Interview: Jamar Roberts on choreography, retirement and his Ailey world premiere

Jamar Roberts.<br />© Andrew Eccles. (Click image for larger version)
Jamar Roberts.
© Andrew Eccles. (Click image for larger version)

See Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at New York City Center December 1–19. Jamar Roberts’ Holding Space premieres on December 3 and 9, and Roberts farewell performance is December 9.

The legendary Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater wasn’t idle during the long pandemic lockdown. Yes, its national and international touring was put on hold and its annual December home season at New York City Center was shuttered, but Ailey offered a rich digital season that included A Jam Session for Troubling Times, a world premiere by choreographer Jamar Roberts set to Charlie “Bird” Parker’s bebop jazz and stylishly filmed on the Ailey building’s rooftop. It was just one of several pandemic premieres by Roberts, a celebrated company dancer since 2002, a 2016 Bessie Award winner for Outstanding Performance, and Ailey’s inaugural Resident Choreographer since 2019 – his docket of commissioned dance films over the past 18 months includes Water Works for New York City Ballet; his own solo Cooped for the Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process Artists Virtual Commissions; and pieces for the Los Angeles Opera and NYU’s Center for Ballet and the Arts.

Jamar Roberts in <I>Morani/Mungu</I>.<br />© Christopher Duggan. (Click image for larger version)
Jamar Roberts in Morani/Mungu.
© Christopher Duggan. (Click image for larger version)

Another of Roberts’ lockdown premieres was Holding Space, co-commissioned and presented online by Cal Performances at UC Berkeley in June 2021. Spare and socially distanced, Holding Space feels markedly different from other works in Roberts’ oeuvre, like the deeply compelling Ode, a 2019 meditation on gun violence; 2017’s Members Don’t Get Weary, a look at life in a Black community with music by John Coltrane; and his spectacular 15-minute solo Morani/Mungu (Black Warrior/Black God), created for City Center’s 2020 Fall for Dance festival.

Ailey finally returns to City Center for three weeks this December, and Holding Space will get its live-in-person premiere on December 3. Just a few days later, Roberts will give his farewell performance and retire from the stage. Anyone fortunate enough to have seen Roberts’ extraordinary dancing knows what a loss his departure will be, but anyone who has seen his choreography will eagerly look forward to his artistic future. I spoke with Roberts via Zoom about dancing, dance-making and what’s next.

Chalvar Monteiro and Jacquelin Harris in Jamar Roberts' <I>Holding Space</I>.<br />© Christopher Duggan. (Click image for larger version)
Chalvar Monteiro and Jacquelin Harris in Jamar Roberts’ Holding Space.
© Christopher Duggan. (Click image for larger version)

Q: After such a long career on stage how did you know it was time to stop dancing?

JM: I guess I’ve known for a while. It’s my body. Being in a company like Ailey that performs so often, and the pieces are at such a high physical level, I started to feel a lot of pain and discomfort that I was kind of dancing through. And the company’s getting a lot younger – a lot of the dancers that I got in with, that were around my age, have moved on.

And now you have this other world of choreography. You’ve talked about how the pandemic has been hell and there was really nothing that you wanted to take with you from the experience. But you’ve done quite a few pieces during this time that have been fantastic. Has your opinion changed at all?

Yeah, I’ve learned a lot, mostly about the business of choreography. For me, making the dance, I love to do it – I’d do it for free. But the business of it is the thing that can really make or break you, I feel. The scheduling, the contracts, the time that they give you to make work – or the lack of time – the casting… In the beginning it felt like it wouldn’t be a big deal, but it actually ends up being the thing that can really make a difference if what eventually goes on stage is shitty or if it’s great. If I learned anything during the pandemic, it’s how to manage that stuff, or just realizing how essential it is that you get what you need.

Has the process of framing dance for film been interesting to you?

Definitely interesting, and fun. Especially if I’m the one that’s behind the camera. You’re more in charge of telling the viewer exactly what you want them to see, as opposed to being in the theater, where they can be looking at just one dancer stage right, and there’s a whole other thing happening on the left. I think it’s very interesting to have that kind of control over the work, and kind of paint the scene, if you will. Editing software these days is so awesome – I don’t even know that much about it, but the little bit that I’ve been able to learn, it really feels like you’re painting a portrait or sculpting something.

You made Holding Space for a digital premiere. Did you have to reinvent it for the stage?

