TOPICS > Arts

Alvin Ailey Troupe Celebrates Longtime Choreographer’s Last Dance

January 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
Loading the player...
After more than 20 years at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, director Judith Jamison is preparing to step down. In a profile by Jeffrey Brown, Jamison discusses how a mantra of "pray, prepare, and proceed" had guided her both on and off the dance floor.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Next: a remarkable dancer and the remarkable company she helped build.

Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: From its beginning, 51 years ago the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has been a celebration of African-American culture and black dancers and choreographers who found few opportunities elsewhere to work.

On a recent night at the City Center Theater in New York, the celebration continued, now focused on the woman who has long been the face of the company, Judith Jamison, dancer, choreographer, and artistic director, who has just announced she’s stepping down next year.

JUDITH JAMISON, artistic director, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: What we tried to do is express our humanity, as we’re showing you these, not just steps, but we’re showing you parts of life through our movement, through what we’re doing.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re showing parts of life?

JUDITH JAMISON: We are. That’s the idea, even in its abstract form.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jamison grew up in Philadelphia, her father a carpenter, her mother a schoolteacher. She began to dance at age six, her first stage, a sheet on a backyard clothes line. At home, she also learned her mantra for success through dance and life.

JUDITH JAMISON: Pray, prepare, and proceed, I do believe that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pray, prepare and proceed.

JUDITH JAMISON: Pray, prepare and proceed.

And there was always a lot of prayer in my house. Preparing, gosh, if you start dancing when you’re six years old, you know, I don’t — I think that’s preparing.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then proceed.

JUDITH JAMISON: Proceed means, when the curtain goes up, you go for it with excellence, with confidence. I mean, the curtain goes up on your life every day. You open your eyes, and your curtain is up.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jamison made her New York debut with the American Ballet Theatre in 1964, and then met the man who would change her life, Alvin Ailey, the legendary founder of the company and the creator of such landmark works as “Revelations.”

For 15 years, Jamison, 5’10” tall, full-bodied, fearless on stage, was the most famous dancer in the company and one of the most famous in the world. Her signature piece, a 16-minute solo choreographed by Ailey, was titled “Pride.”

When Ailey died in 1989, Jamison succeeded him. She had stopped dancing the year before.

She talked to the “NewsHour”‘s Charlayne Hunter-Gault then about her goals.

JUDITH JAMISON: Mr. Ailey was so specific about his African-American heritage that what he had to say through movement became universal, because it spoke to the human condition, so that, if “Revelations” was done in Russia, or in Toledo, or in Tokyo, everyone understood what that message was about.

And what I would like to do in the Ailey is continue that history, but not make the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater a museum.

JEFFREY BROWN: Twenty years later, at age 66, she says this.

JUDITH JAMISON: The changes have been that I have made my selections, my choices on what ballets would come in and who the dancers would be, but still adhering to that initial vision that said we should celebrate the African-American cultural expression and experience in the modern dance tradition of our country.

JEFFREY BROWN: I was reading your memoir. And you say in there that Alvin Ailey used to speak of what he called blood memories.

JUDITH JAMISON: The blood memories. Yes, blood memories.

JEFFREY BROWN: What does that mean?

JUDITH JAMISON: Well, that means look to your ancestors before you look ahead. So, it informs you. It gives you a root. It gives you a basis to stand on. You know where you come from. And it gives you — you’re not sanding on sand. You’re standing on rock. You’re standing on solid ground.

ng>JEFFREY BROWN: Five years ago, the company built its own office and rehearsal space in Midtown Manhattan, eight floors, 77,000 square feet, said to be the largest building dedicated solely to dance in the U.S. Thousands of children and adults take classes there, classical ballet, African, and the Horton, a style of modern dance named for Ailey’s mentor.

Jamison has helped make Ailey an international brand. The 30 professional dancers tour constantly. To date, the company has performed in 71 countries for an estimated 23 million people.

WOMAN: Please welcome the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, last year, they appeared on the popular ABC prime-time show “Dancing With the Stars.”

Jamison was skeptical at first, but then came around.

JUDITH JAMISON: The world is full of ways for people to dance. Concert dance doesn’t get its due. So, when we get our opportunity, there we are.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, I often find when I’m talking to people that dance, for many people, seems the hardest one to get, the least accessible.

JUDITH JAMISON: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: They don’t get it.

JUDITH JAMISON: That’s OK.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s OK?

JUDITH JAMISON: Yes, it’s just fine. All we want you to do to is get in the theater. You know, just get — there’s nothing like live performance.

And you have to remember, there’s no test at the end of it. It’s like looking at a painting, you know? You look at a painting, you get something from it or you don’t get something. It moves you or it doesn’t move you, you know? There’s nobody strapping you in your seat and saying, you have got to get this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Amid the current celebration for Jamison, the search for a new leader for Alvin Ailey continues. She says she’s confident about the company’s future.

JUDITH JAMISON: It will continue to be inclusive and to engage the community and the world toward us understanding that we’re all the same under the skin.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m wondering about the young dancers who come to you now. Do they know the past? Do they care about — the same way about the mission you were talking about?

JUDITH JAMISON: They do. They have to. They have to — otherwise, what are they dancing here for? There’s no point.

If you’re just here to see how many pirouettes you can do, or how high you can raise your leg, or how high you can jump, that’s not what gives memories. I mean, people don’t remember me for how high my legs went, even though they went up very high, and how many pirouettes I did. They don’t remember me for that. They remember me and any other dancer because something touched them inside. It’s an indelible memory on the heart and in the mind.

JEFFREY BROWN: Judith Jamison won’t say what’s next for her, but promises more surprises. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will celebrate her legacy throughout the coming year.