By Darlene C. Donloe
There are dancers and then there are dancers. And then, there’s Jamar Roberts!
Fans of modern dance will not want to miss
Roberts when he performs as part of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s inaugural Los Angeles season April 17-21, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.
If previous reviews of his work are any indication, Roberts is sure to set the stage ablaze. He’s not only been called an “exciting dancer,” the New York Times reported that, “Jamar Roberts...stopped the show.” Dance Magazine said that Roberts possessed “...movie star looks..an Olympian physique, and he moves like fire.”
To be sure, Roberts is appreciative of the accolades. However, while he allows himself to receive the compliments, it doesn’t go to his head.
Roberts, who is a Miami native, started dancing when he was 10 years old and living in Jacksonville, Florida. He graduated from the New World School of the Arts. He trained at the Dance Empire of Miami and as a fellowship student at The Ailey School. Roberts was a member of Ailey II for a year and Complexions Contemporary Ballet. He first joined the Company in 2002. For a semester he also attended Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
I caught up with Roberts recently to talk about his career and his upcoming Los Angeles performance.
DD: You will be in LA in about two weeks. Talk about what audiences can expect with the upcoming show. Why should they come out?
JR: To sum it up, I would say they should come because there is no other company like Alvin Ailey. I say that because you get a lot of energy and different styles of dancing. I think there is a huge variety for everyone to enjoy.
DD: The program for Opening Night, April 17, is entitled AILEY SPIRIT and will feature Ronald K. Brown’s landmark work Grace and Ohad Naharin’s unique and innovative Minus 16, which features improvisation and audience participation. Tell us something about that.
JR: Grace is a piece choreographed by Ronald Brown. It’s a journey from being lonely to being completely exulted by the end of the piece. It’s uplifting. I don’t think we’ve been to any city where we haven’t gotten a standing ovation. Minus 16 is sensual and powerful and humorous. It taps into all we experience as humans.
DD: All performances will culminate with Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. That’s a beloved piece. Talk about the first time you saw it performed.
JR: The first time I saw it, I was in high school. The company came to Miami to perform. There were some alumni in the company. I had never seen live dance. So when I saw it, I saw myself on the stage. I had never seen African American men of that stature dancing that way. I had never seen classically trained African American men. I think I cried.
DD: That must be surreal to have seen in when you were in high school and now you actually dance in Revelations.
JR: It’s great for me to do it now. We just left Miami where I was onstage. It’s choreographed to the T by Alvin Ailey. Sometimes I sit in the wings and look. It’s so spiritual. It’s overwhelming.
DD: Is the title Alvin Ailey dancer important? Does it carry weight?
JR: it does carry weight. Alvin Ailey carries more weight than my name, obviously. When you’ve been a dancer in this company for a while you definitely become familiar.
DD: You’ve been called an exciting dancer. The New York Times reported that, “Jamar Roberts...stopped the show.” Dance Magazine said that Roberts possessed “...movie star looks..an Olympian physique, and he moves like fire.” First off, wow. How do you process that? What does that mean?
JR: Um, I don’t know. It kind of goes in one ear and out of the other, believe it or not. That’s only once perspective. For me, the artist I am, I’m always looking to attain all of those words, those adjectives. The work is never done. You are constantly trying to be God-like and better than the last performance. You never feel like you get there. I like being like that and being able to work toward something. I appreciate the words, but I close the paper and go back to work.
DD: What does dance do for you?
JR: It allows people to see who Jamar is, the true essence of who I am comes out in the dance. I’m grateful for being a dancer. It’s a me I can be without explaining verbally. It’s abstract Jamar.
DD: I read that you didn’t necessarily seek out dancing and that you wanted to be a fashion designer. Is that true?
JR: Yeah, I wanted to be several things. Fashion designer was top of my list for a while. I also wanted to be a meteorologist and an illustrator. As a designer I went to school for it a little bit. What I’m ultimately looking for is a way to express myself.
