We Spent an Evening in the Studio with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Jamar Roberts

November 20, 2018

This past Monday evening, dozens of dancers gathered in one of the top-floor studios of Alvin Ailey’s home base in NYC. The studios feature stunning floor-to-ceiling windows, and as the sun set, the city sparkled around everyone, adding to the magical energy. As of late, there’s been a special buzz in the air at AAADT—and for good reason: the company’s 60th anniversary season is about to kick off on November 28. In honor of that milestone, company member Jamar Roberts hosted a contemporary workshop via Ailey Extension that was open to the public. DS had the chance to sit in on the inspiring evening, and chat with Roberts after it wrapped up. (And if you’re in the NYC Tri-State area, and between the ages of 21–30, you’re in luck: We’re giving away a pair of tickets for Ailey’s Young New York Night on November 29. Click here to enter!)

This was the inaugural workshop, as well as Roberts’ first time teaching in NYC. “I teach all the time, but never in the city, so it was great that it was at Ailey,” he says. His warm, unassuming presence immediately put everyone at ease as he led participants through a dynamic warmup, repeating a phrase that began with dancers carving shapes with their arms, and ended once the entire body was engaged, sinking into a deep plié and shifting weight from one foot to another.

There were lots of references to moves from Members Don’t Get Weary (Roberts’ first work for AAADT that premiered in 2017 and makes its return this season) sprinkled throughout the combos that dancers learned. According to Roberts, there’s a palpable excitement among the company’s dancers this season, thanks to the 60th anniversary. But when it came time to start prepping Members Don’t Get Weary for its second run, it felt super-familiar, despite all the pressure. “It feels exactly the same. I never felt pressure when I was making the work, and I don’t feel it now. It still feels like I’m just playing around in the studio with my friends. There was never a negative vibe, just a lot of fun,” he says.

AAADT dancers in Roberts’ “Members Don’t Get Weary” (photo by Paul Kolnik)

It’s safe to say that same element of fun was a big theme of this workshop—Roberts’ teaching style is every dancer’s dream. He offered corrections via helpful cues and demonstrations (“Literally eat the space up!” was his advice when explaining a combo that involved lots of traveling across the floor), and everyone was chill, loose, and totally responsive to Roberts’ movement style. “That was the tricky part about prepping for this,” he says. “I don’t teach a codified style—it’s just me, my movement. It’s innate. So that makes it hard to break down and put into a succinct exercise.” He prepared by spending hours in the studio alone the day before, working out phrases, combos, and steps between his own crazy rehearsal schedule. “I absolutely hate the feeling of being unprepared,” he says. (#Same, Jamar, same.)

In the end, Roberts had just one wish for his students that night (and IMHO, it’s a perfect piece of advice for any dancer spending time in a workshop or studio): “I hope they felt like this was a breath of fresh air, a time to break out of their shells, to explore how they want to move in their bodies. I hope they felt free.”