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Judith Jamison
Born: May 10, 1943
Occupation: dancer, choreographer
Born the younger of two children in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Jamison studied piano and violin as a child. Tall by the age of six, Jamison was enrolled in dance classes by her parents in an effort to complement her exceptional height with grace. She received most of her early dance training in classical ballet with master teachers Marion Cuyjet, Delores Brown, and John Jones at the Judimar School of Dance. Jamison decided on a career in dance only after three semesters of coursework in psychology at Fisk University, and she completed her education at the Philadelphia Dance Academy. In 1964 she was spotted by choreographer Agnes de Mille and invited to appear in de Mille's "The Four Marys" at the New York-based American Ballet Theatre. Jamison moved to New York in 1965 and that same year joined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT).

Jamison performed with AAADT on tours of Europe and Africa in 1966. When financial pressures forced Ailey to briefly disband his company later that year, Jamison joined the Harkness Ballet for several months and then returned to the re-formed AAADT in 1967. She quickly became a principal dancer with that company, dancing a variety of roles that showcased her pliant technique, stunning beauty, and exceptional stature of five feet, ten inches. Jamison excelled as the goddess Erzulie in Geoffrey Holder's "The Prodigal Prince" (1967), as the Mother in a revised version of Ailey's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915" (1968), and as the Sun in the 1968 AAADT revival of Lucas Hoving's "Icarus." These larger-than-life roles fit neatly with Jamison's regal bearing and highly responsive emotional center, and critics praised her finely drawn dance interpretations that were imbued with power and grace. Jamison's and Ailey's collaboration deepened, and she created a brilliant solo in his "Masekela Language" (1969). Set to music of South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, Jamison portrayed a frustrated and solitary woman dancing in a seedy saloon. Her electrifying performances of Ailey's 15-minute solo "Cry" (1971) propelled her to an international stardom unprecedented among modern dance artists. Dedicated by Ailey "to all black women everywhere -- especially our mothers," the three sections of "Cry" successfully captured a broad range of movements, emotions, and images associated with black womanhood as mother, sister, lover, goddess, supplicant, confessor, and dancer.

In 1976 Jamison danced with ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov in Ailey's "Pas de Duke" set to music by Duke Ellington. This duet emphasized the classical line behind Jamison's compelling modern dance technique and garnered her scores of new fans. Jamison's celebrity advanced, and she appeared as a guest artist with the San Francisco Ballet, the Swedish Royal Ballet, the Cullberg Ballet, and the Vienna State Ballet. In 1977 she created the role of Potiphar's Wife in John Neumeier's "Josephslegende" for the Vienna State Opera, and in 1978 she appeared in Maurice Béjart's updated version of "Le Spectre de la Rose" with the Ballet of the Twentieth Century. Several choreographers sought to work with Jamison as a solo artist, and important collaborations included John Parks' "Nubian Lady" (1972), John Butler's "Facets" (1976), and Ulysses Dove's "Inside" (1980).

In 1980 Jamison left the Ailey company to star in the Broadway musical "Sophisticated Ladies," set to the music of Duke Ellington. She later turned her formidable talent to choreography, where her work has been marked by a detached sensuality and intensive responses to rhythm. Jamison founded her own dance company, the Jamison Project, "to explore the opportunities of getting a group of dancers together, for both my choreography [and] to commission works from others." Alvin Ailey's failing health caused Jamison to rejoin the AAADT as artistic associate for the 1988-1989 season. In December 1989 Ailey died, and Jamison was named artistic director of the company. She has continued to choreograph, and her ballets include "Divining" (1984), "Forgotten Time" (1989), and "Hymn" (1993), all performed by the AAADT.

Jamison has received numerous awards and honors, including a Presidential Appointment to the National Council of the Arts, the 1972 DANCE MAGAZINE Award, and the Candace Award from the National Coalition of One Hundred Black Women. Her greatest achievement as a dancer was an inspiring ability to seem supremely human and emotive within an elastic and powerful dance technique.

-- Thomas F. DeFrantz

"Jamison, Judith." CURRENT BIOGRAPHY YEARBOOK. New York, 1973, pp. 202205.
Jamison, Judith, with Howard Kaplan. DANCING SPIRIT: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY. New York, 1993.
Jowitt, Deborah. " 'Call Me a Dancer': (Judith Jamison)." NEW YORK TIMES, December 5, 1976, Sec. 6, pp. 4041, 136148.
Maynard, Olga. JUDITH JAMISON: ASPECTS OF A DANCER. New York, 1982.

Source Citation: "Judith Jamison." ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN CULTURE AND HISTORY. 5 vols. Macmillan, 1996. Reprinted by permission of Gale Group.