Black History Month: Profile on legendary dancer and choreographer Judith Jamison

Philadelphia’s own Judith Jamison trained early on in ballet, jazz, tap, acrobatics and other modes of dance. —Submitted photo.

Often described as an “African goddess” and the “empress of Alvin Ailey” there has always been a touch of the divine and the regal in Judith Jamison’s illustrious career as a dancer, choreographer, and artistic director emerita of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Born in Philadelphia to gifted parents who valued the arts, Jamison was exposed to classical music, theater, opera, and the visual arts from an early age.

At 6 years old, her parents enrolled her in the Marion Cuyjet’s Judimar School of Dance. At Judimar, she began her training in ballet, jazz, tap, acrobatics and other modes of dance. From the beginning, Jamison stood out not just for her height, but for her striking talent.

Jamison continued her training both at Judimar and with other teachers during her childhood and teenage years, making her formal ballet debut at 15 in the role of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, in Giselle.

Following her graduation from high school and Judimar, Jamison decided to attend Fisk University in Nashville, where she studied psychology for three semesters before returning to Philadelphia and enrolling in the Philadelphia Dance Academy. There, in addition to dance, she studied kinesiology, dance history, and Labanotation — structured dance notation. It was with her classmates from the Academy that she first saw Alvin Ailey dance with his dance theater troupe.

In 1964 she was spotted by choreographer Agnes de Mille and invited to appear in de Mille’s “The Four Marys” at the New York-based American Ballet Theatre. Jamison moved to New York in 1965 and that same year joined Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Jamison performed with the dance theater on tours of Europe and Africa in 1966. When financial pressures forced Ailey to briefly disband his company later that year, Jamison joined the Harkness Ballet for several months and then returned to the re-formed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

She quickly became a principal dancer with that company, dancing a variety of roles that showcased her pliant technique, stunning beauty, and exceptional stature of five feet, ten inches.

Jamison excelled as the goddess Erzulie in Geoffrey Holder’s “The Prodigal Prince”, as the Mother in a revised version of Ailey’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”, and as the Sun in the 1968 Alvin Ailey revival of Lucas Hoving’s “Icarus.”

Jamison’s and Ailey’s collaboration deepened, and she created a brilliant solo in his “Masekela Language.” Set to music of South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, Jamison portrayed a frustrated and solitary woman dancing in a seedy saloon. Her electrifying performances of

Ailey’s 15-minute solo “Cry” propelled her to an international stardom unprecedented among modern dance artists.

Dedicated by Ailey “to all Black women everywhere — especially our mothers,” the three sections of “Cry” successfully captured a broad range of movements, emotions, and images associated with Black womanhood as mother, sister, lover, goddess, supplicant, confessor and dancer.

In 1976 Jamison danced with ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov in Ailey’s “Pas de Duke” set to music by Duke Ellington. This duet emphasized the classical line behind Jamison’s compelling modern dance technique and garnered her scores of new fans. Jamison’s celebrity advanced, and she appeared as a guest artist with the San Francisco Ballet, the Swedish Royal Ballet, the Cullberg Ballet and the Vienna State Ballet.

In 1977, she created the role of Potiphar’s Wife in John Neumeier’s “Josephslegende” for the Vienna State Opera, and in 1978 she appeared in Maurice Béjart’s updated version of “Le Spectre de la Rose” with the Ballet of the Twentieth Century. Several choreographers sought to work with Jamison as a solo artist, and important collaborations included John Parks’ “Nubian Lady,” John Butler’s “Facets,” and Ulysses Dove’s “Inside.”

In 1980, Jamison left the Ailey company to star in the Broadway musical “Sophisticated Ladies,” set to the music of Duke Ellington. She later turned her formidable talent to choreography, where her work has been marked by a detached sensuality and intensive responses to rhythm.

Jamison founded her own dance company, the Jamison Project, “to explore the opportunities of getting a group of dancers together, for both my choreography (and) to commission works from others.”

Alvin Ailey’s failing health caused Jamison to rejoin the company as artistic associate for the 1988-1989 season. In December 1989 Ailey died, and Jamison was named artistic director of the company. She has continued to choreograph, and her ballets include “Divining,” “Forgotten Time,” and “Hymn,” all performed by the Ailey troupe.

Jamison has received numerous awards and honors, including a Presidential Appointment to the National Council of the Arts, the 1972 Dance Magazine Award, and the Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.

Jamison remains a tireless advocate and spokesperson for the arts through her tenacity, creativity, hope, and discipline. Her efforts in dance excellence are only a small part of her unparalleled contribution to society and the city of Philadelphia.

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