Ailey's Jamison Leads by Listening
`ONE of the greatest lessons I've learned in this position is that I must listen," says Judith Jamison. "It's 'Hearing' with a capital 'H.'"Skip to next paragraph
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Ms. Jamison is reflecting on her role as artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. "I'm so busy talking all the time: I'm doing interviews, or I'm on television, or I'm trying to raise money, or I'm running a rehearsal, or I'm telling somebody, 'You need to do an arabesque in that direction and not the other.'
"I'm directing. But to me the essential [part] of direction is listening so you know what direction to go in."
That listening is symbolic for Jamison, who became artistic director of this world-famous dance company, known for establishing black modern dance, after founder Alvin Ailey passed on in 1989. Especially in dance, "listening" means interpreting body language, searching one's soul, she says.
Jamison is in a unique position - and a natural position - to have taken on such a leading role. She danced with the Alvin Ailey Theater for 15 years and became its most celebrated star. Ailey choreographed many ballets for Jamison.
"She needed no introduction," says Donald McKayle, the distinguished choreographer who takes credit for introducing Jamison to Ailey. "If anyone was groomed for the job, it's Judith. Not only is she an extremely talented person in terms of knowledge, performance, and ability to choreograph, but she is also a fine organizer - so that end of directing is not alien to her."
Jamison refers to Ailey as her "spiritual walker," someone who is not here physically, but still "walks" with her mentally. "You just have to keep remembering how you were connected. That's how we're all connected, but we forget a lot."
The difficulty comes when people ask how the company has changed. "It's not for me to say how it's changed. I'm following a formula that's worked for the past 34 years," she says, adding that she and Ailey always shared the same ideals. "That's why he choreographed so many ballets on this body," she says, pointing to herself, "because we're both of the same mind."
To the extent that Jamison's career has taken her from dancer to choreographer to creator of her own company (the Jamison Project), and to artistic director of the Ailey troupe, her life has grown in different ways, she says. Yet her positions have common denominators; the qualities that make a good dancer translate into what makes a good director or leader. "Just because you put on another hat, you still have to listen to that inner voice," she says.
"I am the same flexible person I was as a dancer. I have not changed that way. I can hear much better now. I can recognize situations much quicker than I could as a dancer, because now I'm on the other side. And I get tickled sometimes when I realize that I'm looking at this same situation that Alvin and I were in at maybe one time. I recognize that I used to do that!"
On and off stage, Jamison is a magnet for admiration. Her inner beauty surfaces even as she sits in her New York office, flashing a captivating smile or lifting a graceful hand. She is at once down-to-earth and intuitive. One can't help sharing in her joy when she announces: "For the first time in 34 years, we're playing the Paris Opera."