Jamar Roberts in Talley Beatty's Stack-Up. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy Ailey

Why This Ailey Dancer Dreams of Dancing with Ellen DeGeneres

Jamar Roberts has long been one of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's most thrilling performers, bringing his sinuous power to whatever the company's wide-ranging repertory throws at him. Last season, Roberts' own movement became a part of that repertory: His blues-inspired Members Don't Get Weary, set to the music of John Coltrane, received rave reviews, and returns this week as part of the company's 60th Anniversary season at New York City Center.

We caught up with Roberts for our "Spotlight" series:


What do you think is the most common misconception about dancers? 

That all dancers are flexible/acrobatic and love to be in the spotlight. I'm more reserved and have had to cultivate an affinity for being in front of the camera.

What other career would you like to try? 

Graphic novelist or animator. I also enjoy drawing and fashion, and designed the costumes for Members Don't Get Weary.

Do you have a pre-performance ritual?

Listening to music, especially jazz, helps center me, as do yoga exercises.

What was the last dance performance you saw?

A Works & Process performance at the Guggenheim Museum featuring English National Ballet in Akram Khan's Giselle.

Where can you be found two hours after a performance ends?

Eating!

What's the most-played song on your phone?

"See You Again" (feat. Kali Uchis) by Tyler The Creator. Music is a must for the daily subway ride to and from Brooklyn.

Who is the person you most want to dance with—living or dead?

Ellen DeGeneres. It was so much fun when she came to The Ailey Studios in 2007 for a segment with us. Another person is singer Emily King. I went to her see her in concert recently and it was amazing!

What's your favorite book?

Anything by Octavia Butler. Specifically, Kindred. Right now, I'm reading an autobiography of Charles Mingus, Beneath the Underdog.

What's the first item on your bucket list?

I don't have a bucket list.

Where did you last vacation?

I've never taken a vacation, but I have seen the world touring with Ailey. When I have time off, I return to Miami to teach and choreograph at the school where I studied growing up.

What's your go-to cross-training routine?

Yoga is a daily necessity for mind, body and spirit.

What app do you spend the most time on?

Instagram...duh!

What's the worst advice you've ever received?

My mentors always gave me great advice. But the worst advice I ever received was that I should be a model, which is something I would not enjoy.

If you could relive one performance, what would it be?

Performing the solo In/Side by Robert Battle in my hometown of Miami, Florida. It was an overwhelming experience. I went on an unexpected ride, the audience reaction was astounding and I was uncharacteristically in tears during bows.

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Paul Liu, Courtesy Pilobolus

Could Augmented Reality Change How We Watch Dance?

Imagine being able to digitally project the world's greatest dancers into your home, and observe them performing virtually, in three dimensions, atop a living room table. Such is the potential of a new class of augmented reality (AR) technologies like the "Magic Leap," a headset that allows users to superimpose digital media atop their seen reality, innovatively combining recorded dance with real space.

Director and founder of the MAP Design Lab Melissa Painter recently collaborated with Pilobolus to produce a bonkers AR choreography called "YouDanceWeDance." This project, which began its life on the Magic Leap, allows viewers to use their smartphones to observe (from any angle, and anywhere) Pilobolus dancers moving according to selectable emotional themes.

What is your dance background?

Creative—not competitive—movement practices have always been where I lived. When I was little (in Northern California, back in the hippie days) my dance classes had provocations like, "Stand tall, like a tree" or, "Imagine that you're a frog, and folk dancing."

Today, my movement practice is yoga, and I feel like I'm still hearing the "stand like a tree" part. I also studied Graham technique, improvisation and Alexander techniques. While I was never a strong performer, I am a strong enthusiast.

Tell us about your collaboration with Pilobolus.

Pilobolus and MAP started playing together, doing motion capture and dreaming up augmented and virtual reality interpretations of their work over a year ago. I love their creative process, the emotional accessibility of their work, and how adventurous the artistic directors Matt Kent and Renee Jaworski are.

Youdancewedance.org (now also available for smartphones) is a good thing for people during this weird moment where everyone is stuck at home. We have a vision that it will foster a different kind of relationship between audiences and theater performance over time.

Next up, it will be part of the "Art Safari" they are staging in their (safely socially distanced) Five Senses Festival this summer (July 31-Aug 2) in Washington Depot, Connecticut. We really made this with kids and families in mind, and I hope people enjoy it. It basically reminds you to move your own body!

How has augmented reality and motion capture changed your view on what choreography is?

For me, augmented and virtual reality have honed my eye, and given me an opportunity to spend additional time with phrases in the context of motion capture. It's similar to how a dancer might live with movement in their body. It provides an opportunity to revisit live movements spatially, instead of through a flat YouTube video or even on a proscenium stage. It's about being able to look at it giant, and then look at it tiny, and from all angles. I adore it. I've always wanted people to view dance with the feeling of exhilaration and joy I've had as a watcher in the rehearsal studio.

Movement, to me, is the most beautiful, direct and instinctual form of human communication. I believe motion capture gets at the essence of who we are in a way that is elegant, accessible and impactful. Especially in this moment when so many people forget that their body is a beautiful, creative tool.

If COVID keeps theaters closed for the foreseeable future, might AR maintain a sense of dancerly liveness in performance?

Currently, live performance spaces being shuttered, it's important to think of ways that spatial computing, three-dimensional capture and immersive presentations can support the work of creators who work with bodies. We can explore potential new audiences and performance opportunities right now.

Once upon a time, there was less of a distinct line between dancers and watchers. I still believe that can be the case, and that it's good for non-experts to have as many chances to be inspired by experts as to move their own bodies.

Are there things that folks can do at home to explore in this new, virtual choreographic horizon?

Dance is one of the most loved, watched and shared forms of social media content that there is. So, share dance! I'm always up for more making and doing and moving, whether it's captured or not. There are emergent forms of dimensional capture and there are also off-the-shelf ways to turn flat videos spatial. They're not perfect, but they're getting better and better.

Who are some other people working in this space that you think Dance Magazine’s readers should know about?

There is a world of immersive makers out there. The media is ripe for it, and as creative technologists, we know that it is dancers and choreographers who are the collaborators we need as we create experiences and technologies of the future that honor embodiment. Some who come to mind are Heidi Bosivert, Michelle Ellsworth, Christine Marie and Gilles Jobin.

How can dancers prepare for this sort of work in the future?

Having inventive improvisational and collaborative skills is a good start. That's part of why Pilobolus translates so beautifully to virtual space. Motion capture can be used in as many ways as there are movers. There's no prescribed form. We have had lots of situations when people are doing complex partnerings, but someone's data for their head ends up attached to someone else's knee. You learn to work through!