As Judith Jamison Ensures that a Dance Legacy She Helped Create Lives On, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Celebrates the Winners of the Fight HIV Your Way Photo Contest
by Chip Alfred
A grand dame of modern dance, Judith Jamison is one of the most revered artists of her generation. She catapulted to international stardom as a principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, appeared on Broadway in Sophisticated Ladies, and performed with dance companies all over the world. In 1989, before Alvin Ailey died from AIDS, the dance company’s founder chose Jamison to succeed him as artistic director.
For more than two decades, Jamison, sixty-eight, has carried out Ailey’s legacy and built AAADT, now entering its fifty–third season, into one of the world’s preeminent dance companies. After performing for an estimated 23 million people in seventy-one countries, the Ailey company is about to do something it has never done before. The company will present an original dance piece inspired by people across the country impacted by HIV.
In December, 2010 the REYATAZ Fight HIV Your Way Contest, sponsored by Bristol-Myers Squibb, launched with a call for entries. Contest
submissions include a photograph and a brief essay about each individual’s struggle. The objectives of the project are to raise AIDS awareness, encourage people impacted by HIV to continue their battle, and address the stigma surrounding the disease.
After reviewing approximately 1,300 entries, an expert panel of judges chose fifty winners. Submissions were judged on visual and verbal expression, creativity, originality and overall artistic quality. Ten first-place winners will receive a once in a lifetime opportunity—to visualize their stories of inspiration and hope interpreted through the art of dance. First-place winners also receive a three-day, two-night trip to New York, tickets to see an Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performance, and a certificate of merit. Fifteen second-place winners receive a certificate of merit and tickets to see the Ailey company perform. Twenty-five third-place winners receive a Certificate of Merit and an AAADT souvenir.
And the top ten winners are:
David Fairman, Fort Myers, Florida
Michael Gomez, Van Nuys, California
Jack R. Miller, Perth Amboy, New Jersey
James R. Dustin, Atlanta, Georgia
John Perkins, Huntsville, Alabama
Chace C., Akron, Ohio
Dr. Sherry M., Roswell, Georgia
Kurt Weston, Huntington Beach, California
La’Nette Buras, Loranger, Louisiana
“There have been so many entries that touched my heart,” says Jamison, one of the panel’s judges. Kurt Weston’s is one of those. His personal tale is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and his ability to triumph over seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Diagnosed with HIV in the 1990s, Weston, fifty-three, overcame three bouts of PCP and lost nearly all of his vision from Cytomegalovirus retinitis. He likens his limited visual acuity to “seeing the world like an impressionist painting.”
He also developed what he describes as the most visible manifestation of AIDS, Kaposi’s sarcoma, experiencing the stifling stigmatization of people living with AIDS at the time. A legally blind photographer and artist, Weston incorporates his life experiences into his work. “Being disabled in society lends me a perspective on the human experiences of marginalization, exclusion and forms of oppression.”
In his contest entry, Weston describes the one thing he couldn’t imagine would happen—love. His submission consists of a photo of his partner and these words: “The inscription of illness and resulting disability left me believing I would never have a partner to share my life. Fortunately, I met Terry, who also has HIV. He is a caring, loving, and committed partner. He will forever hold my heart.”
“I hope the choreographed dance piece can be an inspiration to those living with HIV/AIDS to know their journey is not over,” says Weston. “Individuals infected with the virus can still be productive, contributing members of society.”
James R. Dustin’s approach to fighting HIV is to never let his guard down. Dustin, forty-five, was a drug addict and alcoholic by the time he was sixteen. At twenty-three, he tested HIV-positive. He thought he wouldn’t live to see his next birthday. “I realized that HIV wasn’t killing me,” he admits. “I was killing myself with the drugs.” He entered a treatment program and got completely sober—from drugs, alcohol and nicotine—and turned his life around. “I love myself again, all of me, including HIV.”
Even after beating his addictions, there was yet another battle for Dustin to face. In 2006, while working as a massage therapist in Atlanta, Dustin was fired because of his HIV status. At the time, the city prohibited HIV-positive massage therapists. After Dustin threatened a lawsuit and shared his story on national television, the city changed its policy. Then, the U.S. Department of Justice demanded all such laws be eliminated nationwide. Dustin eventually returned to the work he loves—soothing the pain of his clients, many of whom are HIV-positive as well.
His contest entry includes an image of himself in boxing gear with a narrative about focusing on his spiritual, mental and physical health. His routine includes exercise, nutrition, getting enough sleep and following his medication regimen. “I fight HIV each day…I keep a positive mental attitude. I replenish my spiritual self. I volunteer my time and talents to AIDS Service Organizations. I spend quality time with family and friends. I fight HIV each day.”
When Dustin was selected a first place winner, he was both elated and honored. “Someone is listening. I matter,” he thought. “I have the opportunity to not only represent myself but to represent other survivors who are thriving with HIV. It’s important to show people you can fight HIV and win.”
