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YSU hosts Ailey II dance troupe

Submitted photo / Nir Arieli Ailey II’s Travon M. Williams performs William Forsythe’s “Enemy in the Figure,” one of the works the dance company will do Monday at Youngstown State University’s Ford Theater.

When Francesca Harper finished her studies at The Ailey School, founder Alvin Ailey told her she always would have a place at the school and with the dance troupes he founded, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Ailey II.

But Harper also wanted to pursue ballet. She hugged her mentor and embarked on a career that included stints with Dance Theater of Harlem and William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt, roles on Broadway in “Fosse,” “All Shook Up” and “The Color Purple” and serving as ballet consultant on the Oscar-winning film “Black Swan.”

“I came back to Ailey every summer,” Harper said. “I started choreographing there. I was always drawn to coming back to the Ailey organization.”

Harper now is in her second season as artistic director of Ailey II and working with former students from the school where she studied and where her mother served as director from 1984 until her death in 2010.

She will be with Ailey II when the dance company performs Monday at Youngstown State University as part of the Pipino Performing Arts Series

“It’s been a very interesting journey,” Harper said. “Having lost my mother, it was very painful to walk into the building. The grief was really profound for me, but over time it (diminished) and now walking into the building is an absolute joy and I celebrate coming full circle to be a part of this legacy.”

Ailey II is performing a rotating repertoire of nine works on its current tour, and the Youngstown date will include “mediAcation,” a piece by Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrisn that had its world premiere Tuesday in Columbus; “The Hunt” by Robert Battle, artistic director of the main company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; “Psukhe” by Andrea Miller; and “Enemy in the Figure” by William Forsythe.

“These are works on the brink of what’s fresh and new and edgy,” Harper said. “‘mediAcation’ explores relationships and the impact communication through social media can have on them. She has created this wonderful work that uses ropes as a metaphor for relationships or the lack thereof and captures the angst of social media while revealing the need for people to connect.”

“The Hunt” is an older work by Battle that is given a new twist. Exploring the parallels between contemporary athletes and ancient gladiators was written for an all-male cast of dancers, but Harper is presenting it with all women.

Miller is a choreographer known for her visceral and imaginative works, Harper said. The title “Psukhe” is an ancient Greek word meaning “life’s breath, spirit and soul.” It’s also the origin of the English word psyche.

“Enemy in the Figure” gives Harper a chance to stage a piece by another one of her mentors, and the dance work incorporates radical use of light and shadow and a propulsive electronic score.

Ailey II serves as a first step in the transition from dance student to professional dancer. The 12-member troupe includes seven new dancers — Spencer Everett, Jaryd Farcon, Maya Finman-Palmer, Patrick Gamble, Kali Marie Oliver, Tamia Strickland and Maggy van den Heuvel (all Ailey School alums) — joining five returning members — Nicholas Begun, Meagan King, Christopher Taylor, Travon M. Williams and Rachel Yoo.

Talent obviously is a primary requirement, but it wasn’t the only things Harper considered in assembling the troupe.

“Their analytical skills, the way they interpret the choreography and their own voices, the own sense of expression and their own ideas,” she said. “I’ve added improvisation to those skills. I’m looking for the next generation of thinkers and creators.”

If you go …

WHAT: Pipino Performing Arts Series — Ailey II

WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday

WHERE: Ford Theater, Bliss Hall, Youngstown State University

HOW MUCH: $35 for adults, $25 for senior citizens and YSU faculty and staff, $5 for youths and free for children 12 and younger. www.tix.com/ticket-sales/tix/4712/

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