DD: As a designer, what would have been your focus?
JR: Women’s wear.
DD: Are there plans to design at anytime in the future?
JR: I’m actually choreographing a piece soon. I’m also making six dresses for six women at the same time.
DD: I also read that you had been dancing for three years before you decided it would be your profession. Is that true? First, why so long and what happened at the three year mark?
JR: It might have taken longer than that. Dance is something that came after me. I didn’t go after it. I wasn’t one of those kids that got up and said, ‘I’m going to be a dancer’. It’s something I got into and happened to be good at it. I spent time rejecting the fact that this was going to be my fate. I had other interests. It took a long time for me to accept I was good enough to be a dancer. I got in the company very young. I was 18. There was a lot of discovery and growing. Now, I’m 30. I needed that time. Most kids go to college. I left my home to live in the big city of New York. I did it all here.
DD: There is a shelf life for dancers. What is your plan when you stop dancing?
JR: I don’t know. I hope I can go on into choreography. I think it would be nice to choreograph and create movement. I have a passion for it. I have to keep going where my passions take me. I’m going to keep drawing and dancing. I’d just be behind the scenes somewhere.
DD: And advice you’d give to someone just starting out?
JR: They should keep looking at people who inspire them. It’s important to have role models. I never had that. I don’t know how I got here without having that. It would have been important. I’d also say be extremely persistent and don’t give up and continue to love dance. If you are ever in a situation when a teacher is mean to you or something, really get out of those situations and stay focused and keep the love and passion for it.
DD: What do you do when you’re not dancing?
JR: I am doing a lot of reading, drawing, going to museums and listening to music.
DD: Who are you into musically?
JR: Musically, I’m into Alice Coletrane and Alice Smith. I have been for a while.
DD: You are looking into a crystal ball. What do you see happening in your life in five years and 10 years?
JR: In five years I will be 35. I have no clue. Hopefully, I’ll still be dancing. It’s a great company for me. Maybe I’ll be working in the organization in some way. Maybe I’ll be freelance choreographing around the world. In 10 years I’ll be 40. I’ll still be with Alvin Ailey. Legacy is really important here.
DD: How do you prepare to go on stage?
JR: I don’t have much of a ritual. It depends on what the piece is and where my energy is. If I’m feeling really happy and I have to do a sad piece, I will listen to sad music. I use that to try to get into the zone and the narrative. A lot of times that helps and I end up crying. I took it a bit too far. If I have nerves, I like to play it down and bottle the emotions and let them out on stage. No superstitious things. If I want a cookie five minutes before I go on stage, I eat a cookie.
DD: You eat cookies? How do you keep that body?
JR: We dance a lot and that keeps it off. Plus, it’s genetics.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returns to Los Angeles with a six performance engagement at The Music Center and activities throughout the city including a free-to-the-public, all day celebration in Grand Park on Saturday, April 6, culminating with the largest ever participatory recreation of Revelations excerpts.
The April 6 celebration – RockaYourSoul: LA’s Celebration of Gospel, Dance and Ailey – in Grand Park includes gospel performances from local Los Angeles choirs, and workshops in everything from the Ailey classics to the construction of a community quilt.
The company will also hold Revelations student residencies and master classes in schools across the city, sponsored by the Glorya Kaufman Dance Foundation.
Led by Artistic Director Robert Battle in his inaugural Music Center engagement, Ailey’s 30 extraordinary dancers, including acclaimed guest artist Matthew Rushing from Los Angeles, will bring three powerful and memorable programs to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Alvin Ailey® American Dance Theater, opens April 17-21; 7:30 p.m.; Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles; Thur. 7:30 p.m., Fri. 7:30, Sat. 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Tickets: $28-$110; (213) 972-0711 and online at musiccenter.org/events/dance.html. For groups of 10 or more, call (213) 972-8555 or email MCgroupsales@musiccenter.org