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Judith Jamison

Dancer and choreographer Judith Jamison was born on May 10, 1943 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Tessie Brown Jamison and John Jamison, Sr. While encouraged by her parents to study the piano and violin, Jamison gravitated towards ballet. At the age of six, Jamison began taking lessons at the Judimar School of Dance in Philadelphia. She went on to study the techniques of African American dance pioneer Katherine Dunham. Jamison graduated from Germantown High School in Philadelphia, and enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. However, she left Fisk to study dance and kinesiology at the Philadelphia Dance Academy, now part of New York City’s University of the Arts.

In 1964, Jamison earned critical acclaim for her work with choreographer Agnes de Mille and the American Ballet Theatre in New York. A year later, Alvin Ailey invited Jamison to join the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, where she was featured in numerous productions, toured with the company to Africa and Europe and earned international acclaim for her signature performance of Cry, a fifteen minute solo piece written by Ailey for Jamison. Jamison went on to appear as a guest performer with the San Francisco Ballet, the Swedish Royal Ballet, the Cullberg Ballet, and the Vienna State Ballet. In 1980, Jamison performed on Broadway in Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies with Gregory Hines. That same year, Jamison began her own work as a choreographer. She premiered her first ballet, Divining, with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1984. In 1988, Jamison founded The Jamison Project Dance Company.

Jamison returned to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1989, assuming the role of artistic director following the death of founder Alvin Ailey. In 1993, Jamison choreographed Hymn, a tribute to Ailey, and published her autobiography, Dancing Spirit. Under her leadership, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater joined forces with Fordham University to establish a joint bachelor of fine arts program with a multicultural dance curriculum. Jamison also spearheaded the construction of the company’s first permanent home, the Joan Weill Center for Dance. Although Jamison stepped down as artistic director in 2011, she remained associated with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater as artistic director emerita.

Judith Jamison was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on August 30, 2016.

Accession Number

A2016.014

Sex

Female

Interview Date

8/30/2016

Last Name

Jamison

Maker Category
Marital Status

Divorced

Occupation
Schools

Charles W. Henry School

Germantown High School

Fisk University

University of the Arts

First Name

Judith

Birth City, State, Country

Philadelphia

HM ID

JAM07

Favorite Season

Spring

State

Pennsylvania

Favorite Vacation Destination

Toubab Dialao, Senegal

Favorite Quote

Pray, Prepare And Proceed.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Birth Date

5/10/1943

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Salad

Short Description

Dancer and choreographer Judith Jamison (1943 - ) gained international acclaim as a dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, before taking over as the company's artistic director in 1989 following the death of founder Alvin Ailey.

Employment

American Ballet Theatre

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Harkness Ballet

Jacob's Pillow

Favorite Color

Red

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Judith Jamison's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Judith Jamison lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Judith Jamison describes her father

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Judith Jamison describes her religious upbringing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Judith Jamison describes her mother

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Judith Jamison recalls her family's support during her early years in dance

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Judith Jamison describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Judith Jamison describes her childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Judith Jamison describes her early dance training with Marion Cuyjet

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Judith Jamison remembers her childhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Judith Jamison describes her schools in Philadelphia

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Judith Jamison remembers her decision to attend Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Judith Jamison describes her experiences at Fisk University

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Judith Jamison recalls her introduction to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Judith Jamison describes the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater style

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Judith Jamison recalls auditioning for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Judith Jamison reflects upon her dance training

