At 6-foot-4 Jamar Roberts stands tall in a crowd. He stood tall at the Opening Night Gala Benefit honoring Board President Debra L. Lee, BET Network chair and CEO. The gala was presided over by honorary chairs Queen Latifah, Janelle Monáe and Ailey Company Artistic Director Robert Battle. There Roberts appeared in Alvin Ailey’s timeless masterpiece “Revelations” in the opening “I Been ‘Buked” section, standing tall, arms outstretched with the wingspan of a soaring eagle, a tower of strength. Roberts embodies the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater tradition of male dancers whose technique and artistry are enhanced by an ability to infuse even the smallest movement with a compelling sense of meaning.
Now, Roberts, a 15-year veteran with the Ailey company, is literally spreading his wings with a work Battle asked him to create for the AAADT entitled “Members Don’t Get Weary,” set to the powerful music of legendary American jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane. As a member of the Ailey family with all the warm nurturing and support that that implies, Roberts speaks like a man who has found the calm center of the hurricane.
Speaking of the ideas that compelled him to create this dance with its unusual, exciting movement vocabulary, Roberts said, “Well, I’m always obsessed with something.” Battle came to him to discuss the work Roberts had created in 2015, “Gêmeos,” saying that not only did he like that piece but he saw talent enticing enough to make him want to see more. Naturally, an excited Roberts immediately rolled up his sleeves and got to work. The result is “Members Don’t Get Weary.”
“Overall, the piece is about blues and oppression,” he summarized. “In part, it harks back to a time gone by, a time when religion was our main source of comfort, a time when we turned to the church. When I was making it, the words that came to mind were the words “pleading” and “searching.” You know when you’re asking major questions about life a lot of times they’re not directed at one person, especially when you’re alone. You’re just flinging them out into the universe, and I wanted this to be that kind of story where you’re asking outwardly in various different ways.”
Roberts said working with his Ailey colleagues makes the creative process go smoothly. “Everyone has been tremendously supportive,” he remarked, adding that he enjoys sharing his thoughts and ideas with them as he creates the movement so they know what the dance is about. Roberts explained, “I like to tell them what it’s about but not tell them too much because I want them to feel free to bring themselves, their personalities and stories, to the work as well.”
“Members Don’t Get Weary” is essentially an ensemble work with solos, trios and quartets that allow dancers to shine. If you follow the music, it works the way jazz works where everybody has their time to shine. “The dancers, like jazz musicians, get to give their spin on the melody,” Roberts said.
Choreography is not always the natural next step for a dancer, but Roberts says it’s something he definitely enjoys. “Also,” he added, “Mr. Ailey’s work has been influential because he was very concerned about people, actual people just living their lives.” That is also partly what inspired Roberts. “Before, if I watched the news at all, it was about the weather because in Miami you have to pay attention to the weather. I didn’t grow up paying attention to politics or social issues, until recently. I felt politics wasn’t there to support people working in the fields. Then I grew up and became a fully functioning member of society. Then there was the Sandra Bland and I stayed tuned to CNN all day and all night. It generated conversations with my friends asking, ‘What do we do? How can I help? What can I say? How can I at least be part of the conversation?’ That’s basically where it came from and that got me thinking about the blues. I mean, essentially, the whole world has got the blues.”
During this five-week Ailey season, in addition to having this wonderful platform to be a part of an important national conversation with the premiere of his piece, Roberts will also be part of the AAADT’s upcoming “Celebrating the Men of Ailey” Dec. 17. Anyone who has seen the exciting surge of testosterone that explodes onstage when the Ailey men perform Battle’s “The Hunt” or the “Mean Ol’ Frisco” section of Ailey’s classic “Blues Suite” or the unforgettably dynamic “Sinner Man” section of “Revelations” knows there is something about the Ailey man. So it’s only natural to ask an Ailey man just what that “something” is. Without skipping a beat, Roberts answered unabashedly. “Drive,” he said. “With the majority of the men in this company there is this drive to sort of in some way be comparable to the Ailey woman. Because the Ailey woman is a very fierce woman and a lot of the men in the company admire the Ailey woman to the Nth degree. So I think there’s the drive to sort of meet her where she is while also upholding the standard that has been the Ailey man for so many years.” Amen.