The Dance Enthusiast Hits the Streets for an Ailey Classics Workshop with Judith Jamison at the Ailey Extension
Tell Me The Truth
Thursday January 5th, 2017 - 7pm
The statuesque Judith Jamison, decked out in a cool, black pantsuit with shocks of bright magenta popping at her collar and wrists (the outfit highlights her sculptural visage and articulate hands) winds her way through a stage crowded with eager students.
Her Ailey Classics Workshop is open to all dancers (starting at an intermediate level) and observers, like me. Present in class, I notice variety: in ages (from teen to mature adult) and hairstyles; in skin colors and body types; in dance levels and outfits—there are jazz shoes, ballet slippers, bare feet, socks, sweat pants, tight tights, loose tights, lycra leotards, and cotton t-shirts. The common chord that binds all the students, at least at first, seems to be nerves. Maybe they are saying, or rather, shrieking silently, “Judith Jamison is teaching us, and people are watching—lots of people. What on earth did I sign up for?”
Jamison answers, “We are here to tell some truth tonight.”
Tonight, by the way, is January 5th, 2017, Alvin Ailey’s birthday: he would have been 86 years old. What better place to celebrate a legendary choreographer than in dance class where the magic truly begins. And, who better to lead an Ailey workshop than Jamison, his muse. She is, the woman he believed could dance for “all black women everywhere—especially our mothers” when he created the seminal 16-minute solo Cry for her in 1971. She is also the one he entrusted to lead his company artistically into the future. After 21 years of guiding, today she is its Artistic Director Emerita.
Jamison reminds us that it was Ailey’s vision to create a magnet for dancers all around the world. “He wanted dance to be for everyone,” she says, and then acknowledges, with gratitude, “We are running in his wake.”
Class starts with a simple walking pattern,“1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…1, 2.”
“1, 2, 3, 4, 5…1, 2.”
“1, 2, 3, 4…1, 2.” and so on.
But are walks ever simple?
Jamison speaks, sings, coaxes, counts, and cajoles her pupils through walks, prances, jumps and key phrases from the Ailey company lexicon: excerpts by Pearl Primus; Katherine Dunham; Talley Beatty, and a portion of Ailey's masterwork Revelations. She quotes another member of the artistic family, Billy Wilson, as she senses reticence in the room. “Can you be a little more ambitious about what you’re moving?” she asks. The courage level rises and so does some laughter.
A section from a Primus' choreography is taught; it involves arm gestures and upward gazes. The movement seems uncomplicated. One arm opens, then another, the dancers look up, all the while their feet shift from side to side. The dancers lightly touch their foreheads.
But how many ways can an arm move?
As Jamison makes known Primus' script for each action (“I have nothing in my hands. I have no weapons. I see the sky”), the port de bra appears more communicative. And, the eyes don’t simply tilt upwards, they carry the entire face to the heavens. (“I thank you for your grace.”) The tap of the forehead also transforms, no longer one element of a repeatable pattern, it becomes a humble acknowledgment. This is powerful. This is why dancers take class everyday.
“We are here right now, right here at this time and in this sacred place to feel free,” says Jamison. “Otherwise, what is the point?”
The dancers sprint across the floor, looking more "ambitious." Those in the back lines hasten to the front. The group listens intently for their music anticipating a turn to take the floor, relishing their efforts.
So much has changed by the end of two hours.
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