When Judith Jamison became artistic director for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, she had some big shoes to fill.
Ailey, who founded one of the nation's most enduring modern-dance ensembles, died in 1989. Since accepting the creative reins five years ago from the legendary dancer/choreographer, Jamison has emerged from the shadow of her powerful predecessor and taken bold new steps.
This week, the UCLA Center for Performing Arts sponsors the return of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater with the premiere of "The Women of Ailey."
Jamison brings a troupe of distinct individuals to the Wiltern Theatre, where they perform works that are both true--and new--to Ailey's style.
This season's performance focuses on works by leading female composers, musicians and playwrights. Six of the nine works that the 30-member company will perform feature work either by female choreographers or an all-female ensemble.
"I wanted to add women choreographers to our roster," Jamison said. "We had done some but I wanted to celebrate the beauty and contributions of women."
One of the highlights of the performance is Jamison's "Hymn," a personal tribute to Ailey that combines music, acting and dancing.
The piece begins with tape-recorded reminiscences by Ailey himself. Then, there is an appearance by actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith, a recent Tony award nominee for her piece about social unrest, "Twilight: Los Angeles 1992." She reads her own composition based upon dancers' thoughts about Ailey and the troupe. And, as Smith reads, dancers come onto the stage for a moving performance.
Other distinguished pieces include choreographer Brenda Way's "Scissors Paper Stone," and Elisa Monte's duet "Treading" as well as "Vespers," a percussive dance performed by an ensemble of six women.
"It's a celebration of movement," Jamison said. "The walls fall away and you come on a journey with us. Hopefully, your perspective has been changed as a human being."
And as always, the program will feature Ailey classics such as "Masekela Language," a searing portrait of black South Africa, Billy Wilson's "The Winter in Lisbon," set to the music of Dizzy Gillespie, and "Night Creature," danced to the music of Duke Ellington.
In 1964, Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a company dedicated to the preservation and enrichment of the American modern dance heritage and the uniqueness of black cultural expression.
Ailey, who created 79 ballets in his lifetime, maintained that his company was not exclusively a repository for his own work. He envisioned a company that presented important works of the past and commissioned new ones. In all, more than 150 works by 50 choreographers have been performed by the Ailey Company.
To Jamison, it is important not to lose sight of his vision.
"What I am doing is extending what Mr. Ailey left," said the 50-year-old New York City resident. "He left me an extraordinary foundation that touches the heart, mind and soul."
Since Ailey's death, some prominent dancers have left and moved on to other companies. Others have graduated from the Ailey dance academy, signaling the arrival of new dancers. Fortunately, some legendary faces such as Dudley Williams, who is celebrating his 30th year with the company, are still around.
"It's exciting to have artists who are veterans and are new," Jamison said. "We love performing because we are dancing from somewhere deep within and you can feel that when you are in the audience."
With the Ailey company continuing to perform such memorable works, it is easy to see why they have gained such a loyal following from audiences at home and abroad. What links these audiences is the artistic expression that is conveyed by a group of spectacular performers.
And beyond the stage curtain is Jamison--and her captivating presence as both a leader and an artist. With her guidance, the New York-based troupe continues to succeed. Today, it is considered one of the most popular and financially successful in the country.
Jamison, whose career began when she was discovered by Agnes de Mille, made her New York debut in De Mille's "The Four Marys" with the American Ballet Theatre. She became a member of the Ailey troupe in 1965 and has traveled extensively in the United States, Europe, Asia, South America and Africa during her 15-year tenure as an ensemble dancer.
After starring in the hit Broadway musical "Sophisticated Ladies," she performed as a guest artist with companies all over the world and debuted her own dance troupe, The Jamison Project. In late 1989, she returned to the Ailey company and has never looked back.
"It's a hard life because you are constantly on the road," she said.
But that sacrifice has its payoff, she said.
"It's rewarding in the fact that audiences celebrate our sense of contribution, passion and dedication about what we're doing."
Performances for "The Women of Ailey" will be held Friday through Feb. 26 at the Wiltern Theatre, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets are $40, $37, $32 and $16 for students with valid identification. For information, call (310) 825-2101.