Judith Jamison

By Anne Keehn

Judith Jamison was always exceptionally tall, and walked with a regal carriage “ever since I was a child.” She grew to be a statuesque 5’10”, with a 36-inch inseam. In 1964, at the age of 21, she was invited by famed choreographer Agnes de Mille to perform De Mille’s The Four Marys at the prestigious American Ballet Theater in New York. She briefly joined the Harkness Ballet Company between 1966 and 1967.

But Jamison found her milieu away from ballet, as the protégée of African-American dance impresario Alvin Ailey. With her large, fiery eyes that could project emotion all the way to the nosebleeds, and her voluptuous, muscular physique, Jamison went against the pencil-thin Caucasian ideal that continues to dominate the ballet world. She was, however, perfect for Ailey’s quintessentially American choreography, which mixed elements of Native- American and African dance with European classical styles. She spent the bulk of her dance career with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT), performing with the company for the last time in 1980, when she left to make her Broadway debut in Sophisticated Ladies. When Ailey passed away at the end of 1989, Jamison stepped in as the company’s director—a position she holds to this day.

Jamison stumbled onto the AAADT by chance. In 1965, the 22-year old dancer auditioned for Donny McKayle for a part in a television special for Harry Belafonte. Unbeknownst to her, Ailey was in the audience. “I walked past him because I was so distraught that I didn’t make that audition,” Jamison recalls. “Three days later, somebody called me, and it was Alvin and he said, ‘Would you like to join my company?’ And I was like, ‘Okay.’ And I walked into my first rehearsal.”

The rehearsal happened to be for Revelations, a piece that became one of the most famous modern dance performances ever choreographed. Over the course of her tenure at the AAADT, Jamison became Ailey’s muse and confidant. He choreographed numerous pieces for her, and when she retired from performing, he often turned to her for administrative and creative support. So when Ailey passed away just shy of his 60th birthday, it was a natural progression for Jamison to inherit the company.

Did she have any trepidation? “Did you say trepidation? I haven’t heard that word in ages,” she says. “None whatsoever, because he asked me straight out. We were in St. Louis on tour. What did he call me at that time? He gave me this title: guest associate director. And we were having lunch. He told me he was ill, and he told me he would like me to take over the company. I said, ‘Sure.’ There was never a question about a man who was half of me for a very long time, and still is.”

Perhaps the most notable dance that Ailey created for Jamison is the 15-minute solo in Cry, a ballet he dedicated to “all black women everywhere.” This tour-de-force thrust the then-28-year-old Jamison into international renown, and is prominently showcased by the AAADT to this day.

Says Jamison, “If you think of Cry, which is done by Dwana Adiaha Smallwood now, and by Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, and by Asha Thomas, these three women do the same dance, but God—thank God—they all do it differently. They are taught the exact same thing that was made up on my body. But they certainly look different— and beautiful.”

When asked if she would ever perform again, Jamison says she feels no desire to do so. “I paid those dues, child! My body hurts me so bad – are you kidding? I did everything. You know, where I stopped, the ball never hit the floor,” she says. “I’ve seen two, three generations of dancers after me. I continue to see them blossom, enjoy the same things I enjoyed when I was their age, and grow as human beings and artists. It’s my pleasure now.”

Jamison has said in the past that she never felt that she stood in Ailey’s shadow. Instead, she feels she stands on his shoulders. “The horizon becomes broader,” she says. “But, I do feel Alvin over my shoulder.”

Jamison seems to channel the tradition of American dance in its entirety: past, present, and future. She acknowledges Ailey’s presence in her work, and embraces the evolving aesthetic of dance. Under her watch, the AAADT has expanded in the spirit of its founder. Its repertoire continues to grow, and now incorporates elements of hip-hop and breakdancing. Changes happen, Jamison says, “but basically what’s left is the spirit. Alvin’s achievement was so much the paradigm. It leaves us all to continue that vision. If there’s a change, it comes as creativity.”