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Dancing in the Light : DANCING SPIRIT: An Autobiography, By Judith Jamison with Howard Kaplan (Doubleday: $25; 264 pp.)

January 02, 1994|Deborah Jowitt | Jowitt, principal dance critic for the Village Voice, is the author of "Time and the Dancing Image" (UC Press)

For 15 years, beginning in 1965, Judith Jamison was the crowning jewel of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Five foot 10 with long, long limbs and cropped hair, Jamison looked like a Masai Amazon. When Jamison rushed into Ailey's famous "Revelations," brandishing a white parasol, and started a sinuous, exalted treading across a river of silk, audiences saw not just a Southern Baptist metaphor for salvation, but an African river goddess. And in "Cry," the solo that Ailey made for her in 1972, she transformed herself from a woman bowed down by drudgery or writhing under loss into the blazing incarnation of freedom and joy. Despite her sizable gift for comedy, she was a natural born archetype.

Critics, various choreographers she worked with, and fellow performers have all praised her musicality and the generosity of her dancing. Back in the Ailey company's bad old days of station-wagon tours and splintery stages in small towns, others may have stinted; she never did. One of her great gifts as a dancer was her ability to make every movement look as if she had just made it up herself and believed in it utterly. When Ailey died in 1989, she disbanded her own "Jamison Project"--with some regrets--and brought her spirit, her integrity, her knowledge of the Ailey repertory, her great talent as a coach and director, and her developing skills as a choreographer to the leadership of that company.

With all the new responsibilities, she has also found time (with Howard Kaplan) to produce an autobiography. Perhaps she wanted to update the biography that Olga Maynard wrote in 1982; perhaps she wanted to shape the events of her life in her own way.

Autobiographies by performing artists seem to fall into three broad categories. There are the rare ones that qualify as important literary achievements (Hildegard Knef's "The Gift Horse" and Paul Taylor's "Private Domain" come to mind). There are the "have-I-got-some-nasty stories-to-tell" sort that have everyone the author ever knew quaking months before publication (Gelsey Kirkland's "Dancing on My Grave" certainly had this effect). Books that fall into the third category--and Jamison's is one--fill the account of a life with gracious thank-you notes to family, teachers and colleagues past and present.

The Jamison fans, Ailey fans and dance aficionados who will want to read "Dancing Spirit" will find no sour stories, backstage melodramas or critical analysis of choreography. As the title of Jamison's book implies, her stance is visionary, even devotional. It might have been written for young would-be dancers; that it be particularly inspiring to young black dancers poised between trying for Broadway and television or a concert career, was, I think, one of her hopes. Jamison paints a world in which total commitment, hard work, a tolerance for pain and a certain amount of selflessness pay off. She was tall for a female dancer, and her height, like her blackness, led to her occasionally being discriminated against, but she suppressed any bitterness by strengthening her commitment to excellence and her faith in God. Under her pen, choreographers and dancers emerge, for the most part, as nature's ladies and gentlemen, and Alvin Ailey as a hero. She hasn't a truly unkind word to say of anyone, and doesn't care for unkindness in others. When someone she took on as rehearsal assistant was rude the other dancers, she went off to one side and cried, then fired him.

Moments of anger or disappointment are firmly massaged away. Everything turns out to have been for the best. She gets "bumped" from the "Fix Me Jesus" duet of "Revelations" in favor of Consuelo Atlas who has a more flexible back (leading to the virtuosic excesses that marred performances of this duet for years); Jamison says gamely, "Alvin never explained, but that's where faith came in. I got mad but I had faith that he knew what he was doing." She respects choreographer Ulysses Dove for paying no attention to the fact that she had four steel pins in her hip when he choreographed "Inside," "technically the hardest solo I ever danced." Any story lurking between this line and "But shortly after 'Inside,' I retired" remains untold.

Jamison's words on performing are, as you'd expect, wise. Of comedy roles she says, "You've got to make the funniness within the shape of the movement." Over and over, in various ways, she defines talent as a gift from heaven and the dancer's job as a mission: "Dance from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. There is no step that is not justified. Even when you're stationary, you must be moving and alive. Even static sculpture has movement. You may be standing still but you're moving."

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