Ailey’s Jamison makes final appearance in Chicago as artistic director

When the curtain falls following the last performance of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre’s five-day Chicago tour, it will mark the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.

When the curtain falls following the last performance of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre’s five-day Chicago tour, it will mark the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.

The May 18-22 performances at the Auditorium Theatre are the 24th and final legs of the dance company’s U.S. tour, and the last ones with Judith Jamison as artistic director. Jamison has been the head of the dance company since 1989, a position she was bequeathed by Ailvin Ailey himself before he died that same year.

Robert Battle will take over as AAADT artistic director in July.

A celebrated dancer and choreographer in her own right, Jamison said her decision to step down from her position with the dance company is more about logic and preserving the dance company’s longevity than anything else.

“Alvin gave me a great gift. And I’m just passing that gift along to make sure that the gift is sustained,” Jamison, a protΘgΘ of the late Ailey, told the Defender. Alvin Ailey choreographed “Cry” for Jamison to perform and she did so to highly regarded acclaim.

“I see 50 more years of Ailey, I’m not going to be around another 50 years unless we have an incredible advance in science,” she said.

Jamison turned 68 on May 10.

She has spent most of her adult life involved with the dance company. She danced as a youth and joined AAADT by the time she was 22, becoming one of Alvin Ailey’s principal dancers. Jamison remembers practicing in cramped quarters, and the company sharing dance space with other dance organizations.

Ailey put her out front and paired her with incredibly talented dancers, including Russia’s Mikhail Baryshnikov. And after her career would see her leave Ailey in 1980 to dance on Broadway and later choreograph on her own, she returned to the New York City-based company for good.

She also has in her head the lessons Ailey taught about not only dancing in the community but also reaching out to it.

“Alvin was about celebrating the African American cultural expression and experience in the modern dance tradition of our country. And that has to be perpetuated,” she said.

AAADT has come a long way since its March 1958 beginnings when it performed for the first time and went on to do what Alvin Ailey called “the station wagon tours” where the dancers traveled in a vehicle driven by a friend of the company’s.

Now, the company shuttles across international waters taking its critically acclaimed performances on stages in Norway, Russia and Germany, to name a few. Its international touring helped AAADT earn the title of cultural ambassadors to the world.

Jamison said Ailey shared with her his vision for the dance company, born out of his dissatisfaction with the dance opportunities for Blacks at that time. She felt it an honor for her mentor to designate her the AAADT artistic director, but she also felt a personal indebtedness to his legacy and what he hoped to build.

“His spirit is always with us. We celebrate his legacy every time the curtain goes up,” Jamison said.

She explained that her main goal has always been to further Ailey’s vision and to preserve what Ailey founded, even if that means stepping down from her position.

“It’s about the future of the company. It’s not about my future,” she said. “I’ve been dancing since I was 6, I’m (now) 68 and I’ve been running this company for 21 years; it’s a no-brainer.”

The Philadelphia native has helped to lift the company to lofty status in the dance world, and has helped the AAADT to provide classes and workshops that gives back to the community.

AAADT now offers The Ailey School for aspiring dancers, Ailey II for aspiring youth dancers and The Ailey Extension for “real people” (everyday people) to participate in dance and fitness techniques, among other activities and programs. In addition, in conjunction with Fordham University, AAADT also offers a bachelor’s of fine arts degree.

With Jamison’s leadership, the AAADT has made some of its founder’s dreams come true.

The 2009 Black Entertainment Television Honors awardee described with one word the journey she’s experienced as artistic director: wonderful.

She also pointed out what she had to build from.

Jamison took over a company that was $1 million in debt and in shock over the founder’s death. Even in their mourning, the show went on with the company performing five days after his death, she said.

And the dance company has not missed a beat.

She calls the dance company’s permanent home in New York City “a real house of dance.”

No more practicing in too small facilities or sharing space with other dance companies.

With Jamison at the helm, AAADT has a permanent 77,000-square-foot glass home, The Joan Weill Center for Dance, where passersby stop and peer in.

She said that what she has done over the years is primarily take Ailey’s vision and bring it to fruition.

“What I’ve done is water the plant and that transition is all of the things that have grown out of this one rooted tree,” she said of Ailey’s visionary seeds that she helped to sow, grow and nurture.

“The idea of the company and it’s longevity…I don’t know if Ailey knew that the company was going to last as long as it has lasted,” said Jamison, a 1999 Kennedy Center Honor recipient.

Jamison’s work with AAADT has brought her many other honors. First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a tribute event for Jamison at the White House last year and the artistic leader was also named the 2010 recipient of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s prestigious Phoenix Award. New York City Mayor Bloomberg presented her with the Handel Medallion, the city’s highest honor.

But she modestly contends that much has been made of her leaving her post with AAADT.

“It’s really not all that. All it is, I made the decision,” she said.

Copyright 2011 Chicago Defender

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