Alvin Ailey's "Cry" premiered in 1971. The date was incorrectly reported in a profile of dancer Judith Jamison in Sunday's Arts section. (Published 12/07/1999)
She has been called an ebony goddess, the ancestral earth mother, the black Venus of dance. Judith Jamison, former star of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and for the past decade its director, invites such mythical comparisons. Once a gangly kid, she grew into a vision of grandeur: nearly six feet tall--though even when seeing her stride onstage barefoot, you'd swear she was taller. She has winglike arms and never-ending legs, rich mahogany skin, strong features that can be best described as sculptural.
All of which stood in glaring contrast to the prevailing ideal of the dancer in the '70s, when Jamison shot to fame with Alvin Ailey's "Cry," the searing solo by which she will be forever defined. Jamison was outsize in every way, a full-bodied woman with close-clipped hair, while at the time what the public adored was the pale, petite ballerina, preferably a foreign one. Jamison's stardom was unprecedented. Here was a modern dancer, a black dancer, an American dancer, swept to the bosom of both critics and audiences alike with a fervor usually reserved for the classical Russians.
This didn't happen just because she was a head-turner. Jamison's art was equal parts body and spirit. The long, sweeping legs, the appearance of unstoppable spontaneity and keen musical alertness were accompanied by a sense that there was something larger than the audience, larger than even herself, that was moving her. That somewhere up above the lighting grid the Holy Ghost was giving her breath.
Meeting Her Mentor
Jamison, 55, sits in a cluttered office tucked in a corner of the Ailey headquarters in midtown Manhattan. Dressed head to toe in black, with pewter braids coiled in a tight topknot, she is every inch the imposing figure of her youth. She's gone from reigning onstage to reigning over an expanding arts empire. The Ailey organization, which she took over after Ailey's death in 1989, encompasses not only the extremely busy 31-member company but also the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center school and the junior company, the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble.
Ailey and Jamison will be forever yoked. She was the choreographer's most enduring star. He was her mentor, the man who shaped her future even after he was no longer in it.
When Ailey received his Kennedy Center Honor in 1988, Jamison was at the Opera House gala applauding him. Now, following in his footsteps in yet another way, she receives her own.
Ailey and Jamison came from different eras and different backgrounds, but when he took her under his tutelage, the two became inseparable. Ailey, who grew up poor in rural Texas and didn't dance until he was 18, founded his pioneering, primarily African American company in 1958 as a repository for not only his own works but for other choreographers' as well. He cultivated a repertoire of unheard-of variety: the contemporary dance styles of Lester Horton and Martha Graham, as well as jazz works and those drawing on classical ballet training. As one observer put it, Ailey saw himself as a curator of American modern dance.
Many of Ailey's works drew on the African American experience; "Revelations," the company's resonant, never-outmoded signature piece, is informed by the sanctuary offered in the church of his youth.
This was familiar territory for Jamison. "The connection with 'Revelations' was instant," she says, "and that Alvin could express what I had experienced growing up in Philly and what he had experienced in Texas just spoke to me about the unity of the black church."
Jamison came from a pious blue-collar background in Philadelphia, her youth filled with dancing lessons and the pageantry and music of the Sunday service. She says she has always felt an omnipotent presence in her life. "I really felt a connection to something higher than me--God, a higher being, bigger than myself--always. A sense that I was taken care of."
She was pigeon-toed as a toddler and wore corrective shoes. Her mother enrolled her awkward daughter in dance classes when Jamison was 6. There, she found a way to be at ease with the limbs that were so hard to control.
Still, she wasn't wedded to a dance career. When, as a student at the Philadelphia Dance Academy in 1964, Jamison heard about an evening master class with the renowned choreographer Agnes de Mille, she tried to beg off. A friend urged her to sign up anyway. De Mille couldn't take her eyes off Jamison. After the class, De Mille asked her startled student to come to American Ballet Theatre and create a role in her newest work, "The Four Marys."