DASession

1$1

DATape

1$2

DAStory

9$7

DATitle
Judith Jamison describes her early dance training with Marion Cuyjet
Judith Jamison recalls auditioning for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Transcript
So, but Marion Cuyjet, what, can you talk about her role?$$Yeah.$$Because she also was an interesting person (simultaneous).$$(Simultaneous) Yeah, Marion, Marion, oh my goodness; Ms. Marion, we called her--$$Ms. Marion.$$--Ms. Marion, we never called her Marion. I didn't even call her Marion when she came to see me dance and I was an adult. I was like, "Hi Ms. Marion," and became this little kid again, you know. She was an amazing black woman who looked white. She had red hair, white skin and green eyes and she was as black as you and me and she was proud of that and she started a school [Judimar School of Dance, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania] for the little black kids who study ballet because you couldn't study back then. To this day people still have trouble getting in schools to study classical ballet; so she made that possible, I mean that's her, she made, she opened a world to us that was not just about classical ballet, but about [HistoryMaker] Katherine Dunham 'cause she was studying--she was teaching Dunham's technique, tap. I'm so glad I had tap because I ended up on Broadway starring in 'Sophisticated Ladies' with Gregory Hines, the greatest, oh my goodness, what a dancer he was and there I was on the stage with him. Thank God I had--Ann Bernardino [Veda Ann Bernardino] was my tap teacher back then. We had the, in--I said Dunham classes, we had acrobatics, that's when I found out there was no way I was going to be a gymnast, no way, this back does not do what gymnasts' backs do, didn't enjoy that, but learned something, had to try it, right. So she gave us the--and she gave tea dances. On Saturday afternoons and she would have guys, the guys in the school and the girls in the school and we'd have gloves on and little skirts and it would be tea on the side and she would actually have dances where you know, you had to stay that far apart and the guy was like this (gesture) and you danced you know, it was, it was very formal and very enriching, I mean you learned so much about how, how to be social even though I wasn't, but you learned how to be, you know, and to engage other people in conversation other than dance. This was one thing I loved about Alvin [Alvin Ailey], Mr. Ailey, he taught us how to do, how to, how to live outside of the box of dance and engage everyone because everyone's your audience.$$Well I was surprised also with how many people she, you know, what, how much you were exposed to--$$Oh yeah.$$--from a dance perspective, through, through, through Ms. Marion (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Right. And she was, and she also farmed me out so-to- speak, farmed me out. Was--and she--I don't know if everybody was getting the same attention I was getting and I'm not, I can't remember that everyone got a chance to study with Antony Tudor when you, they were ten years old, you know, or that--I started taking private lessons with a, oh, what was his name, Yuri Gottschalk, he was a marvelous--I think he was a Latvian, please be Latvian. When I, when I was a kid, I was ten, eleven, twelve and I would take class at his home holding on--there's a thing called the barre; you start class with the barre, you're at the barre, you hold on to the barre and you do--I use to hold on to his stove and he use to put oil on the floor and if anybody knows anything about maintaining these positions that we have in, in ballet, first position, second position, it's based on rotation of the hips, so you were turned out, very unnatural way to stand, but you rotated and turned out, your, your feet are turned out this way (gesture) and in order to hold that properly you really have to use muscles that you don't think you have, you've got to find them and if somebody puts oil under, you better find those muscles otherwise your feet just slide back and, so here I was learning these little tricks of the trade that really would help me later on because Marion passed me on as I was studying her to all these different teachers, excellent teachers.$So you, you tell the story of how you were at the audition and you know he [Alvin Ailey] (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Oh, it was a disaster.$$--sees you, what does he see, that's what I'm saying--he called--$$I have no idea.$$You've never, you've (unclear)--$$I did not. I was terrible at that audition. All I know is I've always had an upward trajectory in my head that I had God's ear and that I was just going this way (gesture) up, up, up, up, up, up, up, up; okay, so in that can you imagine my emotions after not having danced for three months; because I was working the World's Fair [1964 New York World's Fair, New York, New York], you know (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) (Unclear)--$$--from '64 [1964], '65 [1965] after Ballet Theatre [American Ballet Theatre]. There're no black people in Ballet Theatre, hello, now, what do we have, one, two, three something, but you know, every step, what can I say, but there was no gigs, so I was there at the log flume ride Texas Pavilion, that's when Martha Johnson comes in, the pianist I was telling you about at Ballet Theatre, she tells me to go to an audition. I haven't danced for three months. I'm at an audition with people who have been dancing for their lives and back then in 1965, black women were wearing wigs like crazy, lashes like this (gesture), heels, stiletto heels. You went to an audition for a television show. You didn't show up in pink ballet shoes and tights, which is what I did and, and then I couldn't learn a step because it was a wonderful woman named Paula Kelly, who was an extraordinary dancer, who was demonstrating Mr. McKayle's, [HistoryMaker] Donald McKayle's steps and I had never seen steps like that before and I was so stunned by the steps and by her executing them and I was like (gesture), I couldn't learn a thing. I was too stunned. I was just (gesture) so that he calls me three days later after I failed this audition miserably and I didn't even see him at the audition. I didn't know he was there. I just passed by somebody that was sitting on the steps. I didn't know it was him because I was like this (gesture). I was totally in a state of shock, calling my mother [Tessie Brown Jamison] on the phone saying, "I don't know what I'm going to do, but I want to stay in New York [New York], but I don't know, you know," I'm boohooing. And that's the three days later then he calls me and said, "Would you like--this is Alvin Ailey, would you like to join my company [Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater]?" And of course I go, "Yeah, fabulous," and I'm excited and all that, but it's like a blur. It's like a blur. I didn't, I didn't go like, "What did he see in me that he would--?" I didn't then, that, and then I walk into the, the, rehearsal, my first rehearsal and all those people that I saw on stage, not all of them, but some of them are in that, and the first partner I had is the person that I--you know, I mean that, that, you just kind of--and you walk in, I walked in like, like this (gesture), you know like, "Oh, Mr. Truitte [James Truitte]." And then he says, "Girl get over there and learn those steps," you know, I mean--it was just shut down right away, that come on, this is terra firma, you've got a gig now. We're going out in, in four weeks, in three weeks, you got two weeks, you've got to learn eight ballets, go learn them, boom, boom. I went to work right away, there was no like awe and you know, like, like people on pedestals or anything like that, you had your chance when you saw him on stage, then you put him on a pedestal, now you're working with him, guess what, no time for that other stuff. So it wasn't until much later that I figured he saw--and he would tell me that I was probably the most musical dancer he had ever had. I was totally musical, innately musical, that there were things that, how did he call it, revatto [ph.]. There were things that I understood about continuing movement and stopping movement and just a, in, just a natural talent, not a technique talent, you, you've got to learn technique. A lot of people, black people, get into that all the time where it takes no thought, you can dance, you've always been able to dance, not like that, I had to go to school to learn how to do this, period, you know. But yes, he saw that musicality in me and he would, he would--that's why when we were working together that he didn't have to turn around and tell me a whole bunch of stuff. He didn't have to explain a lot of things to me. He would do the movement and I would do the movement copying him and there's no way I could look like him doing the movement, but what, when he would turn around he would be pleased.$$With what he saw--$$Yeah, most of the time (laughter), most of the time. So, yeah, that, he, he, he saw something--I always, when I see dancers that are really special to me it's like they're, they're not from this planet. They are from someplace else you know, they've, they've just arrived, they're here for a little bit then they go on back to where they, where they came from in the first place. They, they're creatures. They're creatures. They, they're human when they step off the stage and do whatever they're doing there, but they are, they are creatures that have, that are full of, of this loving humanity that they only want to share with you for that two and a half hours on stage, isn't that a wonderful thing you know, and when that, when that hits you know it, the audience knows it, you know it and you go away with an experience that you'll never forget. That's what I saw when I saw the company the first time, you know.