Passing the Torch Yet Again in Harlem

Thinking about Dr. Billy Taylor and Jazz Mobile put me in mind of other artists who have taken on the hard task of institution building. The recently announced impending retirement of Judith Jamison, former principal dancer turned artistic director of the Ailey Ailey Dance Theater. Performing for the first time in 1958 with a company under his own name, Ailey went on to build a company with an almost unparalleled reputation, securing his first permanent home in 1979 after sharing a renovated church with choreographer Pearl Lang beginning in 1971. I was fortunate to see Judith Jamison dance “Cry” shortly after Ailey choreographed the dance–which he created as a birthday gift to his mother–for her in 1971. I saw (and photographed) Jamison dancing this piece and others a number of times, falling in love with her over and over again as she commanded the stage in this amazingly powerful piece de resistance of movement. Not too long afterwards I did a portrait of her in the company’s studio, and from that moment on swore that I would follow her anywhere.
Upon Ailey’s untimely death at 58 years of age in 1989, Jamison took over as Artistic Director of the company as Ailey had requested, putting to rest her own newly formed company The Jamison Project. She has grown the institution steadily since then, weathering the economic storms of keeping a both the main and junior companies active, while moving into its second new home, which is no small feat in these times of dwindling support for the arts. At one time in New York there were a wealth of black dance companies: Fred Benjamin Dance Company, Dianne McIntyre’s Sounds in Motion, Otis Sallid Dance Company, Rod Rodgers Dance Company, Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem and others could be seen on stage with some regularity. I seldom missed a performance by either of these companies while living in New York. They were an important part of my creative sustenance. But slowly, over the years, they all disappeared or disbanded, victims of the difficult task of keeping a company together. Some, like Sallid, found success in the commercial entertainment arena, and others were fortunate to find work in the academy. That the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater has been able to survive and thrive while hewing to its original artistic vision is a testament to its founder and its soon to be retired Artistic Director, Judith Jamison. Their lives and hard work should be an example to us all.
Posted by Dawoud Bey