Jamar Roberts

The Ailey dancer talks it up.

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Was it better after you joined the company?
It was better, but at the same time I was doing my designs. I still had this itch. I got in when I was 18. When you're that young, you're crazy—you have no idea who you are or what you want. Before I left, I did a piece by Ohad [Naharin]: Black Milk. I didn't know who Ohad was before I did the piece, but I did by the time I finished because he was absolutely amazing, and I was just so honored to have done that. I don't know if I'd ever get to do that again. It was probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The piece came and left so quickly.

It's a shame, because it looked good on the company.
It felt good. I liked his whole style of movement and I liked the approach. It's not from a dancer standpoint; it's more human. And dancers, we tend to not be human at times. [Laughs] Or at least think that we're not. I think it's a really modest work.

Was there an open door for you to return?
I didn't think there was—not that I felt I had burned any bridges at all.

You're funny! I always imagined you to be like some god—that everything is perfect for you.
Oh, no. I have moments.

I had no idea that you have had misgivings. Well, you look quite amazing on stage. In control.
Cool. I completely enjoy what I do, but it's a journey figuring out where you are, what you want to say, how you want to say it. What everything means. It's not that everything has to mean anything—and I totally have friends saying that to me all the time—but on a certain level, it does. You can't just be out there flying around. So anyway, I didn't think there would be an open door, and I didn't think I would want to come back again, either. [Laughs] But I wanted to dance. In retrospect, it was kind of a silly move. Of course you're going to want to dance again. You're 19 years old and you're going to try to stop moving? That's crazy. I didn't think there was an open door, but I called, and [artistic director Judith Jamison] was glad to have me back, and I've been glad to come back.

What have you worked on that's been special?
[Sighs] I haven't worked on anything. You mean self-work or repertorywise?

I was referring to repertory, but both?
Well, myself, I don't feel like I've worked on anything. Here at Ailey, I feel like as long as you do the actual work—the repertory—then that work that you feel you need to do on yourself in order to be a better dancer comes. They're synonymous in that way. I think the job is very demanding. It demands that you go to bed early or do a certain amount of cardio in order to get through a role, and once you do get through it, you've learned something from that. They're kind of one and the same.

What rep do you enjoy?
In the current rep, I really like In/Side, by Robert Battle. I can't even express how terrified I was to learn the solo after having seen it, and then to perform it was like another level of fear. I'm used to it and it's become one of my favorite things to do, but it's grueling and it's dramatic and it's dark and it's dizzying—but it's all the things I love about dance. Like, I love it when it's dramatic, and I love it when it's dark and when it's intense. I wish there were more pieces that force you to go as deep into yourself.

So you're a Robert Battle fan?
Am I a Robert Battle fan? [Pauses] I would say... [Pauses again and laughs] It's hard for me to think of his work and not think of doing it. Because doing it is different from seeing it.

I'm sure that's true.
Doing it is a little torturous. But I'm a fan. I think he's very original and I think he's really smart, and I think that's really important. Yeah.

What about the works of Ailey?
I love Night Creature. I think it's perfect, from costumes to lighting to the music. The little comic relief. I think it's a really charming piece and I've always loved doing it. When you first get into the company, that's one of the things they teach you, aside from Revelations. So I started off as one of the guys in the back, waving the arms, and then I moved up to doing one of the lead guys. I kind of wish I was back there waving my arms again, because the corps guys do more than the lead guys do in this piece. Masekela Language, we did at BAM. I love that one. And Revelations, of course. I really like doing it.

And I really like watching it, honestly. It's structurally impeccable.
There are some times when I'm not performing it, and I'll watch just from the wing, and I'm just like, Wow—how did you think of that? "Sinner Man" in particular. When I dance it, I feel like I'm running three times: I come out and run on the diagonal, and then later on I do a run upstage and then downstage—but when I look at the piece, the whole thing is running! It's a rush. I think he chose some really interesting patterns that work. I like doing the Father Figure in "'Buked" because it feels like a warm-up—it kind of puts you in the mood. There's a moment where the curtain is down and the music plays for a couple of seconds and just that little bit of hearing that music is really comforting. You could have done the most strenuous piece before Revelations, but it always seems like at that moment, everything you've done before has been washed away. It's rejuvenating.

How do you keep your individuality in such an institution? Or do you not think of it that way?
Most of the dancers are artists, and you want to be an individual. I think that's your whole reason for doing art—so you can express yourself, who you are. I don't think of that. I think I'm in the position I'm in because I am who I am. I'm different already. I don't think about trying so much.

But you don't feel the trappings of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater?
I do. [Whispers] It's a touchy subject. I speak about it all the time.

Just not to someone like me!
I try to do a lot of work on my own outside of the company or in the back of the studio, so that I don't feel so...conforming. If there's a choreographic opportunity where I feel I want to do something, I'll do that. My movement is completely different from what I do onstage. That always helps me feel like myself.

How much longer do you think you'll stay?
I'm in my eighth year. I was going to try to make it to ten years, but we'll see. I think I'm a really curious person, and I think I have a lot to say. I haven't really figured out how I want to say it and if I want to say it here or someplace else.

What do you think of Robert Battle taking over the company?
Mmmmmm. I don't know what to think. I think it's great.

You do?
I only say I don't know because I don't know what he has planned. I know that this company is very different from Battleworks, and it has a different agenda, period. Just in the size. That's why I don't know. But overall, I guess I have a more positive feeling about it than negative. I think the company is in need of a change, and I like change. I like new.

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