Ailey's Jamison Leads by Listening
NEW YORK — `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.'"
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."
An important part of her role as director involves being accessible, she says: "Make every attempt to know your people - not just as dancers, but as people." Like Ailey, she looks for dancers who are "not tunnel-visioned and who don't live, breathe, think, eat, and sleep dance, because then they don't have anything to bring on the stage. You get a lot of technique and no soul and no passion....
"We ask for their vulnerability, and we ask for their innermost thoughts. And we ask for their spirit, and we ask that they remember why they started dancing in the first place, because if you forget that, you forget it all."
Accessibility is reflected by the company. "One of the most interesting things that we do with the company ... is the outreach programs that we have been doing for years - before it became popular to outreach," says Jamison.
The company offers lecture-demonstrations, master classes, performances and programs for young people, and more. That outreach "suggests a certain humility to the dancers, so that there shouldn't be any kind of ego trips going on." It reminds the dancers that they were in the same position once.
Challenges for Jamison come in different forms. One is keeping the organization stimulated. Dancers need to be fed new works and challenged. They need to be reminded of Alvin Ailey's vision, she says.
Some challenges are welcome. For example, the second company, the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble, is wearing out the first company at the moment. Jamison says there are a couple of dancers who would be in the first company if they weren't so young. "They're that good. They are that talented," she says. "You wait for these moments," she says. "I think God gives us talented people with large spaces in between so we'll realize how valuable that artistry and that talent is."
A clear sense of mission and vision is requisite to run such a company, Jamison says. "What we were trying to do, and did, and continue to do, is touch people in here," she says, pointing to her heart. To touch other people, you must be in touch with yourself, Jamison maintains, whether you're a dancer or a director. You still have to face that person in the mirror and find out what that truth is, she says.
"What I find is that when you create your own agenda ... you are true to yourself, and you care about your effect on others.... I find it very, very difficult to get down into the negative side of anything. It's too hard to do what I'm doing, to carry that extra load.
"It's like dancing," she continues. "If I'm on stage and I'm dancing my guts out, and then somebody writes something awful, I know what I did. I know. And you really have to be secure in that. Not pompously saying 'Well, I know what I did.' It's not about that. It's just feeling secure in knowing that you have given the truest of whoever you are."
She tells of seeing a touching TV interview with James Baldwin, a friend of Ailey's. "He had seen me dance in Paris and had me sign a photograph that he kept over his fireplace in the south of France," she recalls. He talked about how "humility comes when you know that you're dancing in the presence of God and not just in the presence of man." Jamison says she herself has always believed that. "Humility comes when you know that there's something much bigger than you that puts you out on the stage, and it
wasn't happenstance that you happened to be where you are."