MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch. It's the part of the program which we speak with distinguish elders from the worlds of politics, public service and the arts. People who gain not just knowledge but wisdom from years of accomplishments, and Judith Jamison certainly has wisdom to spare.
She joined one of the country's most prestigious ballet companies at a time when that world was largely closed to African-Americans. Jamison later joined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and helped to make the company a model for bringing new sounds and styles to the world of dance. For a time, she stepped out on her own and created her own dance company but returned to Alvin Ailey in 1989 to lead the company after its founder's untimely death.
Jamison is currently presiding over 18 months of celebrations commemorating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Ailey Company.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. HUDA SIMS(ph): Lateral. She stays over there. Lateral.
Ms. JUDITH JAMISON (Dancer-Choreographer; Artistic Director, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater): You are listening to Huda Sims rehearse "Night Creature." She's rehearsing with new a person in the cast, Antonio. Rachel is from Canada. People are from all over, you know, everybody is from everywhere, like a microcosm of the world. The common denominator here is that we're all talented.
MARTIN: We caught up with her at the company's Manhattan studios doing a short break between rehearsals. I'm honored to be talking with a true creative force, a pioneer in the dance world. Judith Jamison, we are so delighted to have you with us.
Ms. JAMISON: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be with you.
MARTIN: You are probably sick of telling the story, but I do think it's important to point out that you joined the American Ballet Theater in 1964, at a time when there were very few role models. Young black girls were told they didn't have the body for classical dance. They didn't have the grace.
Ms. JAMISON: Right. And we weren't in tutus. Agnes de Mille, actually, discovered me in Philadelphia. Then I came up with Agnes to do "The Four Marys," which was a special ballet that she had created. She was reviving it for Carmen Del Avila(ph), who was one of my absolute idols. But I came to Ballet Theater with a special niche of doing this particular ballet. So once we finished doing that ballet it was over because there were no black people in American Ballet Theater at that time, which, of course, didn't make any difference to me.
I came from tradition of you just open those doors, where you have to open doors if they shut in your face. You open a window. Do something.
MARTIN: But, you know, my little girl takes ballet. She, you know, does her thing in her tutu and all this, and it does not occur to her or any of the other little girls in her world that she could not do this, in part because of you. And I'd like to know how you knew that you could do this when you were a little girl?
Ms. JAMISON: I knew because I had parents that told me I could do anything. You know, really, I grew up in that kind of household. My parents were the examples. My mother put me in ballet school at the (unintelligible) School of Dance. That's how all of this got started. But the example in my head was I had black ballerinas in front of me teaching me when I was at Marianne Sushe's(ph) school. I had pictures on my wall of not only Lesha Alonso(ph), and very, very famous white ballerinas, but I also had a Carmen Del Avila and a Mary Hingsen(ph) and all of these - Catherine Donum(ph). All these models icons of my image in front of me.
So let's say I had very good armor. There were opportunities for people to try to invade the idea that I was gorgeous and that my nose my beautiful and that my lips where gorgeous and that I had a wonderful behind and that, you know, everything was good about what I was trying to be because I had something to offer.
MARTIN: How did you meet Alvin Ailey?
Ms. JAMISON: Alvin was at the first rehearsal I went in. That's when I met him. It was a television special on the roaring '20s. And I went there. I was terrible. I was awful. I mean, I couldn't take a step because I hadn't danced for three months. It was after that ballet theater gig was over, I was working at the World's Fair pushing buttons at the log flume ride. We walked out of the audition and I passed this man on the steps, didn't even know it was Alvin because I was so distraught. Called my mother, said, mom, I've got to stay in New York State. Three days later, two days later, somebody called me on the phone, said, my name is Alvin Ailey. I'd like you to join my company. I walked into the rehearsal. That's when I met Alvin.
MARTIN: Wow. Tell me a little bit about him.
Ms. JAMISON: Alvin adored people. He adored being around all kinds of people. He adored translating whatever their ideas of life were about. He enjoyed interpreting that through his choreography.
MARTIN: Ailey unabashedly celebrates the African-American culture. And yet, it's always been inclusive. And you know, we're having these conversations, you know, about race and what does race mean and does race still matter.
Ms. JAMISON: Yeah.
MARTIN: This may not be a question you can even answer, but I'm just curious how you think about that, how you think about race and humanity? Because Alvin Ailey's so much about humanity, but it is also about race as a culture. How do you think about that?
