Recognized as one of the most prominent figures in modern dance, Jamison made her New York debut with the American Ballet Theatre at the age of 21. Portraits in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation show Jamison dancing her signature role in Cry, a ballet described as “a hymn to the sufferings and triumphant endurance of generations of black matriarchs.” The performance made Jamison an international celebrity in the world of dance. It also marked a crowning moment in her partnership with Alvin Ailey, who recruited her to his dance company in 1965. Jamison danced with Mikhail Baryshnikov in Ailey’s 1976 Pax de Duke, performed to the music of Duke Ellington, and appeared in companies around the world. In 1980 she starred with Gregory Hines in the hit Broadway musical Sophisticated Ladies.
Jamison served as the principal dancer in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater until 1980, and she was artistic director from 1989 to 2011. “I don’t feel as though I’m standing in anyone’s shoes. I’m standing on Alvin’s shoulders,” she said.