NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his series, “One On 1,” with a profile of one of the great dancers in American history; the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Judith Jamison.
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A winter's day, and Judith Jamison is doing what she's done thousands of times as artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater - leading rehearsal.
"I'm probably like a lieutenant, or like a sergeant, like a staff sergeant or something,” she says. “Technically, I want exactly what I say to happen. But then I don't want it to freeze you up — I want it to free you.“
This is an exciting time for Jamison and the Alvin Ailey Company. They are celebrating their 46th season; the financial troubles that threatened the company in the early 90's are gone; there's a new book chronicling the company's journey, entitled "Ailey Spirit;" they're preparing for national and international tours this year; and they've settled into their new home on West 55th Street.
"I don't know any other artistic director who has a ’job’ like this, where you put it in the winds, you pray for it, and it comes true,” says Jamison.
A night at Ailey is a combination of new pieces and old favorites. The company's signature piece is called "Revelations," which explores the African-American experience. It was choreographed and debuted by Ailey in 1960.
Thousands of performances later, Jamison and the Ailey dancers still rehearse it as if the next performance is the first.
"We do it so often, and I can't afford to have it slip into any kind of sloppiness or any kind of sense of rote,” says Jamison. “It always has to be spirit-felt."
But like a musician who must perform his signature song at every concert, does performing "Revelations" ever feel like a burden to Jamison and the company?
“I'd say an American masterpiece isn’t a burden,” she says. “I think, count your blessings. It's kind of like asking, ÎIs ÎNutcracker’ a burden?’ But it can be replayed because it touches the heart the same way no matter where we do it. We can do it in Japan, we can do it in Paris, we can do it in South America — it doesn't matter, everybody still has the same reaction."
Jamison was named artistic director of the company in December 1989, at the request of her mentor, Alvin Ailey, who died that same month. He created specific dances for her, like the 15-minute solo "Cry" in 1971 — dances that brought her worldwide recognition.
You can certainly still see vestiges of the younger Jamison as she leads rehearsal.
“I won't do what my parents and grandparents do; ÎWell, back then...,’” she says. “I can't stand doing that and I try to catch myself from doing that. But if you really mess up, I will dig up history for you.”
And there's quite a history for Ailey and Jamison, who came to New York to stay 40 years ago. There's an appreciation for that history, but little time or desire to dwell on it.
“I believe in always stepping forward and taking chances and being on the precipice, and being afraid but still taking that chance,” says Jamison. “That's the nature of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. That's been the nature of my life."
Much of Judith Jamison's youth growing up outside Philadelphia centered around the arts.
“I'm 62 and I can still hear my father singing to me as a child,” she says. “I can still hear what we sounded like at Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia."
There was singing, and playing piano, but mostly there was dance. Jamison would one day be known around the world for her dancing, but she ironically was introduced to dance to help her with grace.
“I was a gangly, really stumbling over my feet kid," she says.
From the very beginning Jamison challenged notions of what a dancer's body should look like.
“I was always a different child,” she says. “You know, my parents told me to take pride in that difference. When I went to dance school, you know, they're telling you, ÎStand up. Make longer lines.’ I was already long, so all I could do was go longer. What an advantage, right? Here was this long, dark-skinned, gangly little black child with pink ballet shoes on, and I looked down at them and the world was right, it was fine. There was nothing wrong with that. And I was studying something that I could do well, and the only thing I was told was, ÎYou're supposed to be the best.’”
Jamison's high school yearbook entry, class of 1961, indicates she was a pretty busy young woman.
"Look at all the stuff I was in: A Capella [Choir], basketball, nurses aid, library aid,” she says.
Jamison says the plan at the time was to study medicine, but she eventually turned to dance. She came to New York, joined Ailey in 1965, and started dancing and touring around the world.
“We would get 20 minute ovations in Germany, Holland and France,” she says. “Nobody would write about it. They'd write about it there, but you’d never hear about in the United States. Then we'd come back home, dance here, and the same thing would happen - nothing."
Until, Jamison says, a 1971 New York Times rave review, which Ailey read to Jamison over the phone at 4:00 in the morning.
“He was down on the corner of wherever he was living waiting for the New York Times to get dropped, and he read it to me over the phone, and I went right back to sleep,” she says. “I woke up the next day, and all of it broke loose."
Jamison was described as Ailey's muse, and with dances specifically choreographed for her, Jamison garnered worldwide attention.
“Our relationship worked because we acted like human beings,” she says. “We would get mad at each other, we would fight, we would laugh until we were on the floor. As artists, when you are willing to give that much of yourself to another person, and they are willing to give it back to you, then there's something magical that happens.”
There were performances with guest stars like Mikhail Baryshnikov, and international appearances and honors, like the National Medal of Arts, a primetime Emmy, and a Kennedy Center honor. But the traveling and the demands of the job were all-consuming.
"I could never get a man to understand that I had to go on the road and be away,” says Jamison. “I had for a little while somebody that I thought understood that this was the life. I fell in love lots of times. So that's a sacrifice.”
But Jamison says the Ailey Company is her family. She says she'll always have the pain of Ailey's death with her, but she'll always have his spirit around, too.
"He had that magical union with several people and with a company that can continue because of the magic he created in us, and if I could can it and bottle it I'd sell it,” she says. “But it's something that is intangible that happens with people who really trust each other and are honest with each other and do not hide things from each other.”
In the last few years, Jamison has taken up drawing. She's always loved art, and interestingly uses it to connect a world where she's a newcomer to a world that has been her life.
“How in the world could you see what you saw on that brush and put that on that canvas?” she says. “And I think that translated into dance for me, that I was dealing with a canvas, and that canvas, I could put anything on that canvas that I wanted to that would be visually awesome. And I could do it with my body.”
- Budd Mishkin