Leaping forward while keeping a foot in the past may seem an impossible task. But not if you're a dancer, especially one of those long-limbed, taffy-elastic Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre dancers.
"There's a tradition and a heritage here, but we're also looking to the future," said Judith Jamison, director of the company and keeper of its flame since the death of its founder and namesake two years ago. "The pieces you're going to see reflect that. I really try to give you a panorama of movement. I really love the fact that we're called 'dance theater,' not just 'dance company.' And it's American dance theater."
Ms. Jamison, Ailey's star dancer and his annointed successor, promises Baltimore audiences both a look back and a look ahead during the New York-based company's five performances at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, which begin tonight with a benefit show and continue through Sunday.
While the company performs familiar crowd-pleasers such as its signature piece, "Revelations," Ms. Jamison seems particularly proud of bringing a new work, "Dance at the Gym," back to the city in which it was created.
"Donald Byrd created that here during our residency here," said Ms. Jamison, referring to a three-year partnership begun last year in which company members periodically set up camp in various Maryland locales to teach, lecture, rehearse and perform. "So that's yours."
But don't look for a particularly Baltimore feel to the piece, a virtuosic work for eight dancers to a commissioned score by Mio Morales. "It has an Alvin Ailey feel," Ms. Jamison corrected.
Ms. Jamison has been credited with not just upholding the grand artistic tradition of Ailey -- not an easy task, as other dance companies who have lost their visionary founders have found -- but with also tightening up the administrative and financial aspects of the company. Its winter season in New York was particularly successful, nearly selling out and doing the best business the company has ever done. And residencies such as the Maryland one -- which will be the beneficiary of the opening night benefit -- have brought the company new outlets for both artistic outreach and funding.
"I love going to these schools," said Ms. Jamison, interviewed earlier this week after returning from a visit to the Baltimore School for the Arts with Wesley Johnson III, an alum who went on to join the Alvin Ailey company. "There's something that happens there. [The students'] lives are going to be touched in some way. I'm not expecting them to turn into dancers just because they see us, but I know they will turn into whole human beings when they see committed people before them, when they see that passion, that discipline. It opens up their hearts and minds."
This week, the company will perform newly acquired works such as Lar Lubovitch's "North Star," a 1978 work to a score by Philip Glass, as well as several of the classic works that have made it one of the most beloved troupes in the world. Among the scheduled pieces are a revival of 1962's "District Storyville," a large-cast work based on the jazz legacy of New Orleans and danced by Ailey himself at one point, and a collection of excerpts from some of his choreography, such as "Blues Suite," "Cry" and "For 'Bird' With Love."
"The dance, the dance vision, lives through and has to go through another person, spiritually," Ms. Jamison says of passing the Ailey legacy to a new generation of dancers. "The line goes on. The heritage goes on. It's marvelous to watch these dancers absorb more than the technique, because dancing is not just about that.
"I know," she concludes, "Alvin is smiling down on us wherever he is."
Tickets for tonight's 7:30 performance, a fund-raiser for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre Foundation of Maryland, are $100 and $250. Call (410) 962-5340 for more information. The company will also perform Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $40 and $35 for the evening performances and $37 and $27 for the matinees.