Judith Jamison always looked so much like an ebony goddess on stage you almost have to curb an impulse to kneel when you meet her in person.
Indeed, the former dancer and star of the Alvin Ailey company for 15 years -- now embarked upon a choreographic career -- first achieved fame in Ailey's "Cry," an unforgettably searing solo about the travail and triumph of black women set to songs by Alice Coltrane, Laura Nyro and the Voices of East Harlem.
Jamison's oft-repeated performance earned her a niche in public imagination alongside such other charismatic personalities as Mahalia Jackson, Billie Holiday, Marian Anderson and Ella Fitzgerald, among others -- artists who somehow epitomized and hallowed the concept of black femininity in 20th-century America.
It's a surprise to find her, in person, so approachable: ebullient and down-to-earth, though proximity does nothing to diminish her regal beauty and magnetism.
In town recently to put finishing touches on "Time Out" -- the work the Washington Ballet will premiere at Lisner Auditorium Thursday evening -- she spoke animatedly of the experience.
"We started rehearsing in December, just weekends because of my teaching in New York. I'd pop down by train on a Thursday -- I love the Metroliner -- and we'd rehearse Friday and Saturday. But we had to do it in the midst of 155 'Nutcrackers' -- I don't exaggerate -- the company was doing. It was wonderful to see how well they coped with a style so foreign to them."
The process was further interrupted by another Jamisonsw, choreographic project in Dallas. She'd gone there to stage Ailey's "The River" for the Dallas Ballet, but ex-dancer William Carter also persuaded her to create something for his Dallas-based modern dance troupe, Dancers Unlimited, to premiere earlier this month. In between, she flew here for the Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration on TV, held simultaneously in several major cities.
"I was here," she says, "in the 'hot' city, of course. At the Kennedy Center. I got a chance to sing with Stevie Wonder -- I was so thrilled."
By the time she picked up the thread again with the Washington Ballet, she was amazed how much of the choreography the dancers had mastered. "I was very pleased with how much they'd retained, but even more, with how much closer to the truth of the movement they were getting."
"Time Out," commissioned by the Washington Ballet with the help of a special $50,000 grant from Exxon, is a 20-minute work for four men and four women in four movements. "It's a very strenuous work," Jamison says. "It's not on point, however -- I see no point in putting people on point just because it's a ballet company. I want to work in a style that is me. But it's very demanding on these dancers. There are parts, for example, that require you to look as if you're about to fall over. But if you actually did it that way you'd break your neck. It takes a very special technique to achieve that look."
"Time Out" is the second work Jamison has choreographed for a ballet troupe (the first, two years ago, was for Maurice Be'jart's Ballet of the 20th Century in Brussels). She has yet to do one using toe shoes, however, though her own early training included classical ballet. and she herself has danced with such companies as American Ballet Theatre, the Harkness Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet. "Watch out for the next," she says, hinting there may be point work in her choreographic future.
"Urban Desert," the opus she made for Dancers Unlimited, was "a dark piece, as if after some disaster; a piece about opposites, like power and weakness," she says. By contrast, "Time Out" is "light and playful." "There's no dramatic intent," she says, "and nothing ulterior about it. I wouldn't want people to be reading between the lines -- what you see is what you get. The title means recess time, time to go out and play. The first movement has a down-home country, bluegrass feeling to it, like the music. The second is a romantic, jazz pas de deux, for John Goding and Janet Shibata. The third movement has a thicker kind of movement, the dancers moving like robots under water, and the fourth returns to playfulness."
The new work will have a commissioned score by guitarist Ken Hatfield -- who also composed the Be'jart piece for Jamison -- for electric and acoustic guitar, percussion and synthesizer. Jamison met the composer by chance at a recording session. "I went to the studio where one of the Hines brothers -- I can't remember which -- was recording, and Ken was playing backup guitar. I was fascinated by the riffing he was doing between sets, by his technical proficiency and versatility. He had eight different kinds of guitar, and could improvise in any style -- jazz, rock, classical, whatever."