Ms. JAMISON: Yes, well, I think being specific about who you are should pull your nerves together and let you understand that you're just like everybody else, that everybody else is going through not the same experience that you've gone through, but somewhere in their lives they've had to face some really bad trials. So yeah, there is race, of course there's race. There's going to be. You know, wonderful, great, but that shouldn't be separating us. That should be pulling us together. I mean, you've got two arms and two legs and a head and hair and all that just like I do, you know, and I'm here to remind you of that whenever the Ailey Dancers get on stage.
MARTIN: You had left the company for a time to start your own company, which is a very bold thing to do. It's like starting a small business. It's its own challenge, but then when Mr. Ailey died you came back to help run this company to take over the leadership of this company. Was that hard? Did you feel it a sacrifice?
Ms. JAMISON: I didn't feel a sacrifice because I took half the dancers with me into the company. I took half my board with me. I took a lot of people with me, and also, I took me with me, and me had been developed for, you know, a long time, and the beauty of the Ailey Company was Alvin believed in our uniqueness.
MARTIN: But for a woman, sometimes to step up and to create her own identity - did you feel you were subsuming it again?
Ms. JAMISON: You just did a layer of things. You just did a layer because you said dance is about the women. Dance in the Ailey Company has always been about men and women equally. When you think of ballet, you think of dancing being about the women because you think of the tutu, you know, and her being lifted constantly and all that, but I mean, when you think of concert modern dance, it's equal.
And at one point, at some time, off and on in this company, it's always been, oh, those men are forceful, oh, those women are forceful, oh, they're equally forceful, and it keeps going that way. But while I'm in the storm, I don't think about the storm. You know, I don't think, you know, you're in the forest and you can't see the trees. There was no time to go, wow, oh, Alvin wants me to run this company, oh, my goodness, what am I going to do?
He passed away December 1st, 1989. What was I supposed to do? You know, there was no time for question. There was time to understand that I was prepared and I prayed a lot and then I launched that ship. I mean, when I think about the ballets that I've created, like, for instance, "A Hymn for Alvin Ailey," when you see that Emmy Awards sign up over there, it was a ballet called "Hymn," and then it was with all 30 dancers. I would never do that again as long as I live. It came from my heart to do this. I was also surrounded by extraordinary people so there was a support system already in place and I already knew who they were.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News and I'm at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York speaking with the legendary dancer, artistic director Judith Jamison. I did want to ask you something I should have asked earlier about "Cry." That piece is one that people see it and can never forget it. What is it about that piece that was so groundbreaking and why is it that we continue to love it?
Ms. JAMISON: It was groundbreaking because it was done on two people, not just me. It was created on me foremost, but it was groundbreaking in the fact that it was dedicated to all black women, especially our mothers. Of course, I didn't know that when I went on stage to do it, but that's OK, too. Another ballet from Alvin's heart to my heart.
He loved people, he knew people, and he knew how to get to your deepest gut so that you could share that with an audience. So when you saw "Cry," and I've taught it to 20 women at least, but when you saw it, it was about a journey of one person that anyone could understand. It was that singular journey, terribly specific, about a woman who's been through the mill and come out triumphantly, but it was specific and it was internal. It had nothing to do with how high I was raising my legs or how many pirouettes I was doing or any of that. It had to do with inner self and it had to do with vulnerability and being able to share that vulnerability and for you to recognize it as something human.
MARTIN: We walked up to this facility and we were just in awe. The building is amazing. What's going on here is amazing. There's music, there's sound, there's beautiful dancers on very floor. When you think about where you started with Ailey and as you say, you know, the dancers packing their wicker baskets and sewing their shoes, could you ever have imagined this?
Ms. JAMISON: No. Not back then. I couldn't have imagined this. I know that when I first saw the company I was seeing something that was absolutely extraordinary, and to this day we're still doing the same thing 50 years later. And the idea that the Joan Weill Center for Dance, which is the home of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, of course, didn't dawn on me back then. We were just out there trying to keep the flame alive and trying to keep the vision alive that we should celebrate ourselves.
The vision of Mr. Ailey, along with my encouraging the extension of that vision - because you can't mess with the vision, the vision is there - celebrate the African-American cultural experience and expression and the modern dance tradition, and past, present and future. Past, present, future. This is future. We're sitting in the future, you know, and as you saw, you walk into it and it's vaulted when you walk in.
It's glass, it's light, you know, it's youth. So when you walk into this place, this is like a microcosm of how the world can be. It's absorbed light and it's constantly reflecting outside. New York is right outside of our windows. You can look in and see what's going on before you even, you know, come in to register or go through our 77,000 square feet. And no, nobody thought 77,000 square feet, but Alvin thought, I want my place to be a center of activity where everyone is welcome to dance.
