They’re known as America’s cultural ambassador to the world, and considered a defining voice in African-American artistic expression. Founded in 1958, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has seen the country through 50 years of cultural shifts, and remains among the world’s most beloved dance companies. Last week, I spoke to the company’s Artistic Director Judith Jamison about how it feels.
Tell me about the 50th anniversary, 50-city tour. We started the 50th anniversary celebration on March 27 of last year, so already we’ve been to Istanbul, Piacenza, Las Palmas, Tenerife, Tel Aviv, Athens, and Bucharest, among other cities. We’ll be in Paris after we finish the U.S. tour. People are really turning out for us. We had the president of the United States and the First Lady and family show up at Kennedy Center. And then we went to Detroit, and they had a big 50th anniversary party for us. Now we’re on our way to Atlanta. We are loving this, and I think the dancers deserve it. Anyone who has worked for Alvin Ailey throughout the years deserves a celebration of all the hard work and all the leaps of faith that people have made.
I’m glad you mentioned Obama. In light of this historic presidential election, it must feel like the company stands on new territory. I think this administration is very much aware of how the fabric of a country is represented by its culture. We are a reflection of the country’s culture; that’s why they call us cultural ambassadors of the United States. And certainly Mr. Ailey was specific about his African American-ness, so works like “Revelations” and “Blues Suite” and all those other works spring from our roots and blood memories. But they are also universal emotions; they are understood all over the world.
Why do you think “Revelations,” in particular, has proven to be so timeless? That’s our classic work. That ballet has been done more than just about any dance ever. It’s the genius of the choreography, and it’s the pathos of negro spirituals. It is that understanding of unerring faith. It’s about having joy in your heart. There are moments that are so reminiscent of the black church. Mr. Ailey loved people so much, first. He was concerned with us as people, as human beings. That we have the talent of dance was really the cherry on top.
What about the rest of the works you’re bringing to Santa Barbara? In Santa Barbara, we’ll perform “Festa Barocca.” It’s 44 minutes long. It is a festival-a Baroque Italian festival; the choreographer, Mauro Bigonzetti, is Italian. It’s really beautiful, fun, and colorful. Then there’s “Solo,” by Hans van Manen, which is a piece I pulled into the company about six years ago. “Blues Suite” is Mr. Ailey’s classic work that started out the whole thing. It’s the flipside of “Revelations.” “Blues” is secular; “Revelations” is sacred.
Where do you find your incredible dancers, or do you create them? You know, there are dancers from all over the world in the company, all shapes and sizes. They’re all beautiful; I can’t help that. I have great taste when it comes to finding talented, really full people. When you come into a theater and you sit down, you have one of the most intimate experiences that you can possibly have. You’re in the dark, and your eyes can go anywhere they want to go on that stage. That’s the magic of live theater, the magic of Ailey. As an Ailey dancer, you should be able to move people spiritually as well as doing “ooh” and “aah” and all that because your instrument is so well tuned. But the most important thing is to really deliver a message of humanity to your audience.
You have been directing the company for 20 years. What are you most proud of having accomplished in that time? You know, “accomplish” is not a word I use much. I think other people use that word when they’re handing you things. Seeing a dancer blossom, those are high points in my life, where bells are ringing, gates are opening, whistles are blowing, and it’s like, “Ahhhhhhh, yes, they get it, they get it,” and that’s a wonderful revelation for me. When dancers finally come into their own and the body and the spirit become one, when they’re out there on the stage and they really send something to your heart, those are high points. They’re not accomplishments. Accomplishments sounds like you own something, and you don’t own it.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will perform two different programs at the Arlington Theatre, one on Tuesday, March 10, and the other on Wednesday, March 11. Both performances are at 8 p.m. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.