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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater: 8 p.m. today (Blues Suite, Cry, Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder, Revelations), 2 p.m. Saturday (Landscape, Come and Get The Beauty of It Hot) and 8 p.m. Saturday (Streams, Reflections in D, Shards, Revelations). Tickets are $10 to $25 and are available by calling 791-7400 (Pinellas) or 854-1538 (Hillsborough).Times Dance Critic

Judith Jamison said she'll never forget the first time she saw Alvin Ailey.

"It was 1963, at the Y in Philadelphia," she said