Alvin Ailey dancers put inspiration in motion

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performers.

Photo by By Andrew Eccles

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performers.

Talking with Judith Jamison on the phone, one quickly understands why she's among the country's most successful and uncompromising champions of dance.

She doesn't wait for a question to start her sermon on why dance brings us joy. When the interviewer finally does make a query, one that lacks, shall we say, a certain Wikipedian insight into her life, she chides: "Do your research! You should already have that information in front of you!"

And when asked, "What's one of the biggest challenges being artistic director of Alvin Ailey?" she's only half kidding when she answers: "Getting people to call us by our real name: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater."

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs 'Hymn,' a piece by the company's artistic director, Judith Jamison.  The company will perform the piece Sunday.

Nan Melville

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs "Hymn," a piece by the company's artistic director, Judith Jamison. The company will perform the piece Sunday.

Judith Jamison

Judith Jamison

Twenty years have elapsed since Jamison inherited the leadership of a cultural behemoth, a dance company-turned-institution that is almost constantly on the move.

Jamison, 66, is still moving with it. She'll likely be watching from the back of the Orpheum this weekend when the troupe performs three slightly different programs, each anchored by Ailey's 1960 signature work "Revelations." She keeps a close eye on the 30 dancers that make up what is called the "First Company."

The dancers thrive upon her notes, her "corrections."

"Working with her is kind of surreal," said dancer Jamar Roberts, a seven-year company member. "She's legendary in the dance world. After working with her, I always feel that dance isn't just about the steps. She's always asking, 'What are you trying to say, personally?'"

The vision Jamison has for the company is as personal for her as it was for the founder.

Alvin Ailey, born in 1931, learned his craft under the wing of Lester Horton, a California choreographer who incorporated a variety of dance forms -- ballet, Broadway and jazz -- into his technique and stressed freedom of expression. After Horton's death, Ailey moved to New York, danced on Broadway and, disillusioned by the modern dance scene, began creating his own works.

He founded his company in 1958 with the goal of providing opportunities for dancers of color who were often cast aside by the classical and modern dance establishment.

Jamison was a principal dancer with Ailey from 1965 to 1980. She left to perform on Broadway and choreograph her own works, even forming her own company in 1988.

But before Ailey died in 1989, he chose Jamison to take charge of his legacy. She didn't let him down.

The company continues to perform works by Ailey, Jamison and a host of others. In 2003, the company moved into a $50 million building that houses its world-famous dance school and studios.

"Alvin's vision is still intact," Jamison says. "I extended it. Alvin is like the root of the tree and the trunk, and I branched everything out."

Jamison shares Ailey's democratic approach to dance, spreading its gospel wherever the company travels.

"I'm a walking advertisement for dance," Jamison says. "We feel responsible for spreading the word. Our audiences contain several strata of people. We want to share this idea that dance is for everyone, that everyone can come and have this personal experience."

Perhaps the company's biggest influence has been on aspiring dancers. As Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater crosses the country, it also puts on master classes open to the general public.

Like most of the company members, Rachael McLaren started out in Alvin Ailey's junior company, Ailey II. She was invited to join the first company two years ago.

"Growing up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, I was one of the only black female dancers in ballet school," McLaren said. "I always felt there was a cap on how high I could go. I didn't think the opportunity was really there."

McLaren spent a summer in the Ailey School and learned new forms of body language, the kind of dancing that spoke to her.

"I thought: 'I can really express myself with this type of movement,'" she said. "A whole new world opened up in front of my eyes."

Karen Zissoff, the artistic director of Dance Works in Memphis, says just the idea of Ailey's company can be inspirational to students, especially African-American students who have fewer role models in ballet.

"I think there's a huge impact when the kids see other dancers from their same cultural heritage," Zissoff said. "It's hard work to become a dancer, and Alvin Ailey might be another thing that gives them something to work for."

Jamison says that making lasting, human connections -- whether they are with young people learning how to dance or people who have never danced at all -- remains the most satisfying part of her job.

"When I sit in the back of the house with you, and we sit there and we're both loving what we see," she said. "That's my proudest moment. As human beings, we are made to try to achieve perfection. You can see the humanness of the dancers on the stage because they are always reaching for perfection."

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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Presented by Cultural Arts for Everyone. Performances 8 tonight and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Orpheum theater. Tickets are $20-$57. Call 525-3000.

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ALVIN AILEY DANCE PROGRAM NOTES

"Revelations" (1960): Among the most-performed works in dance history, this dance suite uses traditional African-American music to explore grief and joy. Tonight, Saturday and Sunday.

"Suite Otis" (1971): A playful battle-of-the-sexes dance suite by former Ailey company choreographer and Tony winner George Faison with music by Stax recording artist Otis Redding. Performed tonight and Sunday.

"Night Creature" (1975): Combining modern, classical and jazz, this Alvin Ailey original uses Duke Ellington's music to evoke sexy nocturnal rituals. One of Ailey's most popular works. Tonight.

"In/Side" (2008): Set to Nina Simone's "Wild Is the Wind," Robert Battle's six-minute solo features his bold, unrestrained style. Tonight.

"Episodes" (1987): Former Ailey company member Ulysses Dove choreographed this high-energy piece to a score by Robert Ruggieri. Saturday.

"Love Stories" (2004): Judith Jamison collaborated with hip-hop pioneer Rennie Harris and modern dance maverick Robert Battle in this no-limits dance set to music by Stevie Wonder. Saturday.

"Hymn" (1993): Choreographed by Judith Jamison four years after Alvin Ailey's passing, the work became a subject in the PBS documentary "A Hymn for Alvin Ailey." Sunday.

Master classes

10 a.m. Saturday: AAADT teaches Horton Method, University of Memphis Dance Studio. Cost is $20. Call 312-9787.

11 a.m. Saturday: AAADT teaches "Revelation" workshop at First Baptist Broad, 2835 Broad Ave. Cost is $20 or free with ticket stub. Call 312-9787.

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Comments » 2

peggyisonagain#217272 writes:

That's why his legacy continues - he handpicked his successor. I was in LA on Dec 1st when Ailey died and was unaware of his artistry at the time. I haven't seen the troupe in person yet but their performance on TV ("So You Think You Can Dance") was electrifying.

peggyisonagain#217272 writes:

Have they gone Hollywood or high-tech yet and bagun distribution of their performances on DVD yet? It would be worth the $19.99 or whatever cost and you could watch it over and over again. They don't have to worry too much about someone infringing on their work although my nieces and daughters will probably be mimiicking them at church functions.

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