A Tribute to Judith Jamison
First Lady Michelle Obama's White House Dance Series, Event #1
East Room, The White House
September 7, 2010
by George Jackson
copyright 2010 by George Jackson
Only a part of the 3 PM workshop for students and the 5 PM performance for students and other guests was open to the press - from the workshop's start for about an hour. Standing in a window niche behind the photographers' platform and peering out through spaces between the camera men and their equipment, I caught glimpses of what was happening. It wasn't a bad view at all. The entire event, though, was available to everyone via a webcast. The East Room was already crowded when I entered and although the workshop hadn't quite started, different groups were trying out the stage. I don't think I was hallucinating but the first sight that met my eyes was the opening of George Balanchine's "Serenade" - the ultimate example of "ballet is woman" - being marked by not only women but men. This group was soon replaced by one doing hiphop. People milled about and among them were, of course, this event's honoree Judith Jamison and some of her Alvin Ailey company colleagues, the afternoon's emcee Damian Woetzel who directs the Vail Festival in Colorado and Heather Watts Woetzel, Washington Ballet's Septime Webre, the Paul Taylor company's Bettie de Jong and John Tomlinson, ballet master Jeff Edwards of the "Billy Elliot" musical and lots of dance students of diverse ages that had come from Delaware, Michigan, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and DC. Attending press* included The New Yorker's Joan Acocella, The Wall Street Journal's Robert Greskovic, The New York Times' Alastair Macaulay, and Lisa Traiger of the Dance USA publication and The Washington Post's Weekend Section. The First Lady was not , as far as I could see, at the workshop - which, after Woetzel's efficient call to order, began with an amazing lesson led by the Ailey's Nasha Thomas-Schmitt.
Thomas-Schmitt taught movement and much more. The movement began simply with head rotations and elbow elevations but soon became complex, involving the shoulders and moving down the torso to ultimately include the legs. Not only did Thomas-Schmitt and other Ailey dancers demonstrate what was essentially a limbering exercise but she began to give the students phrases from "Revelations" and spoke about the "blood memories" that had stirred Ailey to choreograph his most famous work. She brought in history (the great Depression), grammar (adjectives describing the action, then adverbs), even physics (the resistance to movement when one wades in water). The results of this tuition led the students to move in new ways, to understand different facets of dance and also to experience the self esteem of accomplishment.
Jeff Edwards and four lads who alternate in the Billy Elliot role on Broadway demonstrated and led the students through separate tap, ballet and hiphop phrases from the musical. Then the phrases were joined together. Most of the photographers had left the East Room followingThomas-Schmitt's Ailey lesson, so Traiger and I, who had been standing next to each other, had an unobstructed view of the "Billy Elliot" sequence. Moreover, much of the rest of the press also seemed to have gone with the photographers. Woetzel now introduced four ballet dancers - New York City Ballet's Ashley Bouder and Daniel Ulbricht, and Washington Ballet's Morgann Rose Frederick and Jonathan Jordan. They were about to demonstrate a further lesson for the students when Traiger and I were told, very courteously, that our time was up and we were escorted out of the White House. Apparently, the workshop continued for another half hour.
I arrived home in plenty of time to watch the webcast of the performance. The First Lady was not only in attendance but welcomed the audience and spoke warmly about dance and her honoree, Jamison. Again, Woetzel was the emcee. The program was one of varied excerpts and short selections. It opened with part of "Cry", the long solo Ailey had made for Jamison. I didn't catch who the dancer was on this occasion, but she** belted her feelings out passionately. The male quartet from Paul Taylor's "Cloven Kingdom" kept its cool pointedly. The young Australian, Dayton Tavares, sang and danced Billy Elliot in an appealing mix of promise and accomplishment. "Let's Forget About Tomorrow", Twyla Tharp' balletic ballroom take on the Frank Sinatra song, is as full of energy as the program's other duo, Balanchine's "Tarantella" to Gottschalk's music. The vectors of that energy, though, are directed centrally and down by Tharp but up and out by Balanchine. Not surprisingly, the Tharp fits the small East Room stage better, so Frederick and Jordan could pour themselves into it whereas Bouder and Ulbricht in "Tarantella" had to balance exuberance and caution. Although there were moments when Super Cr3w's stunts reminded me of those in the "Cloven Kingdom" quartet, these hiphoppers are about agility for its own sake whereas Taylor holds the mirror up to humanity's face.
The telecast concluded with three sections of "Revelations" - "Wading in the Water", "Sinner Man" and "Rock My Soul". The tensions and resolutions Ailey put into these dances could have been choreographed for television, they look so much better than many another work on a small screen. Jamison thanked Mrs. Obama and summed up the event as having been "very American" and "fun". To me, both the workshop and the performance looked, too, like hard work well done.
*The Washington Post's Sarah Kaufman must have been there too, but I didn't see her.
** Linda Celeste Sims performed, as it turned out.