see anyone who looked like me with a professional career. It wasn’t until my sophomore year, when Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell (principal dancer with Ailey, now Artistic Director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago) came to the school. She was an alumnus of Baltimore School of the Arts and she took a class with us; she looked like me and she was just perfection. I finally understood that this was something I could do. She was dancing and traveling the world, and I wanted to do that as well. I learned more about Ailey, the company she danced with, and the more I learned, the more I related to the company, its repertory, and history.
Ailey is a demanding company, performing a variety of repertory from Ailey classics using Horton technique to more contemporary styles. How do you prepare for that variety?
My foundation is classical ballet and I went to Ailey/Fordham University for college. I learned codified modern techniques (Horton, Graham, Limón, etc.). Both institutions really prepared me for Ailey’s rep. However, even with all of that, there is still something new and as a professional dancer, you need to catch on quickly. Ailey dancers are superb because they can do any style and look like experts. In my first year in the company, I was the lead in a hip-hop piece by Rennie Harris. Hip hop was not a technique I was familiar with, so I needed to do work on my own and ensure I felt comfortable.
You have taken on some of Alvin Ailey’s most renowned work – pieces that were originally set on the iconic dancer (and former Artistic Director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre) Judith Jamison. How do you take on those roles and make them your own?
It’s always an honor. I was Robert Battle’s (Princess Grace Award winner, 1991) first hire as Artistic Director. Ms. Jamison was still working with the company, and I was able to learn a lot from her.
She set Pas de Duke, a duet she originally did with Mikhail Baryshnikov on me. She is amazing; she would break down every step, and there’s a wealth of knowledge and mentorship. She’s skilled at communicating and helping you manifest the work in your body. Looking back, especially in my new position, I really understand how precious it is.
Ailey is a company that tours – 7-8 months of performance – do you have favorite places and experiences from travel?
Yes! I have a top five: Tel Aviv and performing in Jerusalem; Copenhagen and Tivoli Gardens, it’s the place that inspired Walt Disney; London at Sadler Wells, South Africa was a life-changing experience; and Paris. We would spend three to four weeks there, and it felt like you were living in Paris. You found your lunch spots and practiced your French.
You are on the road so often. How do you maintain a schedule/routine to be at the top of your game?
It’s very individual. For me, I have scoliosis so I have a specific workout I need to do on my own. I also give myself goals for each tour – some of those goals include turnout, alignment and artistry. I appreciate work ethic, and even when I’m off, I’m taking class. For me, it’s a check in for my body.
You mentioned scoliosis. Can you speak about being a dancer with scoliosis?
I didn’t know I had it until I started dance in high school, and it turns out I have a 48-degree curve. Dance educated me about my body. By the time we found out, I didn’t need a brace, my teachers taught me posture and that information was priceless. When you work with the right tools, you can heal it. Now, I know what to look for and how my body needs to feel. Physical fitness will always be a part of my regime.
I learned that Wendy Whelan (former Principal Dancer at New York City Ballet) also has scoliosis. I watched her dance – and again it’s the representation of seeing someone like yourself – and knew that it was not something that could hold me back. I fell in love with it. When Wayne McGregor worked with Ailey, my torso could move in ways that other company members couldn’t, and I loved it.
You joined Alvin Ailey in 2011 and performed with the company for over 10 years. What’s next?
I got married this year, and we were doing long-distance. He’s based in Chicago and I was on the road or in NYC. During the pandemic we literally built a school – we put the floors in – and now we guide students. It’s called the Dance Artist Prep. We customise the dance journey for the young dancer and assist the parents. We help them through all of it; provide resources, training, etc.
My husband was my dance coach, and I worked with him throughout my career. As a professional dancer, it’s your job to maintain your technique and artistry; you should be as good as your audition or better. He held me accountable and I stayed injury free throughout my career. Now we are passing that on to our students.
Was this transition a reflection of Covid-19 or was this long brewing?
In the span of a flight from Iowa City to Dallas, our tour was canceled. At that point NYC was a bit crazy, so I asked to be sent to Chicago. I had my tour clothes for months. While we were there, my husband and I got our own studio for teaching and for me to rehearse in when we were in virtual rehearsals. It really grew from there into what was needed in the dance world.
Last question – you left Ailey at the pinnacle of your career. In some ways this parallels Princess Grace, who also left Hollywood at the height of her career. What would you want to talk to her about?
I would ask her about transference of passion and how is that fueled. For over a decade you’re in an art form that fuels you – your passion, work ethic, routine, etc. and then it’s a complete flip to something else. I have passion and work ethic in working with young people and helping them find their purpose. It’s different, and I would love to know how that felt for her when she transitioned, and her perspective on what’s to come. It feels good right now, and if I could predict, I think it will continue to feel good. It’s different from me being the performer and affecting thousands of people for two hours, versus affecting one child’s life for a lifetime. It’s a different purpose, and seeing how that felt for her.