Spotlight

Why This Ailey Dancer Dreams of Dancing with Ellen DeGeneres

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

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.

In Memoriam
A flyer showing Alberto Alonso, Fernando Alonso, Benjamin Steinberg and Alicia Alonso. Photo courtesy the author

Alicia has died. I walked around my apartment feeling her spirit, but knowing something had changed utterly.

My father, the late conductor Benjamin Steinberg, was the first music director of the Ballet de Cuba, as it was called then. I grew up in Vedado on la Calle 1ra y doce in a building called Vista al Mar. My family lived there from 1959 to 1963. My days were filled with watching Alicia teach class, rehearse and dance. She was everything: hilarious, serious, dramatic, passionate and elegiac. You lost yourself and found yourself when you loved her.

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In 2017, as a result of a growing list of letters from audience members, to New York City Ballet's ballet master in chief Peter Martins reached out to us asking for assistance on how to modify the elements of Chinese caricature in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. Following that conversation, we founded the Final Bow for Yellowface pledge that states, "I love ballet as an art form, and acknowledge that to achieve a diversity amongst our artists, audiences, donors, students, volunteers, and staff, I am committed to eliminating outdated and offensive stereotypes of Asians (Yellowface) on our stages."

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An audience member once emailed Dallas choreographer Joshua L. Peugh, claiming his work was vulgar. It complained that he shouldn't be pushing his agenda. As the artistic director of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, Peugh's recent choreography largely deals with LGBTQ issues.

"I got angry when I saw that email, wrote my angry response, deleted it, and then went back and explained to him that that's exactly why I should be making those works," says Peugh.

With the current political climate as polarized as it is, many artists today feel compelled to use their work to speak out on issues they care deeply about. But touring with a message is not for the faint of heart. From considerations about how to market the work to concerns about safety, touring to cities where, in general, that message may not be so welcome, requires companies to figure out how they'll respond to opposition.

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