Ailey Season Celebrates a Milestone and Honors a Departing Leader

Classic Arts Features   Ailey Season Celebrates a Milestone and Honors a Departing Leader
No one would ever accuse Judith Jamison of holding back in terms of generosity or enthusiasm. She is brimming with both as she discusses the final City Center season that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will perform under her artistic direction.


Jamison has planned surprises, special events and exceptional musical performances, as well as a world premiere, two company premieres and several significant revivals. In addition the company will celebrate in a variety of festive ways the 50th anniversary of an Ailey work that has become the troupe's beloved calling card around the world: Revelations.

Two seldom-seen Ailey works from the 1970s, Three Black Kings and Mary Lou's Mass, will return to the repertory. Both are of particular musical importance and demonstrate Ailey's interest in portraying the essence of historical as well as biblical figures through dance. The inimitable Geoffrey Holder has supervised a new production of The Prodigal Prince, a 1968 work of fantastical pageantry.

Men and women get equal time in two company premieres. Robert Battle: announced as Jamison's successor earlier this year, he is now the Artistic Director Designate: adds another striking work to the Ailey repertory with The Hunt, a fierce, ritualistic dance for six men. Camille A. Brown's The Evolution Of A Secured Feminine will offer several Ailey women the chance to explore contrasting moods and emotions in a three-part solo. And a former Ailey dancer comes full circle with Anointed, a world premiere by Christopher Huggins, who has created works for Ailey II and the Ailey School.

Live music: always a highly valued, if sometimes financially prohibitive, component of dance performances: is very much on the menu. A special week of "Ailey/Jazz" performances will have Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra performing the Duke Ellington score for Three Black Kings and the Dizzy Gillespie music for Billy Wilson's The Winter in Lisbon. And the unique female a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, who so vividly shared the stage with Ailey dancers in Hope Boykin's Go in Grace, return to sing for selected performances of Revelations.

Their participation is just one of many ways the company is celebrating the half-century of that seminal, timeless Ailey dance. Jamison herself will be in the pit to conduct a full choir at certain performances, and a supersized cast of 50 dancers (Ailey II members and School students joining the regulars) will take the stage for selected shows. In addition, a short documentary film by Emmy winner Judy Kinberg, including footage of Ailey himself dancing in Revelations, will be shown before each performance of the piece.

Jamison vividly recalls the impact of seeing Ailey and his early company members dance Revelations, the first time she encountered the company in the early 1960s. She was a dance student at the Philadelphia Dance Academy, attending the performance with her fellow students. "It's indelibly in my mind, seeing Alvin do 'Wade in the Water,' and also Minnie Marshall, Thelma Hill, Jimmy Truitte, Ella Thompson. That performance in Philadelphia, that's what did it for me. Those images have stuck with me my entire life."

There's a lot that could make Jamison nostalgic this season as roles she created return to the stage. She was in the original casts of Mary Lou's Mass (1971) and Prodigal Prince (1968), and Cry: the solo that solidified her reputation as a unique star of the dance world: will also be back this season. She recalls helping to create the musical score for the Geoffrey Holder work: which he composed and designed, as well as choreographed: in which she portrayed the goddess Erzulie, one of the dramatic figures in the life and imagination of Haitian painter Hector Hyppolite, the dance's central figure.

"Everything was bigger than life in that piece, but we were working on a shoestring, as usual back then," Jamison says. "We all felt we were participating in the creation. Geoffrey made you feel so much a part of the world that he was creating."

Three Black Kings, set to Ellington's last major score, had its premiere as part of the company's memorable Ailey Celebrates Ellington season in 1976. Its three contrasting sections focus on seminal figures in black history: Balthasar, King Solomon and Martin Luther King, whose widow introduced the work at its first performance. "Ellington is an American treasure, and so is Alvin. The two of them getting together was a divine combination," Jamison says. "Alvin put Mr. Ellington on a pedestal."

She had a chance to observe the collaboration between these two artists while assisting Ailey on his 1970 ballet The River. The choreographer brought her along for a meeting at Ellington's apartment. "He looked like the most elegant man you've ever seen, even in his robe and slippers. I could see in what regard Alvin held him, just by the way he acted around him: like he was around somebody who was extraordinary and special."

One more significant revival this season is Jamison's own Forgotten Time, which she made for her company The Jamison Project in 1989, just before taking over as AAADT artistic director following Ailey's death. Set to the haunting folkloric recordings by Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, it entered the Ailey repertory the following year.

"When I heard the music, I was driving, and I had to pull off the road because I had never heard anything like it before," she recalls. "There's such a primordial sound to it. The tonal quality and the layering of chord structure are phenomenal. This dance has a lot of stillness in it, and now I've got a whole new generation of young artists who are amazing to watch. They're just exquisite in their understanding of stillness."

It will be hard, if not impossible, to put a final punctuation mark on Jamison's more than two decades of inspired and influential Ailey leadership. But since this is the last time the company will perform at City Center under her direction, they will pull out all the stops: and attempt to surprise her: with the season finale on January 2. "There will be people showing up you haven't seen for a while," she promises.


Susan Reiter covers dance for New York Press and contributes articles on the performing arts to the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

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