DT Lifetime Achievement Award: Guiding Light

Posted on August 1, 2008 by

For now, Jamison is focused on the immediate future. “Our wonderful fans are so excited about us being around for 50 years,” she says. “It’s unheard of when you think of Mr. Ailey’s vision: to celebrate African-American cultural expression in the modern-dance tradition of our company [and] of our country, but also to be all-inclusive. That’s why it’s called Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Everyone is accorded the same criteria; you just have to be the most extraordinary dancer in the world.”

Events to celebrate the achievements of AAADT range from free classes and performances in New York City this month to an international tour in September and October. The repertory will include ballets from each year of the company’s existence. Some pieces, including Blues Suite, the first ballet Ailey choreographed, as well as Suite Otis, choreographed by George Faison in 1971, haven’t been performed in quite some time. An 11-minute film, which includes footage of Ailey, will be shown at each performance. “It’s an extraordinary retrospective of 50 years of labor and love,” Jamison says.

The anniversary has even spawned some promotional merchandise, including a limited-edition Movado watch and a Barbie doll created in Jamison’s likeness. “I chose her features, her skin color, the texture of her hair, the position she’s in and what she’s wearing,” Jamison says. “She’s trying to do part of ‘Wading in the Water.’” The doll will be available for purchase in October. Photographer Andrew Eccles has also created a calendar and a commemorative book, both featuring images of the company.

Preserving the passion for the artform tops Jamison’s list of desirable qualities in a successor. “It’s very important for me to make sure that the person who takes over understands the integrity of Ailey, and keeps the generosity of spirit and the flow of sustained love and respect,” she says. “That is the heart and soul of Ailey.” Jamison is considering people from both inside and outside of the organization. (Masazumi Chaya, a longtime dancer in the company who became the associate artistic director in 1991, will remain in that position.)

“I know there will be a change, but there was a change 20 years ago when she became our artistic director,” says Jefferson, who joined the faculty in 1974. “I trust her and her judgment, and I’m sure whomever she chooses, along with our board’s search committee, will be the kind of fit that she was.”

When Ailey was dying of AIDS in 1989, he handpicked Jamison to be his successor, and to continue his vision of a repertory company that gave unprecedented opportunities to African-American dancers. “We’re not going to find another one of him. That’s not the point,” Jamison says. “He asked us all to grow, to be individuals, and I am looking for that individual who understands his or her uniqueness and talent. I want it to be absolutely right.”
It was Jamison’s unique movement style, long limbs and bald head that caught the attention of Ailey, who first saw her during an unsuccessful audition for choreographer Donald McKayle in 1965. Ailey invited the statuesque, ballet-trained dancer to join his company, and later created Cry for her, one of the highlights of Jamison’s life. “I thank God that my parents put me into dance school when I was 6,” remarks Jamison, who began her studies at the Judimar School of Dance in Philadelphia, where she took ballet, tap and acrobatics.

At age 10, during a lecture-demonstration by Pearl Primus, Jamison was introduced to modern dance. After graduating from high school, she spent three semesters at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, before moving back home in 1964 to pursue a performance career. She attended various studios there and in New York City, and began to delve deeper into the artform by studying kinesiology, dance history, Labanotation and the techniques of Martha Graham, Mary Wigman and Lester Horton, Ailey’s mentor.

After performing with Ailey for 15 years, she left to star in Sophisticated Ladies on Broadway. Jamison eventually began her own troupe, but returned to Ailey often as a guest choreographer and to coach dancers in roles she created.

When Ailey died and Jamison stepped in during the City Center season, the transition was seamless, recalls Nasha Thomas-Schmitt, who had been a member of the company for only a few years at the time. While Jamison shares Ailey’s expectations of commitment, passion and a strong work ethic from the dancers, Thomas-Schmitt says Jamison places a higher premium on individuality. Ailey encouraged his dancers to pursue personal endeavors, but Jamison has taken it a step farther by actually initiating discussions with them about their outside interests. She is more liberal about letting company members express themselves through appearance, whether it’s an unconventional hairdo or a tattoo. And she encourages personal interpretations of the work as well. “She was very clear that she did not want the female dancers learning her roles to try and emulate her and repeat what she did, but make it their own,” says Thomas-Schmitt, who learned Cry after being in the company for two years.

