When Judith Jamison became artistic director for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, she had some big shoes to fill.
Ailey, who founded one of the nation's most enduring modern-dance ensembles, died in 1989. Since accepting the creative reins five years ago from the legendary dancer/choreographer, Jamison has emerged from the shadow of her powerful predecessor and taken bold new steps.
Tonight through Sunday, as the Ailey company comes to the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, Jamison will reveal a troupe of distinct individuals performing works that are both true--and new--to Ailey's style.
This performance will introduce works by leading female composers, musicians and playwrights. Four of the 10 works that the 30-member company will perform feature either female choreographers or an all-female ensemble.
"I wanted to add women choreographers to our roster," Jamison said. "We had done some, but I wanted to celebrate the beauty and contributions of women."
One of the highlights of the performance is Jamison's "Hymn," a personal tribute to Ailey that combines music, acting and dancing.
The piece begins with tape-recorded reminiscences by Ailey himself, followed by a tape recording by actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith, a recent Tony nominee for her piece about social unrest, "Twilight: Los Angeles 1992." Smith reads her own composition based upon a dancer's thoughts about Ailey and the dance troupe. And, as she reads, dancers come onto the stage.
"It's very exciting to see the dancers move to the rhythm of their own words," said Jamison, who choreographed the tribute. "We've performed this in other parts of the world. People understand what is going on, and there is a deep level of communication with the dancers."
Other pieces include the Southern California premiere of Elisa Monte's "Mnemonic Verses," Brenda Way's "Scissors Paper Stone" and Monte's duet "Treading." Works by Ailey, John Butler, Ulysses Dove and Billy Wilson complete the engagement.
"It's a celebration of movement," Jamison said. "The walls fall away, and you come on a journey with us. Hopefully, your perspective has been changed as a human being."
In 1964, Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a company dedicated to the preservation and enrichment of the American modern dance heritage and the uniqueness of black cultural expression.
Ailey, who created 79 ballets, maintained that his company was not exclusively a repository for his own work. He envisioned a company that presented important works of the past and commissioned new ones. More than 150 works by 50 choreographers have been performed by the Ailey company.
To Jamison, it is important not to lose sight of that vision.
"What I am doing is extending what Mr. Ailey left," the 50-year-old New York City resident said. "He left me an extraordinary foundation that touches the heart, mind and soul."
Jamison, whose career began when she was discovered by Agnes de Mille, made her New York debut in De Mille's "The Four Marys" with the American Ballet Theatre. She became a member of the Ailey troupe in 1965 and traveled extensively in the United States, Europe, Asia, South America and Africa during her 15-year tenure as an ensemble dancer.
After leaving the troupe, she starred in the hit Broadway musical "Sophisticated Ladies," performed as a guest artist around the world and debuted her own dance troupe, the Jamison Project. In late 1989, she returned to the Ailey company and never looked back.
"It's a hard life because you are constantly on the road," she said. But that sacrifice has its payoffs, she added.
"It's rewarding in the fact that audiences celebrate our sense of contribution, passion and dedication about what we're doing."
* \o7 The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will stage works by Ailey, Ulysses Dove, Judith Jamison and others tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. Tickets: $22 to $30. Information: (800) 300-4345.\f7