MARTIN: This is a remarkable facility and you have remarkable community programs, remarkable outreach, access to the public, but a lot of cultural institutions have struggled financially in recent years. Dance Theater of Harlem has struggled, Ailey has struggled in years.
Ms. JAMISON: Always.
MARTIN: Why is that? I mean, this is very wealthy country. Does it suggest that Americans are not as enamored of the arts as we like to think that they are?
Ms. JAMISON: I think they are enamored over the arts, but I don't think they sometimes think to pay for it like a baseball game. When you think about it, the excitement that - you know, I was just watching a baseball game because I like my team, and the excitement of watching a Tiger Woods or - I'm talking sports now on purpose because dancers aren't paid the same was as sports person. They're injuring themselves the same way, you know, but there is a kind of, oh, yes, they do that. You know, and for a long time, part of my career, people would come afterwards after the performance and say, what else do you do? This can't be your life's work.
Now at least people understand, oh, it's a life's work, it's a career, you do this. But it's still, to this day, not taken as seriously as, say, that homerun that somebody hit there. There are a million homeruns happening on stage all the time. We're trying to make you understand more about yourself and sometimes we hit a chord in ear.
MARTIN: Do you ever worry that there will not be another 50 years?
Ms. JAMISON: No.
MARTIN: For the Ailey Company?
Ms. JAMISON: No. Not in the least. Not in the least because this company is about what is inside of you and that will remain. I don't care how much we're into the 21st century of technology and all these wonderful things happening so fast. I don't know how young people are dealing with it except for the way they are.
MARTIN: But oftentimes, when school systems get into trouble and there are a lot of jurisdictions having financial problems now, the first things to go are arts programs...
Ms. JAMISON: Right.
MARTIN: Because they are not deemed essential to learning.
Ms. JAMISON: Right. But we're already in education programs. That's part of our cheat sheet. That's part of what I was trying to, you know, say about how we're already - we're embedded in the heart, so that's a little difficult to say, oh, we don't need that, even from people who have never been to a performance before. Because you'll find that our audience is sometimes the people that have been dragged, kicking and screaming, to see an Ailey performance, and then all of a sudden, oh, I didn't know dance could be that way. Oh, you have a BFA program? Oh, you've got Ailey camps?
There is so much connected to the community, as we were talking about, and to great performance, which then necessitates stepping onto higher ground, you know what I'm saying? So in stepping to that higher ground that means you have to include everybody.
MARTIN: Is there some wisdom you have to impart to those who are coming behind you either as artists or those who just appreciate the arts?
Ms. JAMISON: Yes. Keep connected and keep understanding that there's always something bigger than you that's making this happen, and always understand that life is a learning process and I might be called wise, but I am still learning wisdom, you know what I'm saying? I'm still learning it, and I learn it from the people you think you wouldn't learn it from and that is sometimes the youngest.
MARTIN: You've announced plans to retire in 2011 as artistic director. How can you do this to us?
Ms. JAMISON: I can do it to and with all of us because I said, past, present, future. I've always been in that kind of feel, of knowing that everything changes and continues and steps to higher plateaus and gives opportunity and is constantly reaching fearlessly. Don't they say that about me? I am fearlessly reaching into the future. That is one of those fearless reaches.
I know that I have been here long enough to become, quote, "an icon," but then icons have people who admire them and people who maybe want to emulate them and people who want to be uniquely themselves, and that's the point I've been trying to make. In choosing someone, and I've got three years to do it, in choosing someone who understands their uniqueness and understands the integrity of Mr. Ailey's vision and understands the magic that I've created along with a lot of help from my friends to sustain it another 50 years. I have no doubt.
MARTIN: Judith Jamison, the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary throughout the year. We joined her at the Alvin Ailey Studios in New York. We thank you so much.
Ms. JAMISON: You're welcome.
MARTIN: After our conversation, Judith Jamison took us on a behind the scenes tour of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. To see an audio slideshow of a cast rehearsal, go to the Tell Me More page at npr.org. And remember, at Tell Me More the conversation never ends. ..TEXT: We're wrapping up our time here in New York. Did we miss anything? You've heard from newsmakers, international leaders, playwrights, we even took you to my old stomping grounds in Brooklyn, but we're also interested in what life is like for you wherever you live. So again, go to the Tell Me More page at npr.org and blog it out.
(Soundbite of music)
And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. We'll be back in Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.