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Dancing Queen

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Judith Jamison, the iconic dance legend celebrates her 20th and final year as the Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. As the company begins their five-week season (December 2, 2009 through January 3, 2010) at the New York City Center, she looks back on her rich history and what keeps her excited.

ESSENCE.com: You have such an amazing legacy with the Ailey organization, what keeps you electrified?
JUDITH JAMISON: All of it! I just created a new ballet. Matthew Rushing created "Uptown," an homage to the Harlem Renaissance. Ron Brown is coming back to create a new work for us. I get excited day by day because I thank GOD day by day that I'm alive and awake. He's put me on this path ever since I was a child.

ESSENCE.com: What can we expect from this new season?
JAMISON: You better fasten your seat belt. When you come into the theater, your toes are going to twirl. You can expect to see the same kind of variety; we have over 250 ballets in the repertoire.

ESSENCE.com: When did you decide to pass the torch and leave your post as Artistic Director?
JAMISON:
There was no definitive date; there was no 'oh yeah, here's a bright thought, let me pass this on.' This is an ever-spiraling continuum that keeps going upwards and keeps getting broader and broader. Let's put it this way, once you're with Ailey, you'll always be with Ailey. I'm just dropping the title.

ESSENCE.com: What is your outlook on the future of Ailey when you depart?
JAMISON:
I expect this company to be around for another 50 years so I think the paradigm that Ailey set up was past, present and future. We just need to continue to hold on to the perspective that something bigger than you is making this happen, that you didn't get here by yourself. One Black man from Rogers, Texas, had an idea and went with it and now it's sitting in a building on 55th and 9th Avenue in New York City--the largest dedicated dance building in the US. It thrives and lives not because Judy Jamison is here but because all of us are here. This is the future that I'm looking at.

ESSENCE.com: What's next for you?
JAMISON: You'll know it when I do it (laughs). I'm spiritually connected to Alvin, my mentor. And you know, you never become detached from those people you love so much. When Alvin died, half my heart went. What makes my heart whole is what happens at Ailey because we're living in his resonance. That flow continues.

ESSENCE.com: What do you look for in a dancer?
JAMISON:
A total throw-down passion for what they do. They have to be absolutely talented, studied and, of course, they must have the technique. But I look for a person who can't breathe unless they take another step. It has to mean something from your heart not just from the peripheral of 'yeah I can jump higher than anyone else.' Anybody can do that now but what's the point of you doing what you're doing. I'm looking for those dancers who can answer that question.

ESSENCE.com: And how do you find those dancers?
JAMISON:
It's an audition process. Once a year people come from all over the world. I do that one audition. I don't take tapes, CDs, DVDs of people dancing, I just don't do it that way.

ESSENCE.com: To see the end result of an Alvin Ailey performance is always vibrant and full of emotion, how did you approach the creation of "Among Us"?
JAMISON:
I work different every time I approach a ballet. This go-around for "Among Us," I was working off of a wonderful musician named Eric Lewis, my dancers and my drawings. I was encouraged to draw by the great Tony-award winning Geoffrey Holder and his beautiful wife Carmen DeLavallade, who was one of my mentors. I wanted this piece to be actual and fantastical.

ESSENCE.com: Any last words for us?
JAMISON:
Get to the theater! I'm telling you, get your tickets early. You have five weeks of things that are magical and spiritual. You need to be touched by us and we need to be touched by you.

For more information, visit www.alvinailey.org.
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