Alvin Ailey dance troupe settles into Baltimore, starting its part-time residency


October 18, 1990|By Jean Marbella

If it's Wednesday, it must be Baltimore.

And even compared to the more exotic locales that preceded it in the past month -- the Soviet Union, France and England -- Baltimore looked awfully good to the tired eyes of Judith Jamison, artistic director of the globe-trotting Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

"My dancers get to unpack their suitcases and stay in one place for five weeks," said the regal and statuesque Ms. Jamison, 46, who spoke at Morgan State University yesterday. "That's

wonderful for us."

Starting Monday, Maryland will provide a much-needed spot for this company of frequent fliers to alight. The week-long series of master classes that Ms. Jamison will teach at Morgan State marks the beginning of the company's part-time residency in Maryland, a relationship that has been under negotiations for nearly two years. In addition, the company will rehearse and perform in Baltimore in January and February, and participate in the Columbia Festival in June.

The renowned modern dance company comes to Maryland at a turning point in its 32-year history. Ms. Jamison, the company's star dancer for some 15 years, took over the reins after the death in December of the only person who ever led it, founder Alvin Ailey. And financial problems, which have beset many dance companies, also have visited the Ailey troupe, which decided to seek rehearsal space away from high-priced Manhattan.

"Evolving is my favorite word now," Ms. Jamison said in an interview yesterday after she joined Gov. Donald Schaefer, Mayor Kurt Schmoke and others to announce details of the upcoming residency.

"[The company] cannot sit there and be a museum," said Ms. Jamison. "It's got to be constantly breathing and feeding itself."

And she intends for Maryland to provide some of that sustenance.

"We'll evolve into what the community needs," she said. "I want to find out what is uniquely Baltimore and what is uniquely the state of Maryland."

Even sitting stock still, the 5-foot-10-inch Ms. Jamison bears the grand carriage that made her such a bold and charismatic figure during her 15 years of dancing with the company. And her direct, listen-to-me speaking manner is as commanding as her presence on stage, where she performed roles tailor-made for her by Mr. Ailey.

His spirit is still very much alive in the company, Ms. Jamison said.

"He was so specific about his African-American heritage, but his message became so universal because he always choreographed works that spoke about the human condition," Ms. Jamison said.

"The company will always be really aware of our heritage, our American classics. Europeans have 'Swan Lake,' we've got 'Revelations,' 'Cry,' 'Blues Suite,' " said Ms. Jamison, referring to the company's signature pieces.

Ms. Jamison was spotted by the legendary Agnes de Mille during a master class at the Philadelphia Dance Academy in 1965 and invited to perform with the American Ballet Theatre shortly thereafter. She met Mr. Ailey by chance -- she was auditioning for a television special with Harry Belafonte and although she failed to get the part, she caught the eye of Mr. Ailey.

Thus began one of the great choreographer-dancer partnerships all time. She also began choreographing while performing with the company, and went on to found her own company after she stopped dancing.

And now she faces the bane of all arts administrators -- tight

finances. The company has accepted sponsorship from Philip Morris, despite possible controversy over taking money from a cigarette company. But this is all she'll say about that:

"I don't talk about it. I say thank you very much. I say, support us, please. If you're having a wonderful experience watching us dance, feel free to give us money," Ms. Jamison said.

Money is high among the reasons for establishing residencies in other cities. In Maryland, the company will receive $110,000 in state arts funds, as well as private donations that will pay for its residency here.

The Ailey troupe also has a residency program in Kansas City, but Ms. Jamison rejected the notion that it might be over-extending itself.

"I don't know what it means to over-extend myself. They've been telling me I've been over-extending myself for 41 years, and I'm still here," she said. "Spreading the word is important to me, and not missing a single generation of children or their parents."

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