Saying Goodbye to Judith Jamison

Alvin Ailey, the company Judith Jamison has directed since 1989, bid the dance legend a fond farewell with a memorable tribute show Sunday night.

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Crowds heading to the City Center for Judith Jamison's farewell program packed 55th Street in New York City Sunday night. While the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater draws a huge audience every December for its monthlong engagement, this occasion attracted twice as many fans as usual. "I wouldn't have missed it," one woman said to her companion, who had flown in from out of town. "Aren't you crazy about Ailey?" another asked. "I just had to say thank you to Judi," explained one man, standing in the long line to pick up tickets.

In the theater lobby, members of the audience, glamorous in party dress, mingled with friends and Ailey staff and artists from past and present, like Carmen de Lavallade, Orlando Bagwell, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Sweet Honey in the Rock's Louise Robinson, Carol Maillard, dancer Desmond Richardson and choreographer Dwight Rhoden. The Rev. Calvin Butts, André Leon Talley, Ashford and Simpson, Dr. Maya Angelou, Cicely Tyson and jazz pianist Eric Lewis were also in attendance. The buzz was so great that the announcement urging everyone to take his or her seat could hardly be heard.

Inside the theater, as the lights dimmed, the audience burst into applause, the historic importance of the evening palpable. Robert Battle, who will officially become artistic director in July, stepped in front of the red curtain. "How nice," he said, smiling and looking dapper, acknowledging the enthusiastic reception. "It's such an important moment for such an important lady." He quoted from a poem by Mari Evans, learned from his mother, which for him evoked Jamison:

I am a black woman
tall as a cypress
strong
beyond all definition still
defying place
and time
and circumstance
assailed
impervious
indestructible. Look
on me and be
renewed.

Cheers went up. It was time for the party to begin.

Masazumi Chaya, the company's associate artistic director and a mainstay at Ailey for 40 years, had worked for weeks on the program, trying to include everyone's favorites, and excerpting most of them to keep the evening to a reasonable length. It started off with the graceful Festa Barocca, choreographed by Mauro Bigonzetti, the men bare chested and wearing billowing, golden-colored skirts, the women in equally sensuous dresses. Hope Boykin buoyantly led them in the Handel minuet.

In the roles of tempestuous lovers, Faison hammed it up with Linda Celeste Sims in his sexy and funny Suite Otis, danced to Otis Redding songs. In a complete change of pace, red-robed Roxas-Dobrish, Sands, Glenn Allen Sims and Antonio Douthit seemed to float in the dreamlike, quartet section of John Butler's Carmina Burana, evoking medieval times.

And on it went, one funny, exciting, romantic or touching work after another, a cornucopia of sublime dance, pouring out for Jamison and the fortunate audience members. But while each performance had its pleasures, Cry, choreographed by Ailey for his mother and all black women in 1971 -- and Jamison's signature work -- brought the house down. Performed by three women -- Renee Robinson, Fisher-Harrell and Thomas-Schmitt -- rather than one, to music by Alice Coltrane, Laura Nyro and Chuck Griffin, the magnificent dance follows a woman from the pain and humiliation inflicted by racism to jubilant defiance. The dancers powerfully conveyed every emotional nuance.

At intermission, the 98-year-old impresario, Paul Szilard, who introduced the company to the world over the course of its first 30 years, took the podium to rave about Jamison. "She has made the company number one in the world," he said, the applause deafening. But he also wanted to remind everyone of her greatness as a dancer. "The public went crazy wherever she performed," he said. "When she took a bow, the bow was as impressive as the dance -- it was the show. She was one of the 20th century's greatest dancers. She will never leave. She will conquer the world."

On that ecstatic note, the program continued with a rip-roaring excerpt from Love Stories, choreographed by Rennie Harris, the 10 dancers twisting, shaking, spinning, blasting attitude right to the rafters. By this time, people had begun to join in, clapping time, whistling, calling out their pleasure.

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