The Ailey Experience 2016 at the Atlanta Ballet, February 6, 2016

Lisa Johnson-Willingham (Director of The Ailey Extension) and Brittnee Buley (Founder of ATL Dance Source)

Lisa Johnson-Willingham, Director of The Ailey Extension, shares her thoughts about continuing the legacy of Alvin Ailey 

Sometimes in life you come across people who are simply destined to make an impact on the world. People who are meant to leave an everlasting impression that will shape the next generation of creative minds. That’s exactly how you can personify the life of Lisa Johnson-Willingham. Lisa is the Director of The Ailey Extension, a program designed to make dance accessible to everyone and carry on Ailey’s legacy that dance comes from people and should be given back to the people. In efforts to keep Ailey’s legacy alive, the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre along with Lisa Johnson-Willingham have taken things one step further with the implementation of The Ailey Experience. The Ailey Experience gives dancers from around the world the opportunity to train and perform in a variety of techniques, while introducing them to an exciting world of choreography, creativity and fun in a non-competitive environment. By keeping Ailey’s purpose at the forefront, Lisa Johnson-Willingham is the perfect person to lead the Ailey Experience and carry on Alvin Ailey’s historical vision of diversity within the dance community. Lisa’s passion for the company permeates through her spirit and the love that she holds for the company exudes through her movement as she makes an impact on dancers all over the world.

While traveling to Atlanta for The Ailey Experience 2016, we had the opportunity to sit down with Lisa to discuss her journey with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, as well as her plans for the future with the company.

As director of The Ailey Extension, what are your goals for the program in the coming years?

Lisa Johnson-Willingham: My program is real classes’ for real people. In 2005, Ailey opened its doors to the general public to expand on Mr. Ailey’s legacy of bringing dance to the people. That’s my goal, again to always remain on our mission to bring dance to the people and to make dance accessible to all people. We’ve created so many different programs, including developing dance classes. We have over 80 classes a week and 23 different techniques. Last April we launched the Ailey bar class. We also have workshops and masterclasses. This year we launched a new panel discussion, which we had on Mr. Ailey’s would have been 85th birthday. We had the legendary Judith Jamison, Sylvia Water and Donna Wood speak in honoring and celebrating Alvin’s birthday. They shared their personal stories about Alvin and experience being an Ailey dancer. It was amazing! Again my goal is to try to reach as many of our world family and teach the history and legacy of Alvin Ailey while sharing the love of dance to everyone.

After being a member of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater for six years, how do you think your time in the company help prepare you for your role as director of The Ailey Extension?

Lisa: As a company member, you have Judith Jamison as your director. I watched, learned a lot and it prepare me because of the legacy of the company. As a young inspiring dancer I learned all about the Ailey Company. I was a graduate of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, so of course from my humble beginnings I was taught about Alvin Ailey and his legacy. Once I became a member of the company, I watched Judith Jamison lead the company with so much success, elegance and passion. Based on her relationship with Alvin Ailey it was definitely helpful and inspired me to want to become a leader and to share in his legacy. Also I was the director for Ailey camp Chicago for 10 years, so that prepared me for the Ailey Extension.  

With the return of The Ailey Experience to Atlanta, how does Atlanta dancer stand out from other cities?

Lisa: I just have fun with Atlanta dancers. They come ready! They have a little flavor. A little southern flavor. They know a lot about the company. I think the connection of the Ailey Company in Atlanta is a very great relationship. They come open to learning more about the Ailey organization and learning Revelations, which I’m sure they’ve seen several times.

We know you use to dance with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, what are your thoughts on their recent expansion to Atlanta?

Lisa: Congratulations to Desmond Richardson and Dwight Rhoden. I think it’s a great move for the organization and the company. Of course Desmond and Dwight have a relationship with Alvin Ailey. They were former members of the company. They’re both legends in the dance world. I think Complexions is a perfect fit for Atlanta and I believe they will bring a really special program to the city.

Lisa Johnson-Willingham, when did you fall in love with dance?

Lisa: I think I was dancing out of my mom’s womb. I was born to dance! I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Dance to me is a part of who I am. I didn’t have to fall in love with dance. It was already there. It was a part of my DNA.

What advice can you give someone pursuing a career as a professional dancer?

Lisa: Perseverance and steadfast! Stay on that road and get through those obstacles. Try not to put yourself in a box. Learn everything you can about dance and make connections while you are in college to prepare yourself for the real world. Don't allow anyone else to put you in a box. You have to love it!

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in Robert Battles Awakening. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

On Friday evening of February 12, 2016, we had the opportunity to attend the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater performance at the magical Fox Theatre in downtown Atlanta. We were absolutely blown away by the company’s performance. Every year the company has the ability to plateau to another level of creative movement. From the breathe taking techniques to the vivid inventive illustrations, Robert Battle and the dance company never fails to experiment outside of the box, while at the same time keeping the essence of Alvin Ailey’s historical aesthetic and diversity among the dance works.

After sitting in on The Ailey Experience and attending the company’s performance at the Fox, there’s no surprise why Ailey’s legacy lives on all over the world. And with amazing people like Lisa Johnson-Willingham caring Alvin Ailey’s torch, the company will forever influence the next generation of dancers and make an impact on the dance community.

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