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Portrait of Judith Jamison
Judith Jamison portrait. Photo by Andrew Eccles.

Fittingly described as an “African goddess” and the “empress of Alvin Ailey” there has always been a touch of the divine and the regal in Judith Jamison’s illustrious career as a dancer, choreographer, and Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT). 

Born in 1943 in culturally vibrant Philadelphia to gifted parents who valued the arts, Judith Jamison (pronounced JAM-ih-son) was exposed to classical music, theater, opera, and the visual arts from an early age.  Even at six years old when her parents enrolled their energetic daughter in Marion Cuyjet’s Judimar School of Dance, she was “tall, lean, and long-legged.”[1]  At Judimar she began her training in ballet, jazz, tap, acrobatics, and other modes of dance. From the beginning, Jamison stood out not just for her height, but for her striking talent.  As her first teacher, Cuyjet, recalled, “I was so excited by her that all my husband and I talked about on Saturday nights, the only night I had dinner home, was Judi.  Did you see that? Did you see her extension? Judi. Judi. Judi.”[2] Jamison continued her training both at Judimar and with other teachers during her childhood and teenage years, making her formal ballet debut at fifteen in the role of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, in Giselle.

Following her graduation from high school and Judimar, Jamison decided to attend Fisk University in Nashville, where she studied psychology for three semesters before returning to Philadelphia and enrolling in the Philadelphia Dance Academy.  There, in addition to dance, she studied kinesiology, dance history, and Labanotation—structured dance notation.  It was with her classmates from the Academy that she first saw Alvin Ailey dance with the AAADT.  “Nobody danced like Alvin” she recalled. “He moved like quick-silver.  He moved like a cat.”[3]  Minnie Marshall, one of her favorite Ailey dancers, also made an indelible impression as she danced in Ailey’s signature piece, Revelations.  Inspired, Jamison thought to herself, “I can do that.”[4]

In 1964, Jamison met the choreographer Agnes de Mille, who was teaching a master class at the Philadelphia Dance Academy.  De Mille recognized Jamison’s “outstanding talent” and invited her to dance in New York with the American Ballet Theatre’s production of The Four Marys. The renowned dancer Carmen de Lavallade, one of the other Marys, and her husband, Geoffrey Holder, took Jamison under their wing, introducing her to the world of New York dance.  After The Four Marys ended, Jamison stayed in New York working the log-flume ride at the World’s Fair during the summer of 1965.  It was a failed audition for another choreographer that serendipitously began her relationship with Alvin Ailey and formed her career for the ensuing decades.   Out of shape after not having danced for the entire summer, she exited the audition in tears, rushing past a friend of the choreographer’s on the stairs.  That man was Alvin Ailey, who was struck by the talent of this five-foot-ten beauty with no hair. “Ailey recalled that he knew immediately that Jamison was someone very special. ‘I decided to find out who she was.’”[5] Three days after that fateful audition he called Jamison and asked her to join his company.  She accepted without hesitation. “I learned eight dances in two weeks, and then we were on the road.”[6]

At a time when there were few concert performance opportunities for African-American dancers, the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater was unique.  Ailey’s choreography revealed the multifaceted aspects of African-American experience in a way that had hitherto not been expressed in dance performance. Embodying the ethos of bringing dance to the people, even in its early years, the AAADT toured extensively not only through the United States, but also in Europe and Africa.  In her autobiography, Dancing Spirit, Jamison describes a grueling touring schedule, which often saw Ailey’s exquisite dancers having to perform in dangerously inadequate venues.  In 1966, on tour in Spain, the company even ran out of money entirely and had to stop the tour and disband.  “Back then we were literally flying by the seat of our pants and I always had great faith in Alvin.”[7]  From these precarious early days, in no small part due to Jamison, the AAADT eventually attained financial stability while establishing itself as the critically-applauded international brand that it is today.


Judith Jamison in Cry.
Courtesy of the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City.

Ailey regarded Jamison as his muse, and in 1971 he choreographed the sixteen-minute solo, Cry, for her.  Cry, a birthday gift for Ailey’s mother, Lula Cooper, was dedicated to “all black women everywhere—especially our mothers.” Swiftly choreographed in just eight days, the first full run-through for Jamison only came during the opening performance.  Jamison explained her interpretation of the woman in the ballet’s three sections: “She represented those women before her who came from the hardships of slavery, through the pain of losing loved ones, through overcoming extraordinary depressions and tribulations. Coming out of a world of pain and trouble, she has found her way—and triumphed.”[8] And the triumph of this performance caused Jamison’s star to rise even higher.  As Clive Barnes, the New York Times dance critic, described the performance:

For years it has been obvious that Judith Jamison is no ordinary dancer.  She looks like an African goddess and her long body has an unexpected gracefulness to it, but moves in a manner almost more elemental than human.  Her face is fantastic.  It is a long Modigliani face like a black sculpture.  It is a tragic face, a mask of sorrow.  It is a face born to cry the blues, but when she smiles it is with an innocent radiance, a joyfulness that is simple and lovely.  And she dances with an articulated beauty, serene, together and womanly.  She holds herself a little aloof from the audience, but she is reserved rather than shy.  She never tries consciously to please an audience.  She is wonderfully proud, from the poised of her head set perfectly on a long, strong neck, to the lightly sculpted muscles of her long legs.[9] 

