Alvin Ailey's pioneering dance troupe, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Artistic director Judith Jamison has worked off and on (mostly on) with the company since 1965, when she joined as a dancer. She was hand-picked by Ailey and appointed as the company's artistic director shortly after Ailey's death in 1989. Jamison gushed about the troupe's upcoming performance at the Fox Feb. 19-22 during a phone interview last week, barley letting us get a word in. Her excitement about the anniversary tour is understandable. Heck, even the Obamas found time to make it out to a Feb. 6 performance at the Kennedy Center in D.C.
Jamison on company founder Alvin Ailey's vision:
"Fifty years ago [Ailey] just decided that there was no place for black dancers to be seen. ... The first work that he actually did was Blues Suite. And because there was this vacant spot for not celebrating our own culture that of African and American of course celebrating the modern tradition of our country, he decided to combine that in many ways. Abstractly, directly, story telling, placing us in situations that we reflect on our culture as Americans and as African Americans.
"So the pieces that were doing for you, especially for the students, (I love the standing student performances that are coming up), those are sometimes my favorite cause the kids, they are active! They make noise! ... Because Alvin always believed that were born to spread out. He happened to say that if the dance came from people it needed to be delivered back to the people, so there should not be a line between whats going on on the stage and what youre feeling when youre watching.
"... We are here to celebrate the idea of what the human body can do and how far it can reach into your soul and make you feel differently about yourself. Make you feel good. Make you feel period. Whether its good, bad, or any way, but that you have a specific experience that you can participate in, you know? I mean, what a wonderful thing to be able to see live performance. To be able to be in the dark in a huge place like that gorgeous Fox Theatre, which I love, and be in this huge space, and have your eyes do their own walking, you know what Im saying? Its not controlled by anybody. The stage is yours. And were there for you."
Jamison on AADT's trademark dance, Revelations:
"Its one of our classic works. Its about bell houses. Its about juke joints. Its about bordello light. Its about people who are frustrated and living on the edge and cant get out of this little tiny town that theyre in and in that town theyre stuck. But they still, within that, have grown with grace and dignity. And on Saturday night theyre at that club, theyre at that party, theyre out on the town. But on Sunday morning theyre in church. Revelations.
"... Revelations has been done more than any other modern dance or any dance for that matter, over the years. ... Well, thats a tribute to the mans genius. His idea of understanding that dance had something to say about who we are as people. And because we are so specific about who were are as people, as African Americans, the message became universal. Because its about our humanity. Its about everyones humanity. So thats why Revelations or Blues Suite or any of these Ailey classics can be understood all over world. Theres no barrier there."
Jamison on dance education:
"First of all, the first thing you do when youre born is what? And dont tell me you make a noise. Because everybody knows when youre alive you gotta open your mouth first and wave those little chords in the air to make sure people know youre alive. And youre breathing, those lungs are moving. Everything is moving, you know? So we move. Its within us to move.
"... My hat is off to this generation, because they are bombarded with so much information. That in order for them to have a really great sense of who they are as individuals, and understand their uniqueness, sometimes those images have to be put in front of them. And a great example of that is an Ailey dancer. Is a dancer that carries themselves well, that is intelligent, that has something to say about commitment and passion and love of what they do.
"That extends not just to children, but it is especially important for children to understand that. And its especially important for adults to keep mentoring their children and having them understand that the arts are a very important part of their lives. Its not just something you do on the side up in the background of somebody. This is modern concert dance, from a predominantly African-American company thats been around for 50 years, that the President of the United States decided he would come to see on his first date, you know? Theres that significance. I wish Alvin had been here for that significance."
Jamison on the Lester Horton Technique:
"Lester Horton gave Alvin the ideas of dance being inclusive: the dancer learning about theater, the dancer knowing how to sew a costume, repair a costume, the dancer knowing about light. The dancer knowing about floor. The dancer knowing about choreography, about structure, about how things work in the business world. How to book the company.
"You know one of the things were grandly missing in the world of the arts is people of color being behind the scenes. The arts and education or producing even. Or being stage manager or being an agent. Being in concert dance. Concert modern dance. We are sorely lacking in executive directors. Except Ive got the greatest executive director in the world. Sharon Luckman. She is fabulous. But Im saying to you that behind the scenes there need to be many more people of color who are into the development and into marketing and into everything that is possible that is not necessarily performance-oriented.
"In fact, as far as Lester Horton, Lester Horton was [Ailey's] master teacher. I mean he really gave him the basis, which was the Horton Technique, from which he sprang. Thats why I tell young people now that youve gotta learn how to sit on some technique before they get out there and try everything else. You cant be poppin and lockin and kickin your legs up high and doing multiple pirouettes and all that until youre 95. You have to have something to sit on. Some technique to sit on."
Jamison on the African-American cultural experience:
"If you think that in the company, there are people from all over the world in the company, who have come to study what our culture is about. And who have immersed themselves in our culture and found out that in immersing themselves in a specific culture they found out the range of Mr. Alvin Ailey and how open-armed and how expressive we can be. You think of Masazumi Chaya, hes been with the company for 38 years. He joined the company in 1972. Isnt that something? So here we are with this man from Fukuoka, Japan. Now would you please now the reason it makes sense is because he came to study because he saw this wonderful choreography. He saw this incredible culture. And he came to study it. And out of that, he says what he learned from Alvin is how to be a better human being. Now go with that. And be a better artist. Now how many people can say that?"
(Photo by Andrew Eccles)
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