It’s early Sunday afternoon and Michael Jackson Jr. has just hopped in a cab on his way home from a short video shoot. In the morning, the dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater begins a new tour. There is still much to do, and the energy is high, especially for Jackson. As the face of the 2018 tour, his image represents one of most distinguished brands in the world of dance.
“It’s a mix of emotions to be honest. At first, I was definitely shocked. Along with happiness and excitement, there is a little bit of pressure. Ever since I found out, I’ve been chanting to myself ‘check your ego’. I’m not really that kind of person but something like this challenges that and it makes you extra hard on yourself. I’ve been trying not to do that and accept that I’m representing a legacy beyond me. The people that have been on it before are all people that I look up to. They are all people that I’ve had the pleasure of working with, so it still takes me away.”
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returns with contemporary works that touch on relevant topics and features the beloved classic Revelations, Alvin Ailey’s masterpiece that fervently explores the places of deepest grief and holiest joy in the soul. Presented by the FSCJ Artist Series, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is staged one night only Feb 20 at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater grew from a legendary performance at the 92nd Street Y in New York City in March 1958. Led by Alvin Ailey and a group of young African-American modern dancers, that performance changed forever the perception of American dance. When Ailey began creating dances, he drew upon his memories of Texas, the blues, spirituals, and gospel as inspiration, resulting in the creation of his most popular and critically acclaimed work, Revelations.
“I believe the choreography allows us to celebrate our differences. Everyone wants to stand out in their own way while still creating a cohesive performance. Everyone is so willing to show themselves,” says Jackson. “Mr. Ailey used to say that he wants to see you in the dance. We can all be doing the same steps but I’m not going to do it the same way as anyone else. Our differences are celebrated.”
The program includes a moving tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King with cuts of his voice threaded throughout the piece. The symbolism of the performance is breath taking and the connection to something bigger than himself runs deep.
“Being a black man dancing to his voice is a humbling experience,” says Jackson. “Getting to perform alongside his voice makes me feel like a part of the movement, even though I wasn’t born yet.”
Jackson was born to be a performer, the obvious association with the King of Pop notwithstanding. It’s the elephant in the room with the single sparkly glove that’s haunted Jackson since elementary school. It’s has been both a blessing and a curse.
“It started out as a curse then it became a blessing. In grade school and middle school, I was teased so much for my name. It didn’t help that I was on the Double Dutch team,” laughs Jackson. “We moved to DC when I was 14 and I attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts for dance.”
Originally from New Orleans, Jackson wanted to pursue singing but he missed the vocal auditions. He was advised to audition for another program and transfer later to voice. He never took that next step, training under the direction of Charles Augins
“I fell in love with it and people remembered me for my name. That’s when I finally laughed with them instead of them laughing at me,” he says, though he’s been asked more than once if it’s a stage name.
“Why in the world would I choose Michael Jackson as a stage name? And I have no middle name, so I have nothing to break it up. But I love my name now.”
He became a member of Dance Theatre of Harlem Dancing through Barriers Ensemble in 2005. In 2006, he joined Dallas Black Dance Theatre and in 2008 joined Philadanco, where he also worked as Artistic Director of D3.
Jackson joined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2011 but was sidelined by a knee injury that made him rethink his career as a dancer. Jackson stopped performing but he remained on the periphery, working on the administrative side at a dance studio rather than on the stage.
“I injured my knee really badly and had my second surgery on the same knee. An injury like that forces you to self-reflect. I crazily thought it was the time to stop dancing,” he says. “I was so bored that I would go into the bathroom just to dance in front of the mirror. I missed moving.”
Taking baby steps back into performance, Jackson was preparing for the Vegas show Jubilee when he received a call that a member of his former company was injured. He agreed to fill in and the rest, as they say, is history. Jackson was home. In 2015, rejoined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater as a full-time member of the company.
“It was like I never left. One of my favorite things about this company is its like family,” he says. “I get along with everyone. We have 32 dancers and 10 to 15 people in tech and management. I love everyone and I get something different from each of them. I realized it was more than just dance. I mean, I’m here to dance. That’s my job. But I receive so much more from it. It’s my reason for being here.