The small stage was unpolished, the overhead lighting dim and the sound system scratchy.
But the power of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre to reach across cultural barriers and capture an audience's attention was as evident yesterday in the Robert Poole Middle School gymnasium as it has been on many an international stage.
And the appreciation shown by some 100 students at Poole -- a Hampden school where racial tensions prompted a visit by Mayor Kurt Schmoke in March -- was in its way as heartfelt as that at any glittering opening night performance.
Near the end of the hour-long dance assembly, the five Ailey dancers were joined onstage by about a dozen members of the audience for a quick lesson: blacks beside whites, boys beside girls, students beside faculty and staff.
"It was fun being with them on stage, but embarrassing being in front of my friends," said Stephanie Hitt, a white eighth-grader who was cajoled from her front-row seat by a couple of the Ailey dancers.
"I liked when they did this," said Claudette Scott, a black seventh-grader, mimicking one of the graceful hand movements the Ailey dancers demonstrated. "When I grow up, I'm going to do this."
Poole principal Mary Silva said it was "so great to have the white students come up and dance side by side with the black students." She also was glad for her students, black and white, to see a black cultural group that did "more than rap or break dancing.
"There's something beneficial in all cultures," she said. "You try to get students to understand that. Once they understand, they can respect and appreciate."
As she spoke in a hallway leading from the gym, a white student told her, "That was good dancing, Mrs. Silva," before darting into the restroom. "And he's an avowed skinhead," she said, referring to a white supremacist group that earlier this year had distributed leaflets in the all-white community surrounding the racially-mixed school.
The Ailey dancers' appearance yesterday, led by Baltimore School for the Arts graduate Wesley John
son III, was part of the first day of the educational outreach portion of the company's new Maryland residency. Groups of five dancers went to five different Baltimore middle and high schools; in all, Ailey dancers will conduct similar assemblies in nearly 40 schools throughout central Maryland this spring.
Ann McIntosh, executive director of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre Foundation of Maryland, said the cost of the outreach program is $200,000, or about a third of the cost of the company's residency. Also included were three performances at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, appearances throughout the state by the junior troupe and a performance by the main company June 27 at the Columbia Festival of the Arts.
"We think [the school performances are] the most important part because of what they will do for the kids," she said.
Yesterday, Mr. Johnson answered questions from the students, including how much money Ailey dancers earn (they start at $454 a week), whether the dancers make up their own dances (they don't) and whether every dance has a story.
"Great question," Mr. Johnson said. "Every dance in the Ailey repertoire does because it's dance theater."
And yesterday, at a school that has experienced racial tensions, the story was about reaching across barriers -- if only for a moment.