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Exploring Judith Jamison

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  • 1. Exploring Judith Jamison
  • 2. Born May 10, 1944, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Jamison grew up, she told Newsweek, in "a household of people who sang and played the piano. So I came from a disciplined house. You don't arrive to places late, you are polite, you do unto others as you would have them do to you." Her mother was a teacher, her father a sheet-metal worker and parttime musician who supported his daughter's passion for dance because he thought it might help her work off the energy that built up as a result of her generally hyperactive nature.
  • 3. Jamison started dance lessons at age six at the Judimar School of Dance in Philadelphia. She also took piano lessons from her father and played the violin well enough to join a local orchestra in her teens. One other influence was the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, where Jamison remained a frequent attendee even after she rose to the top of the dance world. Founded by breakaway Methodist preacher Richard Allen in 1787, Mother Bethel was a historic institution rich in African-American culture and history.
  • 4. Jamison got the attention of teachers and had topflight teachers from the start, winning a place in a class taught by top choreographer Anthony Tudor when she was ten. As a young woman Jamison immersed herself in the arts, going to museums and attending operas and plays, but dance was her greatest passion. (Anthony Tudor was an English Ballet choreographer that is generally accepted to be one of the great originals of modern dance forms. Along with George Balanchine, he is seen as a principal transformer of ballet into a modern art.)
  • 5. African-American dancers were still rare at the time, but the walls of Jamison's bedroom were festooned with pictures of ballerinas and modern dancers of all backgrounds. She sought out a broad variety of dance training that would benefit her later on, focusing on classical ballet but also studying tap dancing, Afro-Caribbean and jazz dance, modern dance, and acrobatics. She appeared in the role of Myrtha in the French ballet Giselle when she was 15.
  • 6. Her next big break came when she auditioned for a dance part in a television special starring actor Harry Belafonte. The audition did not go well. But Ailey, who was looking on, saw in Jamison a dancer who could realise his powerful choreographic visions of African-American life.
  • 7. Almost immediately, Jamison began to tour with Ailey's company, travelling in 1966 to Europe and then to the World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. The experience was an eye-opener for Jamison. "Everybody was there - from [poet] Langston Hughes to [choreographer] Katherine Dunham to [bandleader] Duke Ellington to [Senegalese] President Senghor," she told Suki John of Dance Magazine.
  • 8. She became celebrated for her energetic grace and riveting stage presence and inspired many of Ailey's new dances
  • 9. Ailey's famous dances, such as the Ellingtoninspired Pas de Duke, Blues Suite, and Revelation (which Jamison began learning the day she joined the AAADT), came alive anew when Jamison danced them. In Pas de Duke, Jamison often appeared in a duet with ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov. Revelation, drawing on the religious life of his family in rural Texas during his childhood, was Ailey's most famous piece, and Jamison brought a power and spirituality to the work that made her an audience favourite. In 1969, Jamison joined the AAADT as it became the first American dance company in decades to tour the Soviet Union and was greeted with enormous ovations there.
  • 10. The creative relationship between Jamison and Ailey reached a new level with Cry (1971), a solo piece the choreographer created for Jamison. "That dance - 15 minutes of movement - embodied 400 years of Black women's pain, passion, and perseverance, and elevated Judith Jamison to the ranks of modern ballet superstardom," noted Asha Bandele of Essence. Cry became Jamison's trademark, but after she took the reins at the AAADT she encouraged younger dancers to bring their own interpretations to the work rather than trying to duplicate her style.
  • 11. The 1970s were a growth period for American dance, and Jamison constantly travelled, gave interviews, and was featured in new productions. In 1980, Jamison decided to strike out on her own. Taking a starring role in the Broadway musical Sophisticated Ladies, she performed as a soloist with other ballet companies and also returned to the Ailey troupe. With Ailey's support, she began to develop her own skills as a choreographer. Two of her works, 1984's Divining and 1988'sTease, were performed by AAADT. In 1988 she founded a dance company of her own, the Judith Jamison Project.