Jamison’s successor has a lot to live up to. The company owes both its strong financial footing and worldwide stardom to her. With an operating budget that has grown from $6.5 million to $24 million and an endowment of $22 million, the company can afford to pay its 30 members 42 weeks out of the year. Jamison has also added works from such notable choreographers as William Forsythe, Twyla Tharp, Rennie Harris and Dwight Rhoden to the repertory.

In addition, she is a staunch supporter of dance education. The Ailey School, founded in 1969 with 125 students, now trains more than 3,000 students annually. The Ailey Arts In Education & Community Programs, including AileyCamp, expose children to special performances, lecture-demonstrations, technique classes and curriculum-based residencies. “When I came on, I said I wanted camps to proliferate,” Jamison says. “We started with one camp in Kansas City, and now I think we have nine across the country.” Each camp serves 100 students between the ages of 11 and 14, who until now have had limited exposure to the arts. In addition to technique, they take classes on dance history, conflict resolution, health and nutrition and preparing for the future. The newest program, Ailey Extension, offers classes for the nonprofessional public.

Without such a strong education component, AAADT would be a shell of what it is today. “People in this country are going through a kind of blackout in their minds about how valuable the arts are,” Jamison says. “We like to help children understand what it’s like to be in the theater and to have their own quietly intimate experience that they can have their own adventure inside of. I think it’s so important that they’re educated as well as entertained.”

The sentiment echoes Ailey’s. “His mantra was, ‘Dance came from the people, it should be delivered back to the people,’” explains Thomas-Schmitt, who is now co-director of Ailey Arts In Education & Community Programs and national director of AileyCamp. “It is important that this is not some kind of a bubble where the artists come into the theater, rehearse, perform and go.” Before the company arrives in a city, Thomas-Schmitt and her team hold educational workshops with school children. “By the time we get there they can sing Revelations on time,” Jamison says. “They know how many beats to the bar. It’s quite wonderful what Nasha does in educating young people.”

From the beginning of her tenure, Jamison has ensured the integrity of every workshop, class and camp. “The month after Ms. Jamison became artistic director, she was at the school on Saturdays looking at our junior division program and giving me input on what she felt could make it even stronger,” Jefferson recalls.

Jamison wanted a relationship with Fordham University (there’s now a shared BFA program with Ailey and the university), the inclusion of West African dance in the curriculum (every BFA student now studies the genre and has the opportunity to study Caribbean and Indian dance) and for students to learn about the black experience in American dance (BFA students take an entire course on the subject).

“I’m so fortunate. All I have to do is make a suggestion and it’s done. I got a building built,” says Jefferson, of the new $56-million Joan Weill Center for Dance, which is the largest building in the country devoted to the artform. “She is generous and collaborative without relinquishing her role as our artistic guide, which is extraordinary.”

Jamison approaches her role as executive director the same way she did each performance—with a 150-percent effort. “She travels with the company tirelessly, gives interviews sometimes before the company arrives, does podcasts, interacts with the public, conducts question-and-answer sessions after some of the performances and is here to rehearse the company members,” Jefferson says.

She is also a role model, particularly for young African-American dancers and women of all backgrounds. “We get a lot of tall women who audition here, and I know it’s because of Ms. Jamison. Being a tall woman isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to be,” Jefferson says. “Seeing a woman—an African-American woman—who is so accomplished in so many ways and who has had several very, very successful careers (as a dancer, as the artistic director of her own company and AAADT, as a choreographer, as a mentor and manager) lets young women know that if they really want to do something and they work at it, it’s possible.”

Even though Jamison’s role in the company will soon change, there’s no doubt that she will do whatever is in the best interest of the institution she has unwaveringly led all these years. “Judy is a dynamic warrior,” Thomas-Schmitt says. “She’s motivational and inspirational and really cares about the company and the organization.” DT

Sara Jarrett is a writer based in New York City.

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