WASHINGTON (AP) — The stately White House East Room, home to many a bill signing and ceremonial gathering, became a stage Tuesday for pirouettes, jetes, gravity-defying leaps and a few bumps and grinds as Michelle Obama inaugurated a new dance series.
Dancers of all types — ballet, modern, hip hop and Broadway — took over the room, first for a series of workshops in which students from around the country had a chance to learn from the pros.
After a short break, the students were to return to see their mentors for the day perform in an hour-long, star-studded show. Even Broadway’s young “Billy Elliot” was there — well, four Billys actually, from the show’s rotating cast.
But the main attraction was the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, whose celebrated artistic director, Judith Jamison, soon to retire after two decades in the job, was the honoree of the event.
At the afternoon workshops, young girls in leotards, their hair tightly wrapped in buns, sprawled on the shiny East Room floor, stretching their legs into splits as they warmed up. Jamison watched with a smile on her face as current Ailey dancers then taught the kids — about 100 boys and girls from across the country — excerpts from Ailey’s “Revelations,” one of the most beloved works in all of modern dance. “Slow! Slooooow,” intoned teacher Nasha Thomas-Schmitt, urging the kids at one point to take their time with a stretch.
“Wow,” said Damian Woetzel, director of the event and a former star of New York City Ballet, after the Ailey workshop. “Now you’ve danced in the White House!” he told the kids.
The 67-year-old Jamison is an icon of the dance world. She joined the Ailey company in 1965 and became the choreographer’s muse, her dramatic power as a dancer epitomized in the unforgettable 1971 solo piece “Cry.” In 1989, after Ailey’s death, she took over as artistic director. She is scheduled to step down in 2011.
“What a rare opportunity, to be invited by your country’s first lady to be honored like this,” Jamison said in a weekend interview. “I’ve been to the White House a couple of times before, but this event is totally unique. It’s so terribly important to recognize this art form and to understand how important it is to the fabric of this country.”
“This will be another clarion call to people: Pay attention to your arts!” Jamison said. “My dancers are so excited.”
Woetzel, who is on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, had a dizzying array of choices from which to cull an hour of the country’s best dance. And he said it wasn’t exactly hard to find dancers, no matter that the event came just after a summer vacation weekend.
“Everyone was so excited to be a part of this,” Woetzel said in an interview. “It’s really an exciting opportunity to present the variety of dance in this country. And the student component makes it especially unique. It’s a great way to start the school year.”
Though the Obamas have spotlighted many varieties of music since they came to the White House — there have been events celebrating Latin music, rock, jazz, country, classical and Broadway show tunes — the dance world might have felt ignored, until now.
But Michelle Obama seems to be a dance fan. Jamison noted proudly that the Obamas and their daughters spent one of their first nights out as first family taking in an Ailey performance at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
“They came backstage, took pictures — the dancers were thrilled,” she said.
Also on the program Tuesday: the Paul Taylor Dance Company, The Washington Ballet, Super Cr3w and the New York City Ballet.
The students came from dance schools around the country: The Alvin Ailey School, Ballet Hispanico, Cab Calloway School of the Arts, Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Chicago Multicultural Dance Center and others.