JAMISON, JUDITH (1944– ) Dancer, Choreographer
Long the lead dancer of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT), Judith Jamison was born in Philadelphia on May 10, 1944. With a keen interest in the arts, her parents enrolled her in the Judimar School of Dance when she was six. Almost immediately, she emerged as a prodigy. During her 11 years at the school, she received a firm grounding in ballet as well as instruction in tap, jazz, and acrobatics. After graduating from high school, Jamison received a scholarship to Fisk University in Nashville, where she studied psychology. She completed her freshman year before deciding to renew her commitment to dance. Jamison returned home and began attending the Philadelphia Dance Academy (now the University of the Arts). While taking a master class in 1964, she was discovered by noted choreographer AGNES DE MILLE, who invited the young dancer to perform her ballet The Four Mays with the American Ballet Theater at New York’s Lincoln Center.
Once the ballet closed, Jamison decided to stay in New York City. She took a job operating the log fiume ride at the 1964 World’s Fair, while she tried out for professional dance companies. On one audition, Jamison danced for choreographer Donald McKayle for a spot on a television special. In the audience was McKayle’s friend, dancer and company director Alvin Ailey. Three days after seeing Jamison, Ailey called her with an invitation to join his multiracial company.
From 1965 to 1980, Jamison was Ailey’s principal dancer as well as his close friend. Her controlled technique and dynamic stage presence—showcased in early Ailey works such as Blues Suite (1958) and Revelations (1960)—earned an excellent reputation in the dance world. Graceful and elegant, Jamison was described by one critic as “a marvelous allaround performer—extravagantly tall with a purring kind of strength and a leap that looks as if she had been poured upward.” In 1972, Jamison became an international star with the premiere of Ailey’s Cry, a 15-minute solo piece he choreographed with Jamison in mind. Dedicated to “black women everywhere, especially our mothers,” the work explored the sorrows and joys experienced by African-American women throughout history. Other Ailey dances that furthered Jamison’s fame included Pas de Duke, which she performed with Mikhail Baryshnikov to music by Duke Ellington, and Spell, which paired her with ballet great Alexander Godunov.
After 15 years with the Ailey company, Jamison left to star in the Broadway show Sophisticated Ladies with tap dancer Gregory Hines. She also turned her attention to teaching and, with Ailey’s encouragement, to choreography. Her first work, Divining, debuted with his company in 1984. Jamison briefiy considered retiring but instead decided to work toward realizing her longtime dream of starting a dance company of her own. In 1988, she formed the 12-member Jamison Project. Just as the new company was beginning to establish itself, Ailey fell ill. He asked Jamison to take over his company after his death, and she agreed. In December 1989, she became AAADT’s artistic director, merging her own fiedging group into the more established company. At the time she explained, “Somebody said to me these are big shoes to fill. But that’s not what this is about. This about trying to wear my own shoes.”
As AAADT’s director, Jamison has dedicated herself to raising funds to take the company out of debt and to showcase both new works by young choreographers and the classic dances created by Ailey. To preserve Ailey’s legacy, in 1993, she herself choreographed A Hymn for Alvin Ailey. For this dance work, she collaborated with performance artist Anna Deavere Smith, who added remembrances of Ailey company members to the piece. In 1999, Jamison won an Emmy Award for choreography after Hymn was filmed for the PBS series Dance in America. The same year, her career as a dancer and company director was celebrated when she became the recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement in the arts.
Jamison, Judith, with Howard Kaplan. Dancing Spirit: An Autobiography. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Maynard, Olga. Judith Jamison: Aspects of a Dancer. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1982.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
An Evening with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater (1986). Image Entertainment, DVD, 2001.
A Tribute to Alvin Ailey (1990). Kultur Video, DVD/VHS, 2000/1997.