[When I choreographed it] I was a little bit burned out on doing cinematic shots of dance, and I wanted something that was very clean and relatively frontal. We shot it in the Ailey Citigroup Theater, which is a regular-size stage. So in transferring it to the City Center stage, I don’t think there will be much of an adjustment. That piece is a socially distanced piece, that was definitely one of the boundaries that I had – the company was like, ‘Nobody can touch each other, and everybody has to remain six feet away from each other’ – and I don’t have any plans for adding any more choreography where people touch. Just getting it to the level that it exists at now was hard enough, and I actually don’t think there’s any time to do much more tinkering with it. [laughs]  

What do you have planned for your farewell performance?

I’m doing a solo that I’m creating on myself, with music by Jason Moran. They had to ask me for months to do an evening – originally, I didn’t want one. I’ve had enough applause to last me a lifetime – I’m good! [laughs] It just doesn’t feel necessary for me. Not for any reasons that are bad; I feel very much fulfilled in everything that I’ve done [as a dancer with Ailey]. I’m very much a person that just lives and dances pretty much in the present. When I’m there on the stage, I’m there, and the second I step off the stage I’m not there anymore, and I don’t really do a lot of thinking about what happened. I live that moment and I leave.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Jamar Roberts' Ode.© Paul Kolnik. (Click image for larger version)
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Jamar Roberts’ Ode.
© Paul Kolnik. (Click image for larger version)

You’ll have your first mainstage work with New York City Ballet in February 2022. Anything you can say about it yet?

I’m using the music of Wayne Shorter, jazz saxophonist and composer extraordinaire, he’s kind of the last of the greats. It’s the Wayne Shorter Quartet mixed with a 34-piece orchestra, so it’s this mashup of jazz and classical music. I kind of think that’s how I feel going into the ballet space [laughs]. Like two worlds are coming together. There actually was a time in my youth when I was really obsessed with ballet. Like, I feel like ballet was actually my first love, before I got to know modern dance. So in some ways it feels like the collision of two sides of me, or something like that. It’s been really fun to make; the music is amazing. It’s all about possibilities, is what I’m thinking now. You know, ballet only has about fifty steps, the rest is just figuring out how to arrange them and make them move and make them look different. I’m exploring that.

And because you have that history in ballet, you feel comfortable going into the ballet space.

I do, but I didn’t know I was gonna do actual ballet steps. There was a point in the process where I thought I was gonna go [to City Ballet] and say, ‘Take your shoes off and lets do modern,’ and transform these dancers into something else. And then I thought that would be probably the worst idea ever. And I like what they do! I love Balanchine’s work. So I was like, I’ll step over to their side instead of making them step over to my side.

Jamar Roberts.<br />© Andrew Eccles. (Click image for larger version)
Jamar Roberts.
© Andrew Eccles. (Click image for larger version)

Your work has such a compelling personal dimension to it. As you get a wider range of commissions, do you feel like you have to get out of that lane?

It’s definitely exhausting to always do work that’s so personal. Just because the way that I feel about things that are personal to me is very strong and very deep. I feel like I can only do that work on myself, or on people that I am very close to. I don’t know if I can do that work outside of that relationship dynamic. It doesn’t really make sense to me, especially, for example, if I’m going into a ballet company. Because the movement language that I do instinctually – me and the ballet dancers don’t speak the same language with our bodies. I need that sort of movement in order to interpret my personal stories.

Your point about exhaustion is well taken, because generating work from that place is really intense.

I actually love to do it. But if I’m doing it all the time, I’m gonna need a breather. I actually think that Holding Space was a moment where I needed to chill a little bit. So the music is a lot more ambient, and stylistically the whole piece is a bit of a departure. And it was just me trying to strategize. I’m like, how do I save myself, you know what I mean? And still put work out, but not work that’s like I’m ripping my heart out each time.

Jamar Roberts in Alvin Ailey's Revelations.© Christopher Duggan. (Click image for larger version)
Jamar Roberts in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations.
© Christopher Duggan. (Click image for larger version)

The bill you’re on at City Ballet is called “Visionary Voices” – no pressure there!

I didn’t even see it till I went to a friend’s house and they had the brochure. And I really just took a look at it just to see what my premiere date was! [laughs] But no, I don’t really feel any pressure. I never really feel that type of pressure, because at the end of the day I just have to do something I feel good about, and I have to do it well. And that’s all.

Thank you, Jamar!

Thank you.

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