The ballet told of a white man who falls in love with one of his fiancee's four slaves (the Marys of the title, all performed by black dancers). Carmen de Lavallade, a onetime member of Ailey's company, was also one of the Marys.
"She was this great majestic creature," de Lavallade recalls of the 20-year-old Jamison. "She didn't look like anyone else; she didn't move like anyone else. She could be magnetic, flowing, strong, but also very soft. She just pulled you into her world."
Nevertheless, after the run of "The Four Marys," Ballet Theatre had no further use for her.
Jamison says she wasn't overly discouraged. "I've never felt shut out of anything," she says. "My mentality is, wait, there's going to be another wind blowing through the trees. I accepted this because I knew something else was coming."
She got a summer job and didn't dance a step for months. Finally, needing more work, she auditioned for a spot in a TV special that Donald McKayle was choreographing. She was politely dismissed.
Jamison left the studio so stunned--the woman who had gotten everything she'd gone for suddenly hearing a deadly 'thank you very much'!--that she didn't recognize the man who passed her in the hall. The man who called her two days later to offer her a job in his company. That man was Alvin Ailey.
Once again, Jamison had been kissed by good fortune.
'No Ordinary Dancer'
While Jamison was not Ailey's only muse, she soon won out in popular favor.
Her extraordinary height and idiosyncratic way of moving made her a difficult tool for choreographers. She acknowledges that she was never a very flexible dancer, and lyricism was not her strength. Her legs, she insists, never went as high as she made you believe they did. But her theatrical flair, musicality and charismatic presence were unmatched. In 1975 Ailey forever enshrined her with the grueling 16-minute-long "Cry," dedicated to "all black women everywhere--especially our mothers." With its images of scrubbing floors, mourning fallen sons and being shaken by the spirit, the work framed Jamison as an icon of long-suffering, life-giving, eternal womanhood.
The work was hailed as a sensation, Jamison was toasted as "no ordinary dancer," and the public swamped the City Center with phone calls. The company added performance after performance to meet the demand. Jamison needed to anesthetize her neck with Novocain to get through the season.
She became "one of the few American-born dancers to compete with glittery international ballet stars for the public's favor," dance critic Deborah Jowitt wrote in the New York Times a year later.
Ailey created other works for Jamison, notably the vampy "The Mooche" and "Pas de Duke," set to the music of Duke Ellington, a special-occasion piece with which she returned to American Ballet Theatre to dance with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Other choreographers gravitated to her: John Butler, the Hamburg Ballet's John Neumeier, Belgium's Maurice Bejart.
But Jamison eventually grew tired of her image as ever-loving earth mother. After 15 years in the company, she left Ailey in 1980 to star on Broadway in "Sophisticated Ladies," then formed a group, the Jamison Project, to pursue her own choreography. As it became clear that Ailey was growing ill, she rejoined the company shortly before his death, and held his hand as he died.
It wasn't an easy transition from free spirit to an administrator responsible for dozens of livelihoods, not to mention a treasury of dances. Jamison at first tried running both her own company and the Ailey troupe; that proved impossible.
Gradually she settled into her responsibilities--as shrink, den mother, hand-holder, money magnet (her reputation has powerful marketing value) and watchdog. She has put her own mark on the company in elevating women to many of the key positions, in hiring young virtuosos, in seeking out cutting-edge choreography by original voices such as the Urban Bush Women's Jawole Willa Jo Zolar and Ronald K. Brown.
She says she doesn't miss the physical release of performing since she typically spends hours in rehearsal with the dancers, work that never fails to connect her to her spiritual core.
"The studio is a very sacred place," she says. "We're dealing with spirit in dance. We're not just dealing with physicality. I don't care how technically proficient you are. I don't care how many turns you can do. If it's not coming from the inside, then it looks like a robot onstage.
"That's the dilemma of the dancer today," she continues. "All of them can do splits, all of them have legs that can go up to here. But they've got to understand their individuality, their uniqueness. I don't want to see you 'technique' onstage. I want to see you combine yourself and the technique and transcend them both.
"And change my mind when I'm in the theater, so when I leave I feel different."