Holiday Dance at the Alvin Ailey Theater

Ed Gordon talks with Judith Jamison, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which opens its annual holiday dance season next Wednesday in New York City.

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ED GORDON, host:

Next Wednesday the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater opens its holiday performance season at New York's City Center. The legendary company has danced all over the world since Ailey founded the group 47 years ago. Artistic director Judith Jamison has been with the Ailey Theater most of that time. Her imprint on the company is indelible, and today she and her dancers are celebrating their brand-new headquarters in Manhattan. Jamison credits her late friend and mentor for the company's enduring success.

Ms. JUDITH JAMISON (Artistic Director, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater): Alvin, number one, was a genius of a choreographer, but also of a man. Alvin believed in the humanity of dance. He believed in being absolutely involved with the communities that you serve, be they across the street or around the world. Therefore, we've been in communities with at-risk children, in hospitals, in prisons, and it has always been Alvin's prerequisite that you understand you're the artist and that you must put on the best performances, but who are you doing it for? You're doing it for the people. He says, quote, "Dance came from the people and needs to be delivered back to the people."

GORDON: That has been true to the sense of the Ailey Company, particularly when it travels. You see so often the idea that people who would never think of going to dance--if they hear Alvin Ailey's coming, the troop itself, they're there.

Ms. JAMISON: Oh, yeah. They'll drop a game to come see us, you know? People will drag people kicking and screaming because they'll say, `You've never seen anything like this concert modern dance before.' And then it opens doors for other things to happen in people's lives. Say our Ailey Camps, you know? There are seven Ailey camps across the United States, all started in Kansas City--that was the first one--when Alvin said, `We've got to do something once again for kids.' Just for eight weeks during the summer, about a hundred of them, middle-school kids, who would otherwise be out on the street doing something they shouldn't be doing.

GORDON: The Alvin Ailey Theater has kept dance in the fore for black folk. Is that important?

Ms. JAMISON: Absolutely.

GORDON: Yeah.

Ms. JAMISON: Oh, yes, absolutely. I mean, Alvin wanted to celebrate the African-American experience and the cultural expression of his people, and the modern-dance tradition of this country. You know, we have a basis for what we--when we're out onstage, we're doing Horton technique. Well, Horton technique is evident in ballets like our classic American work "Revelations," which people insist that we do. It does the same thing to everyone. It moves them spiritually and takes them to a higher place. That's all it was about. That's all it's still about.

GORDON: Let me ask you about Judith Jamison personally, the idea that it is the Alvin Ailey Theater but Mr. Ailey passed away in 1989. And so much of this theater for so long, even before his death, was identified with you, and you were and can arguably be said the heart and soul of this dance theater. Has there ever been a time that ego said, `Hey, hey, it's me'?

Ms. JAMISON: Ooh, no. Ooh, ooh, no. No, that--you know, I'm from Philadelphia; Mother Bethel AME Church, you know. It's never about me, me, me, me, me, me, 'cause I know from whence I came, you know? I'm proud of where I've come from and am still going. But I would not have gotten there without that first mother and father and that extended family, you know? And I am--I have surrounded myself, as artistic director, with those people who love me, I love them, and we work with each other.

GORDON: Let me ask you this: The discipline of dance is so intense. When you look at young people today, particularly young African-Americans--ofttimes I look at this generation--I have an 11-year-old daughter--and I sometimes wonder about the discipline of youth today. Do you see it in that way? If so, does it bother you?

Ms. JAMISON: I know that youth today can be very disciplined with what they want to do. When they discover that they can shift disciplines and they can come with as great intensity as they do with something they like, and then they realize that they can grow to love something else, too, and that they're that talented, there's no stopping them, you know?

GORDON: Let me ask you about the new facility before we let you go. $54 million; 77,000 square feet of headquarters in Manhattan, which, you know, ain't the cheapest land going in the place--what do you want to see of that building? What do you want the brick and mortar to become, to a great degree?

Ms. JAMISON: Right. What it needs to remain is that big man born in Rogers, Texas, who unfortunately left us too soon, but his spirit was one of giving genius and one who had just a plain old generous spirit, loved what he did, loved the craft. When you walk into that eight-story building, you should feel immediately his warmth. Just look at the back picture; you'll see us both together, looking forward and looking ahead.

GORDON: Well, if, indeed, you feel his warmth, we certainly feel yours right over his shoulder. It's always a pleasure to talk to you. We should note: 47th season for the Alvin Ailey Theater, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at New York's City Center November 30th through January 1st, 2006. If you're in New York or even the vicinity, find your way there and you're going to see some wonderful dancin', as they say.

Thank you so much for being with us.

Ms. JAMISON: Thanks, Ed.

GORDON: To listen to the program, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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