Jamison was a star attraction for the AAADT in the fifteen years that she danced with the company.  As one colleague remarked, “When Judy was onstage, no one else was onstage.”[10]  However, in 1980 she took a break from the company and the world of concert dance to star with Gregory Hines on Broadway in Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies.  In this production Jamison revealed her talents for singing and acting as well as dancing.  As the New York Times drama critic Frank Rich wrote in his review, “The towering, charismatic Miss Jamison... is a commanding work of art just when she’s standing still.... Miss Jamison sings well when asked, especially when lounging luxuriantly across a red piano for ‛I Love You Madly.’ More important, she gives the evening a presence that no one else can provide.... By the time she descends a staircase, a vision in white, to Mr. Hines’ rendition of ‛Sophisticated Lady,’ she’ll take your breath away.”[11]

Following her performance triumphs, Judith Jamison turned her attention to choreography in the mid-1980s.  As someone who had learned so many ballets herself, she was initially daunted that she would “always be borrowing from someone else.”[12] Eventually, though, she began to find her own rhythm and develop organically as a choreographer.  Divining, the first work Jamison completed for a major dance company, was based on the percussive rhythms of African drums, and premiered in performance with the Ailey company.  Dance Magazine described Divining as “a deceptively simple exercise in strong, grounded movement to a live percussion score.... A fusion of traditional African motifs with the repetitive, simplified focus of post-modern dance, the work has more to it than meets the eye.”[13]  Jamison went on to choreograph many important dance pieces, including, among others: Among Us (Private Spaces: Public Places); Double Exposure; Echo: Far From Home; Forgotten Time; Here... Now; Hymn; Love Stories; Reminiscin’; Rift; Riverside; and Sweet Release.

Photo of Alvin Ailey and Judith Jamison in "Carmina Burana" - "The Moche"
Alvin Ailey and Judith Jamison, 1970.
Photographer: Jack Mitchell. Used by permission of AAADT.

During the 1980s Jamison continued to develop her strengths as a teacher and choreographer, and in 1988 started her own dance company, The Jamison Project.  However, this young company was just beginning to establish itself when, prior to his death in 1989, Ailey asked Jamison to take over as Artistic Director of the AAADT.  She was the obvious choice, providing both continuity and a new direction for the company.  As she wrote:

 I don’t feel as though I’m standing in anyone’s shoes.  I’m standing on Alvin’s shoulders. The horizons become broader.  He was an individual.  However, we shared the same spiritual traditions.  That’s why I stayed with the company for fifteen years: we were walking the same path, that’s why we had such a special connection.[14]

Jamison has not only provided the artistic vision for the AAADT for the last two decades, she has brought financial stability to the company, enhanced its educational outreach, increased its national and international profile, and continued to make concert dance accessible to a wide audience.  Turning a $1 million dollar deficit into a $25 million endowment, under her directorship the company built its permanent home in midtown Manhattan for $56 million.  At 77,000 square feet over eight floors, the Joan Weill Center for Dance is the largest building in the country devoted to dance.   Jamison also helped launch a shared BFA program with the AAADT and Fordham University in 1998.  Through all this development, the company has performed “for an estimated 23 million people in 48 states and in 71 countries on six continents, including two historic residencies in South Africa.”[15]  The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has remained dynamic and vibrant because as Jamison once put it: “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.”[16]

Jamison has been the recipient of numerous awards including, among others, a Paul Robeson Award, an American Choreography Award, an Emmy Award, a Kennedy Center Honors recognizing her lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts, a National Medal of Arts, and the highest rank of the Order of Arts and Letters. Most recently, she was honored by First Lady Michelle Obama at the first White House Dance Series: A Tribute to Judith Jamison.  In June 2011 she plans to retire as Artistic Director, a role which will be taken over by choreographer, Robert Battle.

In a piece for National Public Radio, Jamison once said that her guiding principles in both dance and life could be summarized in her father’s deathbed exhortation: “be good,” and her mother’s quoting of Shakespeare: “This above all — to thine own self be true.”[17] As she explained:

As dancers, we need to bring our life experiences to the stage. We don’t just want to thrill an audience with how many turns we can do or how high we can jump or raise our legs. Plenty of people can do that — with practice. We need to share our truth. When a performance stands out, it’s not just the arms and legs that stay in your mind. What you remember is the feeling you get from the performance, and that feeling comes from the dancer’s expression of self.

A good performance on stage should take the audience on a journey where they learn something about themselves. It’s about all of us. It’s about reaching for perfection, and, most of all, it’s about honesty. I believe that to be good, as my father instructed, we must be true to ourselves.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Judith Jamison and Howard Kaplan, Dancing Spirit: an Autobiography (New York: Doubleday, 1993), p. 5.

[2] Ibid., p. 23.

[3] Ibid., p. 53.

[4] Ibid., p. 53.

[5] Laura Andrews, “Jamison’s Revelation – to Extend Ailey’s Vision of Dance,” New York Amsterdam News, 1 July 1999, p.19.

[6] As quoted in Chester Higgins, Jr., “Vision,” The New York Times Metro, 5 July 2006.

[7] Dancing Spirit, p.85.

[8] Ibid., p.132.

[9] Clive Barnes, “The Dance: Judith Jamison’s Triumph,” The New York Times, 5 May 1971.

[10] As quoted in Joanne Kaufman, “Shall We Dance?” New York, 27 December 1999.

[11] Frank Rich, “Stage: Ellington’s ‘Sophisticated Ladies,’” The New York Times, 2 March 1981.

[12] Dancing Spirit, p. 210.

[13] Elizabeth Zimmer, “New York City Reviews,” Dance Magazine, March 1995, p. 36.

[14] Dancing Spirit, p.236.

[15] http://www.alvinailey.org/about

[16] As quoted in Jennifer Dunning, “Ailey’s Bright Star Leads the Troupe into a New Era,” The New York Times, 2 December 1990.

[17] http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9249892

 

 


Text by Annette Keogh, Curator for British and American Literature.
Stanford University Libraries & Academic Information Resources ©2010
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