  • 12. Choreographed works include Divining and Just Call Me Dance, both 1984; Time Out and Time In, both 1986; Into the Life, 1987; Tease, 1988; Forgotten Time and Read Matthew 11:28, both 1989; Rift, 1991; and Hymn, 1993. Author, with Howard Kaplan, of Dancing Spirit, 1993.
  • 13. Her plans took a sharp turn, however, when Ailey revealed to her, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of a tour, that he was seriously ill. "We were in St. Louis when Alvin decided to tell me that he wasn't well, and that he wanted me to take over the company," Jamison recalled to Joy Duckett Cain of Essence. "He's asking me, and I'm going, 'Oh, yes, sure,' without batting an eye - and without thinking of just how tremendous the responsibility was." Jamison was at Ailey's bedside when he became a casualty of the AIDS epidemic in December of 1989.
  • 14. The shift from dancer and choreographer to artistic director was challenging for Jamison - and not because it was hard for her to give up dancing. Looking at videotapes of her performances, she realized that she had been near the end of her performing career. Learning the art of administration, however, was a new stage in Jamison's career as she brought in dancers from her own troupe to replace some Ailey stalwarts. Jamison faced pressures from advisers who wanted her to take the company in new directions or, conversely, maintain its repertory unchanged as a shrine to Ailey's career. She carefully steered a middle course.
  • 15. One aspect of Ailey's legacy that Jamison maintained was its diversity and its aspiration toward universal appeal. Assistant director Masazumi Chaya was of Japanese background, and as the company's repertory grew under Jamison, dancers attempted works with a variety of subject matter. "I've had angry letters from people who felt that all our dancers should be Black," Jamison told Bandele. "But the company is the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. And while we're here to celebrate the Black experience, we're not here to be exclusionary about who can do that with us. Being inclusive is part of our African tradition."
  • 16. Indeed, Jamison sometimes gave the AAADT a populist orientation. American young people who were unable to name any other dance company became familiar with the AAADT after an American Express commercial featuring the company was broadcast on television during the Academy Awards ceremony. "To get young people to a live concert, we first must go where they are the most: in front of computers and televisions," Jamison pointed out to Suki John of Dance Magazine.
  • 17. Under Jamison's astute financial leadership, the company prospered. She presided over an entire Manhattan building that was home to two Ailey companies, 200 classes a week, and numerous other projects and workshops.
  • 18. "People ask me, 'What's different? What are the changes you've made?"' she revealed in an interview with Jennifer Dunning for the New York Times. "It's an evolving situation. I want to sustain this company and not have it be a museum piece. I want to challenge the dancers and the audiences with as much diversity as possible." In another Times article, Anna Kisselgoff observed, "There are signs that Miss Jamison wants to see the repertory tilt further toward formally oriented works that explore new ways of moving, to draw closer to what is happening elsewhere in modern dance."
  • 19. By the early 2000s, Judith Jamison was an icon of American dance. Among her long list of awards was a Kennedy Center Honor in 1999, where she received a prize that Ailey himself had been awarded earlier, and where she shared a stage with another idol, singer Stevie Wonder. President George W. Bush awarded National Medals of the Arts to her and to the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation in 2001, marking the first time the medal had gone to a dance organisation.
  • 20. She continued to nurture young dancers and to exert positive force on the American arts scene.
  • 21. In her autobiography, Dancing Spirit, Jamison summed up her philosophy about what it means to be a dancer: "You have to be desperate, as though you were catching your breath.... You want to eat life, so you have to be famished all the time, not physically, but in wanting to know and in wanting to absorb and in exploring and stepping out over the edge, sometimes by yourself.... Dance is bigger than the physical body.... When you extend your arm, it doesn't stop at the end of your fingers, because you're dancing bigger than that; you're dancing spirit. Take a chance. Reach out. Go further than you've ever gone before."