NEW YORK -- At the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in midtown Manhattan, an unfinished performance is about to begin.
A small group of press and friends is gathered to see a rehearsal of AADT's "Home," a new piece arranged by hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris, and commissioned by artistic director Robert Battle. "Home" is inspired by the stories of people affected by HIV, and in part, a tribute to founder Ailey, who died of AIDS on December 1, 1989 -- World AIDS Day, and the date that "Home" will open.
The dancers, in loose neon tanks, sweatpants, and sneakers, sit on the floor stretching and drinking water. One does push-ups at a rapid pace.
Battle, who is embarking on his first year as the artistic director of the theater, walks in, dressed in a suit jacket and dark jeans. "I'm the guy in the big picture," he says.
As Battle speaks, the dancers continue to limber up behind him.
Next, Harris in a red Phillies cap and sweatshirt, steps on. "Home," he says, is about "the resistance that happens" when people find out they have HIV.
"You lose friends, you only have God left, and sometimes, the church doesn't even accept you," he says. "It's about the inspiration to live, and also that inhale, exhale when you get information that changes your life."
The piece is also influenced heavily by house music, and going to clubs, he adds.
"A lot of my friends who passed were clubheads -- club was the church," he says. "When you walk into the club and it's the right DJ, and the right song, the right mix, you think, 'If I died at that moment it'd be completely okay.'"
His assistant choreographer, Nina Flagg, stands in the corner of the studio. The dancers have already taken their places across the floor.
"A five, six, five, six, five, six, seven, eight," she says. The counting will continue throughout the rehearsal, taking the place of the music that would be played during a performance. The dancers are spinning, and lunging, hands out, up and down, when Harris stops them.
"It's not like arm swimming in front, it's more like -- " he breaks off and demonstrates. Everyone is watching him, some practicing as he speaks.
They start again from the top, before he stops them again. The dancers have been performing one motion, in which they bring their hands up near their face and shake them back and forth.
Harris tells them the motion should be like "something's real hot. Not so much like shaking, slightly cool, a little bit, maybe a little crumpish."
He shows them. They repeat it. They start over.
This happens a few more times, before Harris steps in front, this time to let the dancers re-settle before the second stage of the rehearsal begins.
"Choreographing is figuring out the puzzle of it," he says. "I layer it until it starts to make sense to me." And transitions, according to Harris, are the hardest part.
"The crux of every work is the transition," he says.
Now the music comes on -- it is, as he's explained, house music, with gospel songs filtered through. With each beat the studio feels as if it's shaking. The dancers’ motions are alternately sinuous or jerky, rhythmic or smooth -- but more than anything, branded with attitude. From the concentration on their faces to the deliberate twists of their bodies, everything telegraphs intense feeling.
Lights up: Whooping, whistling, clapping, and even a few bravos.
"After that I'm going to come out and do my solo," says Harris.
At the reception that follows, the dancers are scarfing down little plates of bread and cheese. Tomorrow, it all starts again.