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Alvin Ailey's legacy has been kept, and expanded

For 20 years, Judith Jamison has not just tended the flame, but fueled the dance company in ways that make it burn more brightly.

February 28, 2010|By Susan Reiter

She has reached out to strongly individual figures such as Garth Fagan, Donald Byrd and Alonzo King, and brought in works by Twyla Tharp and Lar Lubovitch. She has at times focused on female choreographers, and also opened the doors to some whose gimmicky work disappeared after a season. She has certainly broadened the dancers' experience, but only rarely has a choreographer established an ongoing connection with the company and truly enriched its repertory.

Brown, whose fluid movement incorporates many elements of traditional African dance, has done that, making four works for the company starting with "Grace" in 1999. "Dancing Spirit," his most authoritative and refined to date, alludes to the company's history and personalities, and received considerable critical acclaim at its December premiere. "Ronald K. Brown is a must," Jamison asserts. "The work that he does is so important, because there is a freedom about a technique that says something about being American, being African American, having a root of Africa, and also being open, very accessible and spiritual."

The company has never had a resident choreographer, although Jamison mentions that Ailey once envisioned Ulysses Dove -- a company member whose works have found an ongoing place in its repertory -- in that role. But both died prematurely, and it never happened. "I never thought that I should find a resident choreographer. Maybe the next artistic director will think that."

Jamison speaks in upbeat terms of the impending transition. "I feel fine, I feel terrific. I will certainly still be attached to the Ailey company. I'm just giving somebody else the title. Only two people have run this in 50 years, so this is a gift. And I'm passing this gift along.

"I feel wonderful, and hopeful."

She explained the timing of the announcement of her departure, which happened in 2008: "I wanted three years in advance to be able to choose people -- to be able to really research this, and work with my board, with [associate artistic director Masazumi] Chaya and [executive director] Sharon [Luckman]. I'm making the decision -- but I never do anything in a vacuum.

"I'm looking for a unique perspective -- in terms of how they're going to maintain and soar the company for the next 50 years."

Her successor, she said, will need "to have that unique chord that understands the past; to face the present and do -- absolutely, with a brave heart that is courageous and steps out there, and sees what other people aren't seeing yet -- take those chances."

With that, it was time for her to leave her desk with its ringing phones and shift gears. She swept magisterially toward a large studio, where the cast of "Among Us" awaited her eagle eye and pointed comments as it prepared her latest work for the tour.

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