Alvin Ailey troupe and Cynthia Erivo celebrate dance legend Judith Jamison
Judith Jamison looked out onto the glittering crowd at New York City Center and said marvelling: “The man thought of this 65 years ago, and here we are!”
Jamison, 80, was speaking of Alvin Ailey, the pioneering choreographer who, 65 years ago, founded Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It began with a small gig at the 92nd St Y in Manhattan, a pickup group he’d gathered of fellow Broadway dancers.
The company became one of the most visible and successful troupes in the world, thanks in no small part to Jamison, who, as a dancer, became its most visible face, and later took the reins from Ailey himself as artistic director, serving for more than two decades.
The company celebrated its 65th birthday last Wednesday night and launched its post-pandemic return to a full five-week season with an exclamation mark, in the form of Cynthia Erivo. The singer-actor lent her vocal expertise – both searing and soulful – to a special dance tribute to Jamison.
But the moment was significant, also, for who was not there: Artistic director Robert Battle, who resigned just two weeks before the season began (the evening’s promotional material still included him in his position, which he assumed in 2011). In a statement, the board said Battle was resigning to focus on his health.
There have only been three artistic directors at Ailey – the man himself, then Jamison, then Battle. The company says associate artistic director Matthew Rushing, also a former star dancer with the company, will run the current season as a search is launched. Rushing was congratulated from the stage on Wednesday for his 30th anniversary with the troupe, while no reference was made to Battle’s departure.
The one-night-only tribute, created by Erivo and choreographer Hope Boykin, began with the singer and four female dancers all clad in bright red dresses (Sarah Daley-Perdomo, Constance Stamatiou, Jacquelin Harris and Samantha Figgins). As Erivo crooned Feeling Good, her vocals escalating in intensity (and earning mid-song cheers from the crowd), she couldn’t help but occasionally gaze at the dancers twirling around her.
A video tribute to Jamison included footage of Ailey himself, who died in 1989 at age 58, describing his star dancer’s talents. Some in the crowd gasped as they glimpsed her performing decades ago in Cry, in her famous white leotard and long skirt, her expressive arms punching the air. Ailey created Cry in 1971 in honour of his own and other black mothers; it made Jamison a star.
Jamison is also a Joni Mitchell lover, and so Erivo, this time in flowing black and white, delivered a soulful rendition of Both Sides Now to a duet by dancers Ashley Kaylynn Green and Michael Jackson, Jr.
The evening, hosted by Sunny Hostin of The View, continued – as all Ailey celebrations do – with the signature Revelations, Ailey’s masterpiece set to spirituals and gospel and blues music.
Standout excerpts were an explosive Sinner Man, with three men famously running for their lives, and Wade in the Water, a section made famous by Jamison carrying a big white umbrella.
“I can’t imagine a life without Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater,” Jamison said from the stage.
The crowd’s very vocal appreciation made it clear they couldn’t imagine the company without her.