Jamar Roberts is an Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater icon. He's danced with the company for more than 15 years, and at 6' 4", he cuts a powerful and immediately recognizable figure onstage. As a choreographer, he is prolific, passionate, and political—his most recent, instantly iconic piece for Ailey, Ode, is a meditation on the fragility of life in the age of gun violence. Though several of Roberts' planned premieres have been postponed because of the COVID-19 outbreak, we can't wait to see his works performed again.
Increasingly, issues ripped from the headlines and our national debates - including race, violence and brutal episodes from history - have come to the fore in the works Battle commissions. Consider Tuesday's local premiere of "Ode," a skillful and delicate treatment of gun violence and its disproportionate claim on black men. "Ode" is by Jamar Roberts, recently named the troupe's first resident choreographer. He's also a standout dancer in the company whose appealingly soft physicality masked his strength in "A Case of You," a romantic duet with the equally effortless Jacqueline Green that both dancers whirled through beautifully, elevating choreographer Judith Jamison's overly sugary concept.
Masazumi Chaya, a beloved animating spirit of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre since 1972, first decided to retire in 1986. But Ailey asked him to stay on as an assistant to the rehearsal director, and so Chaya stayed, and stayed - through Ailey's death, two changeovers of artistic director, and several generations of dancers. Now, as Chaya finally follows through on his retirement plan, the company honors its associate artistic director with a tribute evening on Dec. 22, part of its five-week season at City Center.
Jamar Roberts, the first ever resident choreographer at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, joins us to discuss his first production in that role, "Ode."
Say you're a choreographer and you want to make a dance about gun violence - not a polemical piece but a mournful one. How might you express a grief that's personal and public, and whose source shows no sign of stopping? An obvious option: bodies on the ground. And sure enough, those appear in Jamar Roberts's "Ode," which had its premiere at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at City Center on Tuesday. "Ode" isn't obvious though. It's delicate, daring and heartbreaking.
There are no gunshots in Ode. But it does begin with one dancer lying motionless on the floor, as a piano plays stark, detached chords. The dancer gets up and is eventually joined by five other dancers, in flowing, circular motions. They dance together as an ensemble, but then one dancer falls and crumples to the floor. He's picked up by another dancer, but then two of them fall.
What a night. The Dance Magazine Awards yesterday at the Ailey Citigroup Theater was jam-packed with love for dance. From legendary icons to early-career choreographers we can't stop obsessing over, the Dance Magazine Awards, presented by the Dance Media Foundation, recognized a wide spectrum of our field. And with more performances than ever before, the night was an incredible celebration of the dance community. As host Wendy Perron pointed out, in many ways, we doubled the usual fun this year: Some honorees had two performances, some had two presenters, and David Gordon and Valda Setterfield were themselves, well, two awardees.
On Wednesday, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater kicks off its five-week holiday season. Jamar Roberts is stepping into the role of Ailey’s first resident choreographer while continuing to perform. Theatergoers come back every year to see “Revelations” and other classics. “We’ve been preparing these pieces for all year, really, and some of them we’ve been doing for many, many reasons, including ‘Revelations,’ for example, so we’re excited,” Roberts said. Roberts has been performing with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since 2002 when he joined as a teenager. This year, Roberts choreographed the piece “Ode,” which makes its world premiere later this month. “It is a tribute to victims of gun violence. I really wanted to do something really beautiful, so in essence, it’s a poem. I’m not really depicting any one scene in particular, but I really wanted to do something that was gonna really help facilitate healing to most of the communities and families affected,” Roberts said. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s holiday season runs through Jan. 5.
Jamar Roberts: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer and resident choreographer
We are live at Works & Process at the Guggenheim with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performing an excerpt from “Ode” a piece choreographed by Ailey’s first resident choreographer Jamar Roberts. A panel discussion led by Marina Harss will feature Robert Battle, Stephanie Batten Bland, Donald Byrd, and Jamar Roberts, as well as Brandon Stirling Baker and Libby Stadstad (lighting and scenic designers for this world premiere work).