As the only Caucasian in the mostly black Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Jonathan Riseling may seem an unlikely choice as a spokesman. But the company nonetheless recommended him as one of its young dancers most worthy of attention.
"I don't feel like a token," Riseling, 26, said in a phone interview from Tumwater, Wash., where the company was performing before coming to Irvine on Thursday.
"I always felt I was colorblind as well as religion-blind, sexual-preference-blind, etc. It really doesn't matter to me," said Riseling, who will dance in Ailey's "Hidden Rites" and "Revelations" this week.
"I've been with Judy (new company director Judith Jamison) through a lot of the different phases of the company. That may have been the reason they picked me."
Riseling, born in New Haven, Conn., grew up in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., living with his divorced mother. Then they spent two years on a "subsistance farm" in Kentucky. "We raised tobacco and pigs," he said.
That was enough to make him decide to move to New York to live with his father. "But I went stir-crazy," he said. "The city was too loud and too dirty. I hated it. I had gotten used to wide-open fields."
To channel his energy, he began taking swimming, gymnastic and tennis classes at a local YMCA and "on a whim" applied to the High School of the Performing Arts. He began dancing there and also took dance classes at the Joffrey school and the Ailey school.
Two months after graduating, he was scooped up by the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble, the Ailey junior company. He tried to get into the main company for three years and, in 1984, on his fourth audition, succeeded.
But he stayed only for three years because "I was kind of burned out from the heavy touring schedule and maybe a little disillusioned with the personality politics, like who got what roles," he said.
"It's hard to look back at it objectively. I felt that because I am short--5 foot-8 3/4"--I would never get to do the lead roles because they thought I was too short to partner the girls. I certainly thought I was tall enough. . . .
"Part of it, too, though, was that the company was also very strongly based on a seniority system. So there was the size thing, and I was also type-cast to a certain degree. I'm young-looking. It was easy to type me as a boy, rather than a man."
Nonetheless, Riseling was "dancing my behind off."
"In this company, I was in what, in another company, you'd call the corps," he said. "But the corps in the Ailey company does much more than in a ballet company. Often we do more things than the leads do. Once I figured out why I was so tired, I left."
Riseling spent three years free-lancing, doing "all sorts of things," including teaching at the Ailey School for a couple of semesters.
"I took acting classes and voice lessons," he said. "I was feeling very skill-less. What I didn't do was dance. . . . Miss Jamison got me started again."
Jamison was choreographing an opera in her hometown of Philadelphia and later asked Riseling to be her rehearsal director on a Broadway show "that never happened."
In the course of that work, he said, "somehow I ended up dancing again."
Between those stints, he also worked in Jennifer Muller's modern-dance company, "which was one of the better experiences of my life as a dancer. Her stuff feels good to do. It's not as punishing as (choreography) by Graham or Ailey."
Jamison brought him into her own company, the Jamison Project, which she formed in 1988. There he won the 1990 Bessie Award for dancing "Tease," a piece that Jamison had choreographed for the Ailey Repertory Ensemble.
"I was sort of a scuzz-ball who enjoyed manipulating people and messing up their lives," Riseling said. "I enjoyed getting into the character. It was fun."
When Ailey died on Dec. 1, 1989, Jamison was asked to take over the company. Riseling was one of six dancers she brought over from her company.
Recently, Riseling has also begun to choreograph. He said he has completed "two-and-a-half sections" of a three-part AIDS duet with Ray Tadio, "a friend and very experienced choreographer.
"So far, I'm not interested in choreographic pieces purely for dance, for just movement," he said. "I'm really interested in reaching out and grabbing people. My piece is about AIDS, about a couple dealing with it."
Any proceeds from the dance will go to support AIDS research, he said.
"Everyone has lost a friend, a colleague, as well as personal friends within the dance community in the last 10 years," Riseling said. "I couldn't even tell you how many we've really lost. . . . It's been very hard."
* The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will dance Ailey's "Revelations" and "Hidden Rites" and Donald McKayle's "Games" on Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. Tickets: $30. Information: (714) 856-5000.