Disciple of dance Director of Alvin Ailey troupe inspirits late choreographer's vision

November 08, 1990|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Evening Sun Staff

JUDITH JAMISON teaches dance the way she danced herself, with an almost blinding intensity, her power rolling like thunder over her students as it once rolled over her audiences.

She's a cross between a drill sergeant and a snake charmer in jjTC dance class at Morgan State University, commanding the bodies of young dancers through the rigors of modern dance in a patter of orders that could challenge and intimidate even a professional dancer.

And through their nervous sweat, the dance students seem hell bent on pleasing Jamison and a little fearful of the towering woman standing over them, dressed in black.

It is, after all, not every day that a modern dance student from Baltimore gets to take a class with the great Judith Jamison, who in the 1960s and 70s personified the mesmerizing power of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, where she was a leading dancer.

Retired from performing, Jamison took over the job of artistic director in December after Ailey died. At 46, her body no longer has that taut, sculpted look of a dancer.

Her energies have shifted and it seems as if her strength has gone from her long arms and legs to her eyes.

They miss nothing.

To a conga drum accompaniment, Jamison wanders among the sweating bodies, perusing from cheek bone to metatarsal, admonishing the students with rapid fire commands.

"Don't look in the mirror please. . . . Where's your second position? . . . Press hips forward, thank you. . . . This is the only chance you get to look at your feet. . . . I said don't look in the mirror. . . . Sweetheart, there's no roundness in your back. . . . Don't look at me. . . . You're not breathing!"

The students have auditioned just to get into this weeklong class. They're from Morgan, Towson State University, Baltimore School for the Arts, the Peabody Conservatory, University of Maryland Baltimore County, College Park and other schools.

Jamison's recent master class was the beginning of the Ailey company's intermittent three-year residency in Baltimore.

The company and its junior Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble will teach, perform and rehearse in Maryland. Feb. 12 to 17, the main company will perform at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.

Teaching master classes is part of passing on the Ailey legacy.

And Jamison keeps the Ailey spirit alive simply by the the way she teaches people to dance.

"I teach a lot of Horton technique," she says after the exhausting class.

The Horton she speaks of is Lester Horton, Alvin Ailey's mentor. The West Coast modern dance pioneer formed the first racially integrated modern dance company and invented a dance technique that emphasizes strong, earthy body movements from the center of the torso in a style that does not in any way mimic the soft, detached limbs of ballet.

The exercises Jamison teaches in her class are easily recognizable as the underpinning movements in many of Ailey's famous dances.

Jamison's own classes, "Are not pure technique," she says, explaining that she wants her students to dance in the classroom with a sense of style and expression as they would on a stage.

Earlier she told her students to "luxuriate in the movement" and reminded them to end each exercise "with a period, not a little question mark."

Ironically, Jamison's formative years as a dance student in Philadelphia were not as a modern dancer. She studied ballet, was discovered at the age of 21 by choreographer Agnes DeMille who asked Jamison to dance in one of her ballets with the American Ballet Theatre. Jamison was then left stranded in New York.

Although considered a beautiful ballet dancer, Jamison was thought to be too tall (5 feet 10 inches before going up on pointe) and of the wrong race to be a permanent part of the white establishment ballet companies.

After several failed attempts to get dancing jobs in New York, Jamison auditioned for a television musical, standing in her modest tights and leotard among sexy chorus dancers in fishnet tights and double false eyelashes.

Realizing that she had come to the wrong place, Jamison fled the audition, tripping over a man sitting on the steps of the stage. The man turned out to be Alvin Ailey. Three days later he called and asked Jamison to join his young company.

After that, most of Jamison's career was been built on Ailey's vision of dance.

For audiences, the most memorable role Ailey created for her was his solo dance, "Cry," which he dedicated to "all black women everywhere -- especially our mothers."

With that one dance, Jamison unleashed a power on stage that few dance fans have seen before or since.

And after dancing in Europe, performing in a Broadway musical, dabbling in off-Broadway acting and running a company of her own, Jamison is back in the Ailey fold.

Now, everything Jamison does -- from fund-raising to teaching to rehearsing the Ailey company -- is out of a zealous vision to carry forward the work Ailey began 32 years ago when he founded the company.

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