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Judith Jamison

The Gold Standard: How the movies -- past and present -- changed our lives

Jamison refuses to pick only one movie that might have changed her life. “I’ve got a whole list here!” she begins. “First off, any musical by Busby Berkeley,” the director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater says of classics like “Gold Diggers of 1933.”

“Those films had absolutely the most extraordinary dreamlike quality with all those geometric designs on the floor, such wonderful patterns that were really constructed like architecture, like building a building. But they’re doing it with movement. It certainly made my cup half full, instead of full empty. It always took me to another place, it was a fantasy, and how marvelous for a child to have that fantasy. As a kid, Disney World wasn’t there yet. The real thing was going to movies and seeing three at a time for 75¢.”

As much as Jamison credits Berkeley, she does not forget Fred Astaire’s longtime choreographer, Hermes Pan, who took on terp chores for “Top Hat,” among many others. “I would imitate whatever I saw Fred Astaire do, and I’d repeat it to you, his part and his partner’s. Years later, when I was on tour somewhere as a dancer, I met Hermes Pan. I was flabbergasted. I said, ‘Thank you!’ ”

Like most kids growing up in America, Jamison didn’t see much theater, and yet she knew a dancer-choreographer idol from the movies: “In ‘Stormy Weather,’ Lena Horne is singing the title song and Katherine Dunham and her dance company (are) dancing around her.”

Ditto the Broadway work of another great: “I first saw ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘Carousel,’ with those incredible Agnes de Mille ballets, at the movies.”

As fate sometimes has it, the great American choreographer saw Jamison dance and brought her to New York to perform in the American Ballet Theater, which led to an encounter with Alvin Ailey, who later cast the young dancer in his “Revelations” and created many ballets especially for her. Again, it was the movies that first introduced her to Ailey: “If you look real hard, he’s dancing in ‘Carmen Jones.’ ”

Jamison recently saw Josephine Baker on a DVD of “Princess Tam Tam” and vividly recalls her “singing in a bird cage with white plumes, and sparkling. Those films were fantasy and beauty. The closest they’ve come to that recently is ‘Chicago.’ Somebody had the imagination to make something twinkle before our very eyes, yet it was fun. When you went outside into the real world, the world looked a little different, it changed how you felt. It’s why I love theater and dance. Go see a documentary if you want to see something real.”

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