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
beyond all definition still
on me and be
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.
Next came the short film Celebrating Revelations at 50, produced and directed by Judy Kinberg. The warm, friendly face of Alvin Ailey appeared on the screen, and he spoke of his growing up in Texas, the virulent racism of the time, and his being inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. to start a company. He said that above all, he wanted his dances to show what it's like to be human.
If there was ever a dance that expressed what it's like to be human, it is his masterpiece Revelations. From the raw opening "I Been 'Buked,' " with the big golden sun as a backdrop, to the desperate plea "Fix Me, Jesus" and through the rising passions of "Wading in the Water" — lovingly danced by the eloquent Matthew Rushing, Constance Stamatiou and Robinson — the work illuminates the path from sorrow and confusion to deliverance and joy.
And along the way, it features one of the most thrilling sequences ever choreographed for men, "Sinner Man," performed last night by Jamar Roberts, Brown and Kirven James Boyd. Everyone was more than ready for the finale, "Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham," swaying to the music like one big happy family gathered to give someone very special to them a grand send-off.
After the encore, Jamison appeared, statuesque and beautiful, a vibrantly colored shawl draped over her shoulders. Streamers shimmered down from the ceiling, glinting in the light. "I love you, too," she said, her voice cracking. "You've been an amazing audience all these 52 years. Thank you for all your love. … I also thank Robert for accepting the mantle. I thank my dancers. You are all incredible. You have God's gifts. Continue to shine. Remember the song 'This Little Light of Mine.' … Just think, there was one black man in a tiny town in Texas who had a vision. … Continue with us on our journey."
Over the next few minutes, almost everyone important to the Ailey company came out and presented her with a bouquet of flowers, until her arms overflowed. "Thank you," she said, finally heading offstage. Members of the audience, reluctant to leave, still watched her and continued to wave.
Valerie Gladstone, who writes about the arts for many publications, including the New York Times, recently co-authored a children's book with Jose Ivey, A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student.