Hope Boykin, trying to describe the origin of her choreography’s striking iconography, recalls how her mother got her attention in church. “She’d point. One finger went up, and I could see it from way in the back . . . from anywhere.” A cautionary gesture—and, baby, one was enough! You can see the consequences of that lesson Wednesday, when Boykin and other dance artists—all black women—show their own work at Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors.
A sensational presence in Complexions, Philadanco, and now the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Boykin learned from Mom to rivet our eyes on arresting images. Launched on the State Theater stage in Ailey’s Blues Suite, with her elfin frame, close-cropped hair, and wraparound grin, she’s an unmistakable center of heat and joy. She blends in well with the tight, turbocharged Ailey ensemble (now less a company of stars than a company as star).
A Howard University psychology major, she studied dance at the American Dance Festival and D.C.’s New World Dance Company. As an Ailey Center intern, she assisted Milton Myers and the late Talley Beatty. Steeped in the Horton, Graham, and Dunham traditions, she loves earthy, full-out choreography: finely sculpted, expressive movement that challenges both body and mind.
Philadanco’s artistic director, Joan Myers Brown, recalls taking Boykin into the company in 1994 after several auditions, working diligently on her “weight and attitude.” She adds, proudly, “I saw a spark in her that, if nurtured, would turn her into exactly who she is today.” In 1998, the young artist won a Bessie Award. One smitten journalist renamed her Hope Beacon.
In March, Boykin and other emerging black female choreographers presented dances in Roger C. Jeffrey’s handsome “Subtle Changes: Speaking in Truth” program, to be reprised this week. Included will be modern, stylistically diverse works by Boykin, Kerri Edge, Jamie Philbert, and Laila Sales; African dance by Cheryl Godineaux; and tap by Ayodele Casel.
“Not all fierce dancers are also great choreographers,” observes Jeffrey. “Hope is dynamic. I had to have her!”
One evening, after a long Ailey rehearsal, Boykin runs through a section of her work in progress, Excerpts . . . of Me, with young, doe-eyed Juilliard student Michelle Smith. They’re struggling to fine-tune Smith’s role in a trio (to be performed with Camille Brown and Shaneeka Harrell) set, in part, to Schubert’s Ave Maria. Dancing side by side, they modestly shift their bodies in the air—a gentle stirring—but soon they resemble jazz angels on a mission, troubling the waters. When Smith races ahead, Boykin regards her with maternal concern and barely concealed merriment. “We’re made of the same cloth,” she says, “We like to turn fast, but we’ve gotta slow . . . it . . . down!”
Boykin frames Smith’s beauty like a Renaissance portraitist—presenting palms at precise angles, face tilted just so. Smith’s impulse undulates from deep in her upper back, surging like a bolt of electricity through her right arm, out her wrist and . . . yep . . . there’s that pointed index finger, now aimed toward God. Unlike the happy flurry of index fingers in Ailey’s Revelations, this finger stabs the sky. Unlike Michelangelo’s Adam, she wills to connect.
Whether mentoring students like Smith, playing a toughie in Blues Suite, or swirling in Revelations‘ waters, Boykin embraces a historic, still-potent legacy. The stage summons her, and like her mother sitting in that church pew, she calls everyone to attention: “I am here!”