'I'm Serious,' Says Comic Ballerina Marilyn Banks, with a Wink

updated 06/22/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/22/1981 01:00AM

There probably haven't been so many chuckles about dance since Donald O'Connor twirled into a brick wall in Singin' in the Rain, and they certainly haven't come in so-called "serious" modern dance. But now a 5'3½" rubber-faced ballerina has emerged as the comic prima of Manhattan's Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Marilyn Banks, 27, has become the company's new star after playing an urban fox in Suite Otis (a tribute to the late blues singer Otis Redding) and a frazzled disco dolly in Tilt. Her wacky exuberance has so charmed the critics ("A tiny comic explosion," wrote Jennifer Dunning in the New York Times) that Banks bids fair to inherit the top spot in the Ailey troupe. The previous star, the statuesque Judith Jamison, defected to Broadway for Sophisticated Ladies. For Marilyn, the sudden attention is disconcerting. "So what can I tell you," she sighs. "I'm out there dreaming of being 5'10" and as lyrical as Jamison, and everyone is calling me the I Love Lucy of dance."

The oddest part is that at first nobody noticed Banks was funny. "I didn't even know she had a sense of humor," claims Ailey. Marilyn herself insists, "I went to the Juilliard School 10 hours a day for four years just to become a serious and fine dancer with a strong technique." Suite Otis added a new dimension to all that. Suddenly Banks commanded attention, and she notes, "Even in other ballets where I just run around in a circle with everybody else, they inevitably single me out, saying, 'Just watch that little one. She's wild.' I ask myself, 'What did I do?' But then you come to the conclusion that you don't know what you're doing."

Banks' humor may have been slow to show, but she's always been a dynamo. Born in Harlem, one of nine children ("My mother wanted to let my father know how much she loved him") of a car mechanic, she was the smallest but most frenetic of the lot. "I was like a waterfall that didn't stop," Marilyn recalls. "My mother didn't know what to do with me."

When she was 12, an uncle formed an Afro dance company, and although Marilyn was too young to join, she was sent to rehearsals to cool off at his heels. After two years of watching, she became a member of the troupe, and then, still in high school, she borrowed a shocking-pink leotard twice her size to audition for a scholarship at Clark Center for the Performing Arts in Manhattan. She won. For her stipend she scrubbed floors. One day at Clark she ambled into a studio where Ailey was rehearsing his new (and now famous) Cry with Jamison. "It was very calm and beautiful," Marilyn recalls, "and I thought, 'I'm going to be just like her.' "

She never quite made the height, but in 1972 Banks got into Juilliard. "I didn't know how to read music and I didn't know how to speak to the people in my classes," she says. Her body spoke eloquently enough. "She was outstanding from the beginning," says director Martha Hill. "Marilyn had unusual discipline and such joy in moving. She was like sunshine." Ailey also spotted her, and in 1977 recruited her for his company.

These days Marilyn lives in a spacious apartment near Columbia University with three male dancers, a four's-company, nonromantic arrangement her mother still isn't used to. ("Okay," Mom demanded when she heard of it, "which one's the boyfriend?") Marilyn is the males' den mother. She does the cooking and scolds them if they stay out late. "I've discovered motherhood without having any children," she quips.

Since her leap into the spotlight, of course, life has changed. She no longer has time to make her clothes and she speaks of someday teaching and choreographing. But her only real worry at the moment is that, although she also does lyric roles beautifully, she may be typecast as a comic. "I wonder if Richard Pryor has this problem," she says. And, naturally, that, too, gets a laugh.

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