Dr. Sherry M.’s submission features a scenic snapshot of the sun rising over a country road and these reflections: “In the challenge of illness, we often do not take a moment to quiet our “what ifs” and fearful thoughts. The peace offered to us through natural beauty provides a respite from fear and an assurance of hope. Seize that moment.”
Dr. Sherry has seized many of those moments as a psychotherapist working with HIV-positive patients. She’s also seized those moments through her own battle with breast cancer. Now cancer-free for ten years, Dr. Sherry, sixty-two, says the friends she made in the AIDS community helped bolster her courage to stand up to her own life-threatening disease. “If not for these people that were so dear to me, I don’t know that I would have been able to tackle my illness as I did.”
For Dr. Sherry, comforting others is what nourishes her soul. “The greatest gift for me besides my family is knowing I’ve been able to make a
difference in the lives of people I covet in terms of their heroic spirit and their commitment to living,” she discloses. “We are all survivors if we want to be—if we maintain a positive attitude and if we nurture our passion.”
A former dance major and a loyal Alvin Ailey fan, Dr. Sherry was “thrilled beyond words” when learning she was selected as a first place winner. “This contest is combating apathy—reminding us this disease is not over. It’s a remarkable opportunity for us to get the word back out.”
The dance composition created by AAADT will have its world premiere on World AIDS Day 2011. “The poignancy of this date couldn’t be stronger,” states Jamison. “We lost our founder, Alvin Ailey, to the disease twenty-one years ago on December 1, 1989. It’s bittersweet, but it’s certainly a tribute to him, his tenacity as an artist and everything he did.”
Alvin Ailey was an internationally acclaimed dancer and choreographer. He founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a company hailed as a global ambassador of American culture. Ailey revolutionized dance, incorporating elements of ballet and jazz, along with modern and African dance into his work.
A prolific choreographer, Ailey created seventy-nine original works for his company. Revelations, created in 1960 and recognized as his signature piece, is touted as one of the world’s most-watched works of modern dance.
This marks the third installment of the REYATAZ Fight HIV Your Way Contest and the first collaboration with the Ailey company. “Together we are going to incorporate the power of dance to turn these inspiring stories into a work of art,” says Cristi Barnett, associate director, public affairs for Bristol-Myers Squibb. It’s part of the pharmaceutical company’s ongoing commitment to support people with HIV and AIDS. “We realize that delivering medicines that treat HIV is not enough,” Barnett declares, citing the significance of raising awareness, providing educational tools and partnering with the HIV community.
Jamison asserts that the internationally renowned dance company will maximize the impact of the contest. “This joins the repertory of Ailey and, as soon as you say Ailey, that turns the bulb on. There is only one Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and people recognize and know that.”
With hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris creating the dance piece, there’s an opportunity to engage more people, especially young people. Harris, who’s known as a pioneer in his art form, is taking the dance world by storm with his extraordinary, innovative artistry.
“Rennie takes a conceptual approach to hip-hop,” explains AAADT artistic director Robert Battle. “He is bringing a unique perspective to stories that absolutely have to be told…in a dance vocabulary that comes from a new generation.” Harris believes hip-hop choreography has the ability to express universal themes that transcend racial, religious, and economic boundaries. In 2004, he co-created for the Ailey company the crowd-pleasing Love Stories, a vibrant, diverse tribute to the past, present and future, with Robert Battle and Judith Jamison.
Jamison, after twenty-one years at the helm of AAADT, recently announced she’s stepping down—or should we say stepping aside? She claims she’s “rewiring” instead of retiring. “It’s called a glissade [sliding ballet step] to the right. I’m just moving over. I’m attached at the hip.” Jamison’s next move will be a speaking tour, then she’ll return to her office at AAADT to continue teaching, directing, and coaching. Robert Battle officially takes over as artistic director for the 2011–2012 season.
Looking back at her legendary career as a dancer, choreographer and artistic director, Jamison feels blessed. Dance has been much more than a vocation for her—it’s been a consuming, jubilant passion. Turning her dear friend Alvin Ailey’s dream into reality has been one of her crowning achievements. “I want this company to go on forever,” she exclaims.
“Alvin was a bear of a man, an extraordinary choreographer and an amazing humanist,” she recalls about the mentor who called her “the skinny girl with no hair.” He was “a wonder of a person with foibles and with joy. He was unafraid to approach dance expressing what it is to be a full human being.”
Ailey was also a champion of encouraging young people on their journey, and Jamison has maintained that focus. She has expanded the company’s educational opportunities with the completion of the Joan Weill Dance Center. The Ailey company’s permanent home since 2004, the center is the largest facility dedicated to dance in New York City.
Jamison is pleased to see the company involved in projects like Fight HIV Your Way, but she acknowledges there’s more work to be done in the battle against HIV and AIDS. “We need to keep adding more and more programs in diverse ways to educate people about what is still going on,” she says emphatically. “People keep putting it on the back burner. This will put it on the front burner.”
Chip Alfred is Editor at Large of A&U and a nationally published freelance journalist living in Philadelphia.