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.”
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.” 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.” 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.”
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.’” 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.”
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.” 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.
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.” 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.
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.” 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.”
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.” 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.” 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
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.
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.”
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.”
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
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.” 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.
Jamison and Howard Kaplan, Dancing Spirit: an Autobiography (New York:
Doubleday, 1993), p. 5.
 Laura Andrews, “Jamison’s
Revelation – to Extend Ailey’s Vision of Dance,” New York Amsterdam News,
1 July 1999, p.19.
 As quoted in Chester Higgins, Jr., “Vision,” The New York Times Metro, 5 July 2006.
 Dancing Spirit, p.85.
 Ibid., p.132.
 Clive Barnes, “The Dance:
Judith Jamison’s Triumph,” The New York Times, 5 May 1971.
 As quoted in Joanne Kaufman, “Shall We Dance?” New York, 27 December 1999.
 Frank Rich, “Stage:
Ellington’s ‘Sophisticated Ladies,’” The New York Times, 2 March 1981.
 Dancing Spirit, p.
 Elizabeth Zimmer, “New York City Reviews,” Dance Magazine, March 1995, p. 36.
 Dancing Spirit, p.236.
 As quoted in Jennifer
Dunning, “Ailey’s Bright Star Leads the Troupe into a New Era,” The New York
Times, 2 December 1990.