The Grand Dame of Dance Comes to Toronto with Alvin Ailey

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Judith Jamison. Photo by Jack Mitchell

At the age of 72, Judith Jamison remains the heart and soul of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, performing in Toronto Friday and Saturday.

She was also once its most famous dancer, the muse of founder Ailey.

But while the heart and soul continue to soar, the body grows less able to leap.

No one knows this more than an athlete or a dancer.

Jamison knows this.

“The things I want to do now are the same things I wanted to do when I was 22,” she says, “if only my body would still move the same way. I’m still a kid delighted with discovery and exploration. My mind has not caught up with what’s happened with my body. There are things in my head I can do that don’t come out in my body.”

The compensation is wisdom.

“There are things I wasn’t aware of then that I’m aware of now,” she says.
Jamison made the transition from dancer and choreographer to artistic director in 1989 when Ailey appointed her as his successor. She picked her own successor, Robert Battle, in 2011 and now serves as artistic director emerita.

“No way can I disconnect from the arts,” she says. “It’s a constant wave I’m surfing.”

Keeping Ailey’s legacy alive, nurturing the company and promoting its growth is a passion that doesn’t diminish.

“I’m aware how important it is for the past to inform present and blast you into future,” she says.

The two programs the company brings to Toronto do just that.

“You’re getting a chance to see past, present, future,” says Jamison.

There’s a work by Battle that was just premiered in New York in December, his first set on the company, and a duet by Jamison set to Diana Krall’s version of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.”

Krall and Mitchell aren’t the only Canadians on the program.

Rachael McLaren, pictured below, a gifted young dancer from Winnipeg, is also the dancer who appears on the Ailey poster.

The company’s past is richly represented by “Revelations,” the iconic work Ailey set on the company in 1960.

“We get a backlash if we don’t do Revelations,” explains Jamison. “It’s a classic because of Ailey’s brilliance as a choreographer and that time in the U.S., all the turmoil of civil rights.

“Alvin jumped into the fray, not by picketing,or sitting but by doing his craft. He thought that images of black artists and people of colour were lacking, that doors were shut, windows were shut. He created his own door to open.”

And yet, she says “Revelations” is about universal feelings of joy, triumph, tragedy —all experienced through the prism of the African American cultural experience.

“It’s performed more often than any other modern dance in history and appreciated and loved all over the world.”

One Toronto program also includes Toccata, from 1964.

“I used to do Toccata, long ago,” Jamison says wistfully.

Dancers now “can do things I could never do,” she says. “Now when they do an arabesque, their legs are up around their ears. The hard part is getting them to understand that dancing is not ‘techniqueing’ — to blend technique with understanding what it is to dance.”

When you are a dancer, she explains, it’s not just about doing steps. “It’s about connecting, making sentences, paragraphs, stories, life. When you understand that, then you have something to say to an audience.”

What the Ailey company has said to audiences for 58 years hasn’t changed and won’t, says Jamison.

“It will always be the same story we tell, she says. “It’s about our humanity and making sure that people of colour have the opportunity to get on stage to tell you about your humanity. This is the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. We bring our African-American culture with us.”

Jamison herself no longer performs.

“I have too many pieces of steel in me,” she says. “I refuse to get on stage.”

But she still dances.

“I do it wherever and whenever I feel like it, at home, in my office, in the the kitchen, like I cook whenever I feel like cooking.”