Judith Jamison, artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Donald Hutera talks with Judith Jamison, artistic director of the phenomenally popular Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

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Donald Hutera

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Understanding Spirit

‘When I think of Alvin Ailey,’ dancer Judith Jamison wrote in her 1993 autobiography ‘Dancing Spirit’, ‘I think of rivers, the clarity and strength of water, carrying with it the memory of its source as it pushes forward.’

Jamison, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, has every right to wax poetic about her company’s founding director. During the fifteen years (1965-80) she danced for Ailey, she became his muse. ‘Alvin and I were like two limbs of a tree,’ Jamison has said, ‘growing and climbing together.’ Following his 1989 death from Aids-related complications, Jamison became keeper of the Ailey flame. In 2005 British audiences will see just how brightly she’s kept it burning.

Donald Hutera: Part of the appeal of the Ailey company is how beautiful the dancers look, coupled with how amazingly well they move.

Judith Jamison: I think our dancers are extraordinary-looking people. Not ‘pretty’ and ‘handsome’, but interesting. There’s something about them that is different, so many different sizes, shapes and colours, and ways of looking at dance. They’re all coming from different perspectives when they do movement. The kind of satisfaction they get from what they do shows onstage.

DH: What does it take to be an Ailey dancer?

JJ: I’m looking for talented people who are not normal in they’re way of moving, and who understand that dancing is not about steps. It’s what happens between the steps, the connective tissue. Nothing begins right from a cold spot, but from a very warm, flexible spot. There’s a dancer named Matthew Rushing in the company. He came to an audition in LA with his teacher when he was sixteen. What it took everybody else half an hour to learn he learned like that. [She snaps her fingers.] There was such a passion for what he was doing, a love and commitment, all those words that we wear out. But it was right there. I didn’t put him in the company then, but gave him a scholarship to come and study at the school. He’s phenomenal. It’s incredible what they all do onstage, and they’re understanding of it. There’s just so much talent. When choreographers come in, they feel like they’re in a candy shop.

DH: How hands-on an artistic director are you?

JJ: I trust the people who work with me. I learned over the years to delegate, and once I’ve done that, to sit back and let people do what they do best. As long as it makes the Ailey fly, then I’m fine. I’m there to raise money. But I don’t have my head in my hands worrying about where the next penny’s coming from, the way that Alvin had to.

And I’m not worried about what’s going on at home in the studio at all. When I come back, all do is tweak and shape. I do such fine-tuning that people wanna kick me outa the room, y’know? The only thing I truly worry about is to make sure the dancer is fulfilled. I worry if the dancer feels that they’re not growing, when I can see their progress but they can’t because they’re so deep inside of it. My job is to keep them as artistically challenged and emotionally active as possible.

DH: What is a key thing that Ailey taught you?

JJ: Generosity. How to be generous about what you do, and not just as a human being. Modern dance companies have always been singular voices.Alvin’s, even from the beginning, was not. There were always other choreographers in the repertoire, always an open-door policy. He wanted the world to appreciate the talent that was around. Not just African-Americans, but people from all walks of life. That’s why we’ve got about 180 ballets in the rep. For me, and for Alvin, dance has always been about ‘C’mon in!’

DH: What do you think you taught him?

JJ: I have no idea. I wish he could be here to tall you. I gave him my body. He used the instrument to make great ballets. Alvin created like seven or eight ballets every year, so I worked fast. All of us did. But fast with clarity. Not just jammin’ it in there, but really understanding what you’re doing. Ailey dancers have a tendency to perform as they’re learning. That’s one of the things choreographers say when they come in to work with them. So by the time it gets up on the stage, they’ve taken it to some level up here some place. Unless you don’t want that, and the choreographer tells them and they pull back. They go on
the journey you want them to go on.

DH: What about an audience’s journey?

JJ: By the time they leave the theatre, they should feel different. Be open to it, but fasten your seatbelts. We’re not dancing in a closet or vaccum. We’re dancing for you. That you take some gift away with you is our pleasure. In the old days, during Revelations, people used to bring tambourines, play along with the music and practically have church in the theatre. I want an audience to feel like participants, not like there’s this gap between what’s happening onstage and how you should feel about responding to it. We like it when people respond. The idea is to feel free when you come and see us. Be open to receive.