Jamison started choreographing in 1984. She'd left the Ailey company in 1980 to star in the Broadway production of "Sophisticated Ladies" for a couple of years. Then she took a year off from professional activities. "I finally had time to think how tired I was -- I mean I was flat out, I needed that rest. Then at some point I began moving around while I listened to music on the radio; I was restless and couldn't get to sleep. When I got braver, I set up a video camera on the dining room table, and played back what I'd been doing. I thought, 'Oh, that's interesting.' So I began to piddle and paddle around with small pieces."
Ailey encouraged her and provided her the means. "He gave me a studio, and his scholarship students to work with. And he said to me, 'Do it. No one else is gonna do it if you don't do it.' Then I got Donna -- need I say more?"
"Donna" sk,3 was Donna Wood of Ailey's company, the gorgeously sleek dancer who took over many of Jamison's roles when she left (Wood recently also left Ailey, to join the faculty of the California Institute of the Arts). It was Wood whom Jamison cast in the lead part of "Divining," her first major work. It was given its premiere by the Ailey company, which also performed the fervent, ritualistic piece for 14 dancers during its Kennedy Center season last spring.
The commission from Be'jart came almost simultaneously, and that work, which Be'jart christened "Just Call Me 'Dance'," had its premiere in Europe just when "Divining" was being given for the first time in New York.
"The date had been pushed up, so the musicians hadn't had very much rehearsal time with the very tricky percussion score by Kimati Dinizulu and Monti Ellison," Jamison recalls. "So that first night in New York I sat in the orchestra pit giving rhythm cues to the drummers."
Jamison, 41, was born and raised in Philadelphia. "I was hyperenergetic," she says. "I must have driven my mother crazy. Fortunately she had the sense to put me in dancing school, to direct that energy." Her first teacher was Marion Cuyjet. "She was a really wonderful woman, and one of those rare, nongrabbing teachers. She'd say, 'I can't teach you any more about this,' and farm me out to someone else, like Antony Tudor. And one of the first things she taught me was never, ever, to be on a stage without a sense of power coming out of you, whether you were standing still, or just raising a hand."
Jamison entered Fisk University in Nashville as a psychology major, but then returned to Philadelphia to resume her dance studies at the Philadelphia Dance Academy. It was there that Agnes de Mille spied her, and soon after invited her to join the cast of her "The Four Marys," along with Carmen de Lavallade (who was to become Jamison's idol) and other dancers of American Ballet Theatre. Later that same year, 1965, Ailey discovered her at a TV audition, and the rest, as it is said, is history. With the creation of "Cry" in 1972, her career became "deadly serious," Jamison says. By 1976, Ailey was choreographing a special duet to music by Ellington, "Pas de Duke," which paired Jamison with Mikhail Baryshnikov, first with the Ailey troupe, then at ABT, and afterward, at Vienna's Volksoper.
Among Jamison's early partners in the Ailey company, one she especially prized was James Truitte. "Jimmy taught me a lot, especially about subtlety and nuance in dancing, about how to dance with your back to the audience and still keep the electricity going."
Jamison thinks a lot of dance training these days misses out on such topics. "We all know today's dancers come with a lot of technical prowess. All the men can do double tours, and are working on their triples, and all the girls can get their leg up to here. But what they don't seem to learn is the kind of thing that enabled Carmen de Lavallade to move a finger and upset the whole fourth balcony. They forget the reason they want to move in the first place. I try to help young dancers first of all to know how individual they are. They're the only ones that can look the way they do. If they understand that, their own individuality, then they can fly -- instead of getting bogged down trying to do an arabesque just like somebody else."
Onsk,3 reflection, though, Jamison says she sees a lot of hope for younger dancers. "I keep saying the days when I started out, in the mid-'60s, those were the days, and there certainly was a barrage of extraordinary people at that time. Maybe each generation says that about the generation coming up. But when I see the sparks coming through, when I see one light in the forest, I know this isn't true. And I do see those sparks. I see them in Janet [Shibata] and Lynn [Cote] in my work with the Washington Ballet -- I could see in rehearsals how they understood the energy flow in my choreography. And in Danna Cronin , who had some modern dance training and was the first to get the weight of the movement in my dance. I see the potential in the dancers I'm working with, and I think, give 'em time -- it'll come."