In French, it is called: Je ne sais quoi.
In English, it is called: The “It” Factor. Regardless of language and phrasing, French Guiana native and star dancer Yannick Lebrun has it. He’s got that special something that – along with his intense work ethic – propelled him to become Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s French dancing star. Lebrun hails from Cayenne in French Guiana, an overseas department and region of France. He is the only French dancer in the Alvin Ailey company .
His move to New York City 11 years ago was life-changing, and it also meant that he needed to buy a winter coat. The New York Times said of Lebrun: he’s “the dancer you notice in a crowd.”
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, founded by the late dancer, choreographer, and activist of the same name, is known for its modern, groundbreaking work. The company has a longstanding tradition of bringing bold, original works to the stage. Ailey’s 1960 choreographed work and cultural masterpiece, Revelations, garnered the company, its dancers, and its founder, international acclaim.
Yannick and the dance company recently concluded their December run at the New York City Center, and will soon begin their North American tour (followed by an international one this summer). The company also performs in Paris, London, and beyond; they aim to bring dance to the people.
Lebrun’s dancing is Ailey’s credo in motion. The late Ailey said: “Dance is for everybody. I believe that the dance came from the people and that it should always be delivered back to the people.”
I was fortunate enough to speak with Lebrun at the Alvin Ailey studios in early January.
Did you always want to be a dancer?
I wasn’t sure that I was going to become a professional dancer when I was nine years old, when I started dancing in French Guiana. I was definitely passionate. I thought I was going to keep studying, and then go to France to study. It wasn’t until I came and attended the Summer Intensive Program at the Alvin Ailey School [that I thought about dancing professionally].
When I was in French Guiana, I did a lot of dance competitions. One of the judges for one of them was the late Denise Jefferson. (Jefferson was the Director of the Ailey School from 1984 to 2010.. She came for the competition, and I won the first prize. She offered me a scholarship to come to the Alvin Ailey School. My passion and love for Alvin Ailey grew even more. I was in awe with the technique, I got stronger, I had great experiences during the summer with teachers and choreographers. Then I thought: This is amazing! This is it. I want to do this.
In 2008, I joined the Ailey company.
Why do you love dancing?
I love dancing because, for me, it is a beautiful language. I express myself through movement. When I dance, I feel free. I feel a very high level of joy and happiness.
How long did you train to become a professional dancer?
Prior to the scholarship at Alvin Ailey, I trained in French Guiana at something called an “association.” It’s a school, but it’s a small organization, a small dance studio in Cayenne. I started dancing when I was nine. I studied different techniques…ballet, jazz, African, hip-hop, modern. So, I was very well-trained and versatile. The teacher made sure I could adapt to any style. I started dancing in 1995, and I just kept going. I studied at the Ailey School from 2004 to 2006.
My path in becoming a dancer at the Alvin Ailey company was very unique. In 2007, I was actually invited to perform with the company while I was still in Ailey II, the junior company. It was very strange; I was so shocked, but excited. Judith Jamison, the former Artistic Director, invited me to perform at the City Center for the 2007 season. My mom came to see me do those performances. I gave all I had, and did the best I could. She was very proud.
Then, I went back to Ailey II in January 2008 to finish our season. A very important, mandatory audition came in April 2008 for the company. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Ailey II, or from here, or there – it doesn’t matter. You have to come and audition [to be in the company]. It’s not guaranteed that even if you’re in Ailey II that you will have a spot. So, I finished the season with Ailey II. The last day of my performance, the director of Ailey II at the time, Sylvia Waters, knocks on my door, and says: “Yannick, guess what? The decision of the organization is that you do not need to come and audition tomorrow. You are in the company.”
It was a big moment for me when I found out I was a member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. I called everybody right away. It was amazing.
What do you think of New York City?
I’ve been here 11 years. New York is fantastic. When people say that it is the city where dreams come true…it is true. The American Dream is still relevant. I came to New York City to live my passion, to be a professional dancer. New York gave me the opportunity. I’m enjoying the culture, I’m enjoying the lifestyle.
And the people that live here…there are so many different people. It is really beautiful. I’ve received so much help. People here are willing to guide you and help you, whether it is in your professional career or personal things – New York City will give you that, like this! [Lebrun snaps his fingers] Like as a snap! It sounds a little corny, but it’s true. I’ve had beautiful stories and wonderful connections here, and I feel great being a dancer here with Alvin Ailey.
You’ve performed in Paris – what are some of your favorite things about Paris?
When we get the chance to travel and perform in Paris, I feel at home because I am able to see some family members and high school friends. I’m the only French dancer in the company, so it’s a big deal to not only represent French Guiana, but France as well. The audience in Paris is amazing. It’s one of the best audiences when we go on tour. Almost every night is sold out. People love the company. We just did a four week run in Paris last July. It was incredible. And the city is just beautiful. The company loves it! They say: “Paris, Paris, Paris!” We all love it.
We travel to so many different cities, but the message of the company, and what the founder of the company, Alvin Ailey, created in 1958, it is so strong. It speaks to everyone. It’s a universal message. And people stand up. We always get standing ovations wherever we go. It’s so beautiful to get to travel, and see how people react to the performances. I understand that what we’re doing is very important. It touches people.
How is it different performing in the U.S. versus performing in your native French Guiana?
Unfortunately, I don’t really perform in French Guiana. I go there on break to visit. For my performances, I don’t really change anything where I am. I feel like each performance has to be honest and true, and you definitely have to deliver your best to everybody – it doesn’t matter where you are…South America, Africa, Paris…people expect the best from you. People want to be inspired. People want to leave the theater feeling like they are uplifted. That is our mission.
How is the training in French Guiana different than what you observe in America?
It’s very different. When I trained in French Guiana, I was not in a performing arts high school. I did not have intense training. I don’t come from a ballet school, I don’t come from Paris Opera, or anything big in France. So, my training was very rich, in terms of culture and adapting to different styles. It helped me build a lot of strength, and be able to shift my brain to different styles.
What does dancing with Alvin Ailey mean to you?
It means that I’ve reached one of the highest art forms that exists right now. It is an honor to be part of this company. It is a very important company, very respected, and applauded all around the world. I feel like it means that I belong to this very historical, very poignant heritage. I belong to this legacy.
What does Misty Copeland’s promotion to ABT principal dancer means for the ballet and the future of ballet?
I’ve been applauding her, I’ve been congratulating her – not physically, because I haven’t had the chance to see her yet. But, I mean, it’s huge. It’s amazing. It’s very important to have people of color being shown at the highest level of dance. It’s very important for our next generation of dancers. And it’s very good that ABT is sending that message. It gives hope and opportunities for everyone.
What advice can you offer young people who want to have a career in dance?
If you want to dance professionally, if you really want to be serious about it, you have to be passionate. You have to keep training. You have to be open to different teachers. You have to take care of your body. Being a good dancer requires good health, good diet, and sleep. It requires taking care of your body. It requires being open to different styles of dance. You have to know how to adapt. If you want to have a career in dance, don’t take any connection or any opportunity you have to meet with someone for granted. Take advantage of every opportunity.
Anne McCarthy  is a member of the Soho Theatre Writers Lab in London, the author of Big Macs in Paris, and is a contributing writer to the Second City Network, Bonjour Paris, France Today, and the Walls Street Journal . She lives in New York City, where she is writing her forthcoming London memoir.