On a day so hot that the word warm-up becomes an oxymoron, a dozen sleek dancers stretch their sinewy bodies and undulate to taped music. Bare feet screech against a high-lacquer wood floor and the softly whirring ceiling fans circulate the heavy, muggy air.
But even after six hours of rehearsal, no one shows signs of discomfort or fatigue. Neither the performers nor Judith Jamison, who directs activities from the bench of a second-floor studio on South Broad Street.
"We've getting ready for the first tour of our life," says the former star of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre and founder of this group she calls the Jamison Project--making its debut at Royce Hall, UCLA Friday.
"Now is no time to let the weather stop us."
She laughs, turning her eyes back to two dancers who struggle with a tricky fish-dive maneuver in their duet.
"Breathe," commands Jamison, rising to her imperious 5-foot-10 height before signaling the moment with a clap. The piece ends and they walk off looking unhappy with themselves. But an inspiriting glance from their mentor eases the disappointment.
At 46, and no longer at center stage, Jamison is still spreading the gospel of affirmation. Audiences who remember her regal grace, especially in Ailey's "Revelations"--as the plantation matriarch, a romantically flouncy vision in white, balancing her long skirts and holding high her parasol--or in "Cry," the wordless monodrama where she passionately epitomized Every-woman, won't be surprised at her new role.
The Philadelphia-born dancer's close-cropped coif may have turned to a salt-and-pepper gray. And she's bespectacled these days. But little else has changed in this exuberantly outgoing person who sees herself "as a doer, not a philosopher."
Perhaps that's the key to what she calls "a charmed life." While some others quietly retreat when the hard-core part of a dancing career ends, Jamison followed her nose--from one success to another.
Both before and after retiring from Ailey's company in 1980, she parlayed her distinctive celebrity into cameo stints with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Alexander Godunov. Then came her two years on Broadway in the Ellington revue "Sophisticated Ladies," an experience she found "not only exhausting but crazy making," which was followed by "a desire to restore myself in the country."
Even there, she let all possibilities flower, never worrying about being out of the limelight or the desirability of certain identity changes. As a homebody, happy to stay put at last, she started making sweet potato pies--with a recipe using cognac. But her sense of enterprise, seldom dormant, led to yet another public persona. Before long, she was producing the pies en masse for Macy's and other retail outlets and teaming up with the Hennessy people for cognac ads.
"It was my notion of obligation, though, and love, that pulled me back to dance," Jamison recalls.
"Anyone can follow a recipe. Being true to my talent meant returning in some way to the fold and passing on what I knew to others."
The fold, of course, meant Ailey, whom Jamison sees "as my mentor . . . he'll always be that for me." She began teaching his scholarship students and, quite naturally, choreographing little classroom pieces for them. In 1984, she made her debut as a professional choreographer with "Divining," a solo that earned critical kudos for the budding dance-maker as well as the Ailey company. (After complaints that he had paid others to teach his classes at City University of New York, Ailey recently resigned from his $80,000 professorship, a move that drew a terse "No comment" from Jamison.)
Quickly, Jamison's new career was launched, with no small help from her record as guest artist with troupes around the world. Commissions came from Maurice Bejart and his Ballet of the Twentieth Century, the Washington Ballet, Jennifer Muller's The Works and the Opera Company of Philadelphia, for which she choreographed "Mefistofele."
But the satisfactions of an itinerant choreographer seldom measure up to those derived in a familiar milieu. And for Jamison, the rule held true.
"There's nothing like working with your own dancers," she says. "So when the Ailey kids and others I taught here (Philadelphia's University of the Arts) learned some of my pieces, I knew the performances should have a public viewing. Last year, we decided to book an evening at the Joyce Theater (in New York)."
As the evolving choreographer-director learned, however, one cannot contract for a single night at such a theater; since a full week was the minimum rental she decided to sign on--even though it would mean a bigger organizational and financial commitment than was first imagined.
Still, naming her ad hoc enterprise the Jamison Project certainly seemed appropriate, since there was little thought to the future and the official founding of a company. After all, the sweet potato pies had come first, their marketing followed.
The process has been the same for baking and choreographing--even down to raising funds. Hennessy Cognac apparently saw Jamison as a lively prospect, enough to have hired her earlier as a media consultant. And when she started up her performing organization, it advanced $100,000 for the cause. So did other sources kick in--the Detroit Arts Council, for instance.
"It's that charmed life, again," she says.
"But, of course, everything hangs on celebrity appeal. If I were unknown, raising money to start a company would be scratch-and-peck. As it is, everyone has embraced us and that's wonderful. Also, good friends, people like Liz Thompson (who runs the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival), are heavyweights after all these years. They can really help."
With such prospects, Jamison could easily map out a grandiose scheme for her company--its New York debut last November earned high critical marks and a dual base in both Philadelphia and Detroit, where the company is housed in dormitories.
But she talks of keeping the scale small for personal reasons. Her own career as a dancer depended on a surpassing sense of individuality and style and charisma.
"That's what I want the people in the Project to develop," she says, with unwavering faith in their talent. "To give each one so much attention is time-consuming. Besides, 12 is my limit. I just couldn't relate to 40 or 50 dancers. Simply because I need to know them all."
Seven of the original dancers appearing last year at the Joyce were "on loan" from Ailey's company. To replace them, Jamison held auditions several months ago in New York and says she had 173 hopefuls trying out for those precious openings. Not bad for a troupe launching its first tour, an itinerary that includes 20 American cities.
Given the relatively segregated picture of dance, one might expect the debutant director's byword to be affirmative action. Blacks, after all, hardly enjoy more than tokenism among ballet companies--which puts such black company heads as Ailey and Dance Theatre of Harlem's Arthur Mitchell under special obligation to offer opportunities not otherwise available.
"But I don't see things in such black and white terms," says Jamison, holding to a company ethos similar to Ailey's.
"We're a multiracial group with dancers from the south of France and Brazil and Harlem and everywhere. They have to be whole people, complete human beings. And whether they're brown, purple or pink doesn't matter."
In line with this, Jamison is not inclined to tell it on the mountain by preaching social-injustice sermons. She says she prefers to universalize and transcend particular issues.
"What I want to create onstage is a microcosm of my experiences in the world. I want my dancers to reflect what all people share in life--conflict, tenderness, menace, beauty, tragedy. And everything in between."
To carry out these aims, she has built a tour repertory that includes her own dances--"Time Out," "Tease," "Divining"--as well as "Scene Seen" (a solo for Jamison by Garth Fagan), Kris World's "Read Matthew 11:28," and Ralph Lemon's "Les Noces."
They range from duets that integrate ballet technique to waggish romps about power games played between the sexes to energetic gospels to her brand-new piece, "Forgotten Time," set to Bulgarian folk music featuring massed women's voices.
"Where else can you get this stuff?" Jamison asks, referring to the rousing East European chorus as she lowers the phonograph arm onto the recording. "The black issue, you see, is one that I don't want to take up because it forces people into pigeonholes. I like the idea of responding to all ethnic backgrounds--not focusing on a single one.
"My goal here is to show the best dancers and the best choreography in the world. And beyond that to give audiences something they can identify with.
"Look at me. I'm a perfect example. An American, yes. But a product of our melting pot. I can glance in the mirror and see this black woman with the short hair who grew up during the 'black-is-beautiful' movement and toured European capitals feeling like a princess. So I'm more than the physical image.
"I am the sum total of all our influences. And it's out of that that I discover my art. I pray for the day when only our humanity and talent--not our skin color--identify us."