Defining an Ailey Dancer: conversation with Judith Jamison

We spoke to Judith Jamison prior to a performance at the New Jersey Performing Arts Centre in May about what qualities she looks for in a dancer. Due to audition for new dancers that very next week, she told us what she would be looking out for.


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You are going to be auditioning for new dancers next week. Can you define the Ailey dancer?

Sure. When they walk into the audition process, usually they’re sprawled all over the floor Vespersand on the barre, we start out with a ballet barre, that throws everybody. Some people have this vision of Ailey, I think its because we make it look so easy that they think it is, and so they’re taken aback. I am looking for line. And I am looking for extension. And I am looking for jumps. And I am looking for turns. And I am looking for attenuated feet. And

I am looking for, outside of that physicality, there is something just very special which cannot be caged, or held, that is just glowing around this person and you know, regardless of whether they fall on the floor and make a mistake or whatever, there’s something inside and out. We can’t put our fingers on it otherwise we could can it right? But I look for that kind of energy, there’s this total commitment. This is the best I’m going to be today and you’re going to see me. And you feel it. It’s like big waves coming at you when they’re right on. And I look for that, I look for that spark and that energy and devotion to what they are doing and that kind of fearlessness. You know?

Dancers have to go through audition no matter what. You have to go through audition if you can twinkle your toes twenty more times than someone else, you gotta come in and show me that you can do it consistently. And differently than everybody else.

Can you recognise that from what you have within yourself?

Oh sure. I was a brave dancer. I was. I look for that kind of courage and incredible technique. . . . Because after the ballet barre then we go into some Horton and then finally some rep and that’s when people start falling by the wayside. They actually start falling by the wayside from the beginning. It’s a very tension filled process. I’m up there and Sylvia Waters the director of Ailey II and Denise Jefferson the director of the school, we’re all up there with our pencils and papers and Ronni’s [Ronni Favors, Rehearsal Director/Company Teacher] and Chaya’s there and a couple of dancers from the company who are demonstrating. It’s a wonderful experience for both sides. The worst thing is telling people, no not this time. But I tell them to keep studying. It’s a lifetime of study.

You must have people in the company now who never ever worked with Mr Ailey, so how do you communicate to them what it is to be an Ailey dancer?

It’s by example. There are a million tapes they can look at and see what its supposed to be but I’ve got this wonderful associate artistic director called Masazumi Chaya who’s responsible for remembering all the ballets. When we rehearse the works I speak to the dancers first about its intent and also using their imaginations because they don’t have the same experiences I did.

I grew up in the church. Some of them didn’t so they don’t know what Revelations is like from that basis. But in essence it is about spirit and triumph and victory and sadness and life so I expect each dancer, no matter what ballet they are doing, to infuse it with their life experience. Not to change the steps but to honour the steps. Really work the magic that dancers do as creatures of this divine promise we have of movement. You should come to rehearsal some time. Its fun, we have a lot of fun but its very difficult work. You may be used to seeing only one choreographer all evening with modern dance companies, one song sung by the same choreographer, but with our repertory they’ve got to be down sometimes, they have to be up, they have to be in the middle, they have to combine. There’s so many different styles that we Ailey dancers have to adapt themselves to. Therefore its class, every day, modern class, ballet class whatever kind of class you can take, lie down on the floor class. To keep the body tuned.

I throw them curves sometimes. We have a ballet Loves Stories. Rennie Harris is a hip hop choreographer and all of a sudden you see an Ailey dancer go from hip hop to Vespers by Ulysees Dove and you know is work is very riveting and stark, sharp and athletic and angular and forceful and all those things and then they have to be forceful and strong in “I want To Be Ready” which is one of the slowest dances in Revelations . It’s a coxis balance movement exercise from Horton technique. So they are constantly compressing and releasing, compressing and releasing. All evening for two hours. I believe from my experience as a dancer it’s such a high that you don’t get from doing just one thing. And when its done well, well when we used to think we were doing it well Alvin would come backstage and say “What was that?” But when it is done well and it all comes together there is nothing as magical as that for an artist. Its like when jazz musicians do it, when its all happening at the right time and it just clicks like that and you go “ummmm”. Better than a good meal.