Greensboro, N.C. -- The arms, Judith Jamison tells the dancers during rehearsal, should go "whoosh." It's a subtle movement, not easily defined in the vocabulary of words. But indeed, when the dancers get it right, it's as if a current of air has lifted all their arms at exactly the same moment, and they look like a flock of birds rising over the horizon.
It's a common motif in the repertory of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater -- it turns up in two of the four pieces in this particular evening's show alone -- and the wind beneath those wings, it can be argued, is Judith Jamison.
First on stage as its most indelible dancer ever and now as its artistic director, Ms. Jamison has always seemed the standard-bearer of the crowd-pleasing company. Since taking over after the death of its visionary founder in 1989, she has shored up both the artistic and administrative ends of the company and kept it viable with new ventures, such as a teaching and performing residency in Baltimore that is now in its third year and brings the company to town tonight for a weeklong stay. During the week, the company will offer lecture-demonstrations, a master class and, of course, performances.
But make no mistake about it, the company that Ailey created in 1958 to bring a uniquely African-American sensibility to modern dance -- and to make it accessible to audiences in both world capitals and small towns alike -- remains guided by that original vision.
"My vision is the same vision as his," Ms. Jamison, 48, says of her mentor, who died of terminal blood dyscrasia, a rare disorder that affects the bone marrow and red blood cells. "Spiritually, we walk together. Spiritually, he is here with us. I'm standing on his shoulders, on the foundation he already built."
Quite an image that is, of this soaring, 5-foot-10-inch woman atop the shoulders of the equally towering Ailey. But on this bright winter day, she seems more down-to-earth than distant diva, dressed in baggy black from head to toe, covering the gloriously long dancer legs that she displays in a current Hanes pantyhose ad.
And she seems more mother hen than legend as she shepherds her dancers through the nuts and bolts of the company on tour -- checking out of their hotel, rehearsing the four ballets in tonight's program, fitting in a dance class, performing to a sold-out audience and, finally, boarding a bus for a midnight ride to the next one-night stand almost 200 miles away.
"We do it for laaaaaaahve," Ms. Jamison trills mockingly.
Ms. Jamison, who can be rather brusque and imposing in interviews, is surprisingly relaxed and funny today. For all the glories of her career -- guest appearances with Mikhail Baryshnikov, starring roles on Broadway and with various European opera companies -- she seems in her element here, amid the hubbub of another stop on a five-month tour to bring world-class dance to the masses.
"It's like when you're a child, and you don't want to go to sleep," Ms. Jamison says with relish. "You don't want to miss anything."
Not even the bus trips and the chilly college auditorium -- where one of the first things she does is stomp her booted foot on the stage to test how punishing it's going to be on her dancers' legs.
She is completely solicitous toward her dancers, understanding
what their lives are like. Ms. Jamison began her own dance training at age 6 in her native Philadelphia and was discovered by Agnes de Mille, who cast her in a 1965 Ballet Theatre piece that required four black dancers. She wasn't kept on with the company after that season -- a tall, black ballerina hardly fit ballet's conventional aesthetic then, or even now -- but later that year joined Ailey's company, where she captivated audiences, critics and the choreographer alike.
"She was a dancer totally unlike any other," marvels Clive Barnes, the New York Post's theater and dance critic and a longtime Ailey company watcher. "Partially, it's the way she looks, like an African goddess. But also, she had a very individual style of movement, both graceful and gracious. She was unique: She was a large dancer, and I don't just mean that she was tall; she occupied a lot of space. She had weight, not physical weight, but weight of statement.
"To understand her as a dancer, you have to look at 'Cry,' " Mr. Barnes says of the monumental solo Ailey created for her in 1971. "It virtually represents everything about her. What Ailey captured was her essential woman-ness. Jamison had this quality of universal womanliness, and Ailey caught that in 'Cry.' "