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Theatre & Performance Canadian Rachael McLaren on dancing with New York’s Alvin Ailey company

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Rachael McLaren and Daniel Harder.

Andrew Eccles

Canadian dancer Rachael McLaren had a hard time getting into a preprofessional ballet program – she faced repeated rejections from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School. But McLaren was determined to find a dance milieu where she could train, perform and excel. She moved to New York and, after a summer training with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, she was invited to join the prestigious company in 2008. She has been a company member for eight years. The Globe and Mail caught up with McLaren on the phone from Norfolk, Va. – the sixth stop on the company's 20-city North American tour.

What's your "how I became a dancer" story?

I grew up in Winnipeg, so I was lucky enough to have an amazing ballet company there. I was the youngest of four, and all of my siblings played the piano. Dancing started with music. I was an energetic, rambunctious little kid who liked to jump around and so my mom signed me up for some dance classes. But as soon as I saw the Royal Winnipeg Ballet perform live, I was so mesmerized that I just knew that that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a ballet dancer. Period. That's it.

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So you graduated from the RWB School?

No. When I was about 15, I realized that having a professional career as a dancer was a thing – and I aspired to it with a fire and a passion. My goal was to get into the Royal Winnipeg Ballet Company. I started auditioning for their professional program, but they never saw me as a fit. This was my first closed door. I continued taking classes in the recreational division, but I was heartbroken and didn't know where to go.

What reasons were you given for these ongoing rejections?

They didn't say much. They kind of say, "I'm sorry, you're just not a fit. I'm sorry, this is just not a place for you." That leaves a young girl to speculate. I was one of the only black students at the school. And I recognized that there weren't any women of colour in the company and so I wondered if that was also a factor. I have an athletic build – I was a skinny, trained ballet dancer, but no one really looked like me there. I had nothing physically to aspire to. I kind of loved that they said "no" to me – it made me want it even more. When I saw photos of the Alvin Ailey company for the first time, and I saw that there were women onstage who looked like me, that changed my entire world. I thought: "I don't care if you say no, Royal Winnipeg Ballet. If that's not it for me, I'm going to go find it, and I'm going to go find it in New York and no one can stop me."

Tell me about dancing with AAADT. What are the particular challenges as a performer?

We're a repertory company and that means we have choreographers from around the world. I get the opportunity to dance to everything – we have Jiri Kylian, Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon in terms of contemporary ballet work. We also have hip hop, like Rennie Harris of Puremovement from Philadelphia and then Ronald Brown, who's an African modern dance creator. The challenge is being able to be amazing in every style.

Are your strengths still classical – are you considered a bunhead in the company?

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Ha, you know, my ballet training has established a foundation for me. But I've really embraced modern dance. Alvin would always say that his ideal dancer would have a ballet top and a modern bottom, meaning you have the port de bras and you have that regal quality on top, but you know how to use depth and feel the weight in the bottom half of your body. I would say I exhibit a blend of both.

What's your favourite piece in the company repertory?

I'm going to have to say Revelations – it's Ailey's masterpiece. He choreographed it when he was 29, in 1960. The piece has such universal emotional – universal themes of struggle and joy. We perform it everywhere we go. Another of my favourite pieces is Cry. Alvin choreographed this incredible solo for his mother in 1970 and this is one of the pieces that catapulted Judith Jamison [artistic director of AAADT from 1989 to 2011] to international stardom. I performed it for the first time this year; Jamison came back and set the piece on me. It's been an incredible highlight.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years as a dancer?

I'll certainly be teaching. I think it's very important to spread the love, spread the knowledge, because this is one of the best jobs in the world.

Why is it such a good job?

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I get to be vulnerable at work every day and there's a lot of power in that, in having a connection with people and being able to share what you're passionate about. Dance is everything to me: It's my heart, it's my first love.

Any choreographers in particular that you're dying to work with?

Ah, well, she recently passed, but I am such a huge admirer of Pina Bausch and her company. I love Mats Ek and Crystal Pite – her work is unbelievable. When you're able to pull out the essence of humanity and put that onstage through dancing bodies, it's magic.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will perform at Toronto's Sony Centre March 4-5.

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