Judith Jamison To Be Honored as the Living Legend Celebrant

Living Legend Celebrant

Written by BET Staff

Published August 21, 2018

"Learn the craft of knowing how to open your heart and to turn on your creativity. There’s a light inside of you." - Judith Jamison

The youngest of two kids in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Judith Jamison was fond of the arts from an early age. She studied piano and violin growing up and by the age of six dedicated her time to dance lessons. Her earliest classical ballet lessons were taught by master teachers Marion Cuyjet, Delores Brown, and John Jones at the Judimar School of Dance.

After three semesters studying at Fisk University, Jamison decided to purse a career in dance, and went on to complete her education at the Philadelphia Dance Academy. By 1964 she was discovered by choreographer Agnes de Mille and invited to appear in de Mille's "The Four Marys" at the New York-based American Ballet Theatre. Soon after, Judith Jamison moved to NYC to embark on a career that would potentially be filled with great acoomplishment. In 1965, Judith joined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT). 

Jamison performed with Alvin Ailey Dance Theater on tours of Europe and Africa in 1966. But, when financial pressures pushed Ailey to disband his company, Jamison decided to join the Harkness Ballet for several months before returning to the re-formed Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in 1989 when Mr. Ailey asked her to succeed him as Artistic Director. During her time away, she starred in the hit Broadway musical Sophisticated Ladies, and formed her own company, The Jamison Project.

Jamison was a principal dancer with AADT, dancing a variety of roles that highlighted her flexible technique, striking look, and exquiste stature of five feet, ten inches. Jamison took on more and more enduring roles, such as 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 Alvin Ailey Dance Theater revival of Lucas Hoving's "Icarus."

And with Jamison's regal style, her character roles were a perfect fit every time. Critics adored her performances and were continuously drawn to her dance interpretations that embodied not only strength, but grace as well. Jamison and Ailey collaborated on more projects, creating brilliant solo pieces such as "Masekela Language" (1969) and the timeless and electrifying performance of Ailey's 15-minute solo "Cry" (1971), a piece that propelled Jamison to international fame that is most unheard of among modern dance artists.

The tour-de-force solo piece "Cry" was Ailey's dedication "to all black women everywhere -- especially our mothers," and properly captured a broad range of movements, feelings, and visuals linked to black womanhood as mother, sister, lover, goddess, provider, counselor, and dancer.

In the years following Ailey's passing, she brought the Company to revolutionary heights – including two momentous tour events: in South Africa and a 50-city global tour to celebrate the Company’s 50th anniversary.

Ms. Jamison is the recipient of numerous accolades and honors, among them a Kennedy Center Honors (1999), Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Choreography (1999) and The BET Honors Award for Education (2009), a National Medal of Arts, a “Bessie” Award, the Phoenix Award, and the Handel Medallion, as well being mentioned in “TIME 100: The World’s Most Influential People” and honored by First Lady Michelle Obama at the first White House Dance Series event.

Most important of all, in 2015, she became the 50th inductee into the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Dance, a superb honor indeed.

Jamison as a highly revered choreographer and dancer has blessed audiences by creating many celebrated works, including Divining (1984), Forgotten Time (1989), Hymn (1993), HERE . . .NOW. (commissioned for the 2002 Cultural Olympiad), Love Stories (with additional choreography by Robert Battle and Rennie Harris, 2004), and Among Us (Private Spaces: Public Places) (2009). 

Judith Jamison continues to dedicate herself and career to promoting the importance of the arts in our culture, and remains committed to advocating the significance of the Ailey legacy – using dance as a medium for honoring the past, celebrating the present and fearlessly reaching into the future.