Judith Jamison: Sustaining The Ailey Tradition

February 10, 1991|By Mike Giuliano

Even seated, Judith Jamison is a tall woman. Her black dress is like a waterfall that has a long way to go before reaching the floor. Her earrings are no mere circular dots, but likewise dangle down.

"People are intimidated by me because I am taller than everybody else. I'm able to see down the block. I look stern, so people think I'm stern, all 5 foot 10 of me," says the modern dance giant from her suitably lofty 30th floor suite in the Tremont Plaza Hotel.

As artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which performs at the Mechanic Theater on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, this former star dancer with the company is a passionate advocate for her late mentor's modern dance tradition.

When Ms. Jamison talks about the "heart and soul of danccoming from someplace in here" -- pointing both hands inward to her solar plexus and then extending her arms like fully spread wings to either side of her -- one understands what a marvelous bodily instrument Ailey had for much of his best choreography. One can see why Ailey once called her that "tall, gangly girl with no hair."

Her forceful presence in Baltimore extends far beyond thiweek's performances because the company's recently initiated Maryland residency program means many more concerts, master classes, school visits and summer camps in the years ahead.

"I think it's a fair exchange, because Baltimore has been growing and changing, and the Ailey company for the past 32 years has been growing and changing. There is a sense of challenging audiences, of forwardness, in the company that can be shared with the city.

"Thank God Baltimore is our second home, because the dancercan unpack their suitcases here and be in Maryland long enough to find out about the state," she notes, although some details about rehearsal space and performances during the extended stay in April and May have yet to be finalized.

The close working relationship between Ailey and Ms. Jamison over the years made for an extremely smooth administrative transition following Ailey's death in December 1989. An admiring James Backas, executive director of the Maryland State Arts Council, who was instrumental in arranging the residency here, observes that the New York-based company's administrative team carried on "without missing a single performance," and planning likewise went ahead for the residency.

Asked about the transition, Ms. Jamison's firm voice softens just a bit as she describes the "tangle of emotions" she felt about putting her own dance company and other career possibilities aside in order to assume leadership of the Ailey troupe.

But there was never any doubt about what she should do.

"I saw things in a direct light. Alvin asked me to take over for him. You don't question what you know is important. The Ailey company was this idea of his since 1958. It is an American institution moving around the world since then."

A measure of her respect for the late director is her conversational habit of alternately referring to him formally as "Mr. Ailey," and more casually as "Alvin."

Judith Jamison and Alvin Ailey represent one of the great pairings of choreographer and performer in modern dance history. Although Ailey did not exactly discover her -- Agnes de Mille gets credit for that -- once the young Ms. Jamison had stumbled his way, the result was dynamic.

The daughter of sheet metal worker and a former high school athlete, Ms. Jamison grew up in Philadelphia, where she studied ballet, then attended Fisk University in Nashville before switching to the Philadelphia Dance Academy (now the University of the Arts).

She made her New York debut in Agnes de Mille's "The Four Marys" with the American Ballet Theater. Her fateful first encounter with Ailey came about because of a failed audition for a TV special. As Ms. Jamison ran out from the audition she almost tripped over a guy sitting near the stage -- the guy was Alvin Ailey. She joined his company in 1965, and came to embody the choreographic style that Ailey developed through his daunting career total of 79 ballets.

Among them was what would become Ms. Jamison's signature piece, "Cry," in 1971. Its dedication suggests the feminine strength and spirituality conveyed by the choreography: Ailey called the piece "a solo dedicated to and about the fortitude of black women, especially our mothers."

She left the troupe after 15 years, starring in the Broadway musical "Sophisticated Ladies" and as a guest performer with other companies. In 1984 she choreographed her first work for her former director, "Divining," and created new works for Maurice Bejart, Dancers Unlimited of Dallas, the Washington Ballet and Ballet Nuevo Mundo de Caracas. And she choreographed her first opera, Boito's "Mefistofele," for the Opera Company of Philadelphia in 1989.

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