Jamar Roberts retired from performing after twenty years as a dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre but is still a part of the company as their first choreographer in residence and continues to be very much in demand elsewhere. Earlier this year, he made his choreographic debut at New York City Ballet. His newest piece will premiere in Philadelphia with BalletX as part of their upcoming Summer Series at the Wilma Theater. Roberts shares the dance bill with choreographers Tiler Peck and Gustavo Ramierez Sansano.
On July 5, Roberts was back with BalletX in South Philadelphia and said he was thrilled to be working with the dancers again. “It feels like I’ve known them for longer than I have.” The dancers wore masks for this rehearsal of Roberts’ piece, ‘Honey,’ with the timeworn theme of romance and relationships.
In a short interview after the rehearsal, Roberts hadn’t even considered love a choreographic theme because, he said, “It’s really easy in dance to dumb it down. All the history of romantic ballet. Emotions that are not real. It’s always more complicated. And I always want to get to the truth in my ballets.”
During this rehearsal of ‘Honey,’ Roberts refined two of the three central duets in the ballet. As the orchestral version of the standard ‘How Deep is the Ocean’ frames one of the central duets, danced by Andrea Yorita and Shawn Cusseaux. Over the next two-plus hours, Roberts watches with a laser focus on every move, coming in close to the dancers to adjust phrases, most of them slight, refinement to unlock the physically and emotionally dynamics of the partners.
He does the same for the next section with Francesca Forcella and Jonah Degado, dancing to different music with distinctly different choreographic styles at play as the other cast members in the piece float in and out. The third pas de duex will be danced by Ashley Simpson and Jared Kelly and rehearsed the following day.
This will be his second work with BalletX. His first was during the 2021 Vail Dance Festival when BalletX was the company in residence. Roberts choreographed a preview of ‘For Ulysses Dove’ inspired by the life and work of the brilliant choreographer, who tragically died of AIDS in 1996.
“From the first time I worked with this company, which was for the Vail dance festival last summer, I’ve always felt this bond with them,” Roberts said, “maybe it’s the intimacy of creating with a smaller company. And in this studio space, which I love. On top of that, the dancers are versatile and open to whatever I’m asking them to do. My voice is rooted in many dance styles, some of which I’m unaware of. But I’m also a visual artist, and also, for me, it’s not all physical,”
After the run-through, BalletX associate artistic director Tara Keating commented on Roberts’ choreography, “Jamar’s work tells a poignant story. It takes you on a journey that can bring you to another world. And you can feel that in the way he works with the dancers. His attention to detail threads each moment together in such a powerful way. It’s a joy to have him in the studio with us.”
A rising choreographic star
For most of his dance career, Roberts kept quiet about wanting to be a choreographer. But when AAADT’s artistic director saw his first attempt, he saw his potential immediately. Roberts’ first work was ‘Gemeos’, a duet he made for Ailey II in 2016, about two brothers, one an athlete and the other a dancer, and how they related to each other. Then he choreographed ‘Members Don’t Get Weary’ for the main company. A piece he described “As a response to the current social landscape in America. An “abstract look as ‘having the blues” scored to the music of Philly jazz legend John Coltrane.
In 2019 he made ‘Ode’ in response to the increased gun violence and the fragility of life, with a searing jazz score. Also, that year Roberts was named AAADT’s first Resident Choreographer. Roberts said working with other companies has been an eye opener, especially at this perilous time in the industry. “It’s been such a learning experience. To learn the full scope of what makes the dance world run, including where the money comes from.
During the lockdown months in 2020, the Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process virtual series commissioned his short film ‘Cooped’, which the New York Times called “a powerful artistic response to the Covid-19 crisis, with added resonance after the killing of George Floyd.” He also has worked with the L.A.Opera directing and choreographing The First Bluebird in the Morning.
“Dance is the only creative act that I do that is consistent. But I do others when I feel them, and I’m inspired. Even when I made Cooped, I didn’t think of myself as a filmmaker. But I do like to experiment.”
Roberts said he doesn’t think about what the road is down or what he plans to do choreographically. “I used to when I was a kid. But now that I’ve been doing it so much, I don’t. I have music in my mind that I want to use. But it takes the right people, place, and the right time to use it.”
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