"More drama!" Ballet teacher Priya Shah is rehearsing twelve young dancers in Alley Ensemble, a humorous, bowling-themed ballet they'll perform for the AileyCamp annual performance on Thursday, July 29, at Zellerbach Hall (Bancroft Ave. at Dana St., Berkeley).
The show will mark the stage debut of the majority of the fifty campers, who range in age from eleven to fourteen. For the many attendees from challenging family situations, the AileyCamp is also their first time experiencing consistent structure and guidance toward their goals.
Co-founded by Alvin Ailey in 1989, AileyCamp came to Berkeley in 2002 under the sponsorship of Cal Performances. For six weeks each summer, campers take master classes in ballet, modern, jazz, and African dance while practicing conflict resolution and critical thinking. Transportation, daily breakfast and lunch, uniforms, and weekly field trips are included. And it's all free of charge, thanks to grants and donations.
AileyCamp may be free, but the kids earn what they learn. "Those who came in not knowing what to expect, and came with some pretty rough backgrounds, had moments where either they were going to pull it together and focus, or they were not gonna make it through," said Shah. "It's that intense."
David W. McCauley, AileyCamp's avuncular charter director, agreed: "I try to be very clear — yes, it's camp, but it's hard work. One of the kids went home and told his mom, 'It's like boot camp!' One of the biggest things that we're working with is understanding yourself, understanding your behavior and being able to control your behavior."
But camp wouldn't be camp without fun, and plenty of it. Thirteen-year-old Jolisa of Oakland loved the African dance classes led by Naomi Johnson Diouf, artistic director of Diamano Coura West African Dance Company. "You move a lot more than in any other class!"
"Everybody's nice," said fourteen-year-old Khori of Vacaville. "You get to meet new people and make friends, and work with lots of types of cultures."
Whatever brings kids to AileyCamp, they leave with lessons for a lifetime. "Being here for six weeks doesn't necessarily tell them where they're going, but it gives them the tools to find their direction, which is something we've lost in this generation," said group leader Yejide Najee-Ullah, who attended Berkeley's first AileyCamp and recently graduated from Smith College. "I'd like to say I'd be where I am today without AileyCamp, but I know it's not true."
Celebrate the campers' accomplishments at a jubilant show that includes modern and African dance, a Maori haka, and "I Been 'Buked" from Ailey's beloved Revelations. Like AileyCamp, it's free — and always filled to capacity. Advance tickets required. 7 p.m. 510-642-9988 or CalPerformances.org