Celebrating Alvin Ailey, Judith Jamison in Washington

Artistic Director Is “Stepping Across” After 20 Years, Dancer Says

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater‘s performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington marks not only the 20th anniversary of Judith Jamison as artistic director, but also Jamison’s upcoming departure from the company.

In 2008, Jamison announced she would be stepping down from her position in 2011. The news of her departure saddened both her fans and those in the arts, but also left them with high hopes for the future of the company.

“Ms. Jamison isn’t stepping down, she is stepping across,” said Hope Boykin, a former Howard University student who now dances with the Alvin Ailey troupe.

Boykin reminisces on her time with Jamison as a teacher and a mentor. “I can experiment,” said referring to the artistic license Jamison expects of her dancers. “She is an icon. She will be missed. Her presence will be missed.”

Sherrill Berryman-Johnson, professor and coordinator of the dance major of the Department of Theatre Arts at Howard University from which Jamison received an honorary doctorate in humanities, said, “I think it’s beautiful that she’s gotten to a place where it’s time to make some changes.”

At the Kennedy Center, the troupe performed excerpts from a number of pieces relevant to Jamison’s time with the company. The official celebration in Washington started last Tuesday. Honorary chairs included Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and his wife, Michelle Cross-Fenty, who celebrated with Jamison and other guests.

“The entire week of performances were sold out prior to our opening,” said Christopher Zunner, director of public relations of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. However, the snowstorm forced the cancellations of performances on Friday and Saturday, Zunner said, but the troupe returned to the stage on Sunday.

Proceeds will go to Alvin Ailey’s District outreach programs as well as for scholarships and grants to local dancers to attend the Ailey School in New York City.

Before 1989, when Jamison became artistic director of the company, she was a dancer. Jamison studied with dance pioneer Marion Cuyjet and made her debut with the American Ballet Theater in 1964. A year later, she became a member of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater.

After dancing with the company for 15 years, Jamison left the company and worked on solo projects like the Broadway musical “Sophisticated Ladies” (1988) as well as choreography work for the Jamison Project, which she created in 1988. About 10 years later, she returned to Ailey as artistic director.

“We all knew he was ill,” Jamison said of succeeding the company’s founder, Alvin Ailey, in an interview with the New York Times. “When he asked me, it was ‘of course.’ Contemplation for about a minute. We loved Alvin.” Ailey died in 1989.

Since then, the company has built a $56 million headquarters at Ninth Avenue and 55th Street in New York. Under Jamison, the company has expanded with the Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe; the Ailey School, which trains 3,000 students a year in dance; and Ailey II, a junior dance group that was initially started by Mr. Ailey himself. Her leadership also led to a bachelor of fine arts program for dancers at Fordham University.

The Ailey company’s tour continues through May 23.  Proceeds from sales of a fan gift filled with Jamison paraphernalia will be donated to the Ailey School.