Judith Jamison was the biggest star the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had in its 32 years. She is now at the helm of the modern dance company as it twirls through its first New York season with an artistic director other than its founder.
Jamison was named artistic director after Ailey’s death last year on Dec. 1. The season had gone on that month, as planned, in a kind of shocked state for both dancers and audiences.
Two works Ailey choreographed, including “Hidden Rites,” are being revived for the current season, and five new dances are being added, ranging from “Impinyuza,” Pearl Primus’ 1952 paean to the royal dancers of the Watusi in Ruanda, to “Read Matthew 11:28" by young Kris World, who danced and sang on a Stevie Wonder tour.
There are also works by Donald McKayle, Lar Lubovitch for his own company and Jamison for the Jamison Project, the 12-member dance company she had before heading the Ailey.
“I’m excited about the season,” she said. “Sometimes the company is only known as a high-energy-burning, exciting company. ‘North Star’ by Lar is a softer way of moving. They look beautiful doing that.
“The people dancing in the company now--who’ve been here on an average of four or five years--haven’t danced Primus. Dudley Williams has; he is working on his 26th year here. I think she is one of our unsung heroines of dance as well as a great anthropologist. I wanted to present the men of the company in a piece that was Afro-centric. They’re magnificent.
“Alvin’s ‘Hidden Rites’ is from the John Parks-Jamison era. It hasn’t been done since then. It’s part of Alvin’s vocabulary these dancers had never visited. Dudley was the last person to dance Alvin’s ‘Hermit Songs.’ Three dancers will alternate it this season. It’s about a monk.”
The hardest thing Jamison has to do as head of an established, respected company of 28 dancers, is delegate responsibility.
“When I joined in 1965, there were 10 dancers, and everybody did everything. Alvin needed something; you did it. Now I have a staff, a development director, public relations and Masazumi Chaya, the miracle of this company, rehearsal director the last four years. He can remember details and dances like no other.
“I’m very good at molding the end result of rehearsals. I say: ‘You know the steps. Let me coerce you into dancing it. If you bring your entire being to this movement, you’re going to take a step in a direction you haven’t been in before.”’
Jamison believes that it helps that she’s a former dancer, as was Ailey. “The dancers know that I remember what it’s like to be in their shoes. They let me get on stage with them a couple of minutes in ‘Read Matthew.’ ”
Six dancers from the Jamison Project have joined the Ailey company. “It’s a nice injection of energy,” Jamison said, hastily adding: “Not that this company needs energy. It is nice to have some fresh blood.
“Alvin had the same idea I did; you want a Cecil B. DeMille cast of thousands. But the budget calls for 28.” The six dancers from the Jamison Project learned 15 dances in six weeks.
“That’s when you realize that ‘Revelations’ isn’t as easy as it looks,” Jamison said. “Revelations,” which Ailey choreographed to spirituals in 1960, is called an American classic by Jamison. They loved it in Russia, she said. “It does the same thing to everyone all over the world.
“We will always do Alvin’s masterpieces, ‘Revelations,’ ‘Cry’ and ‘Blues Suite,’ and the repertory is going to be fed,” Jamison said. “I think it is important the company does not sit as a museum piece. Alvin Ailey was to me a free spirit, a man who had extraordinary theatrical sense and a generosity beyond belief. There aren’t other companies with men of his stature asking his peers to make dances for the company.
“I think one of his major contributions was that he made dance accessible. People who wouldn’t naturally go to dance would come. They’d have their lives changed and how they feel about theater dance changed. Part of my goal is to continue touching the hearts and minds of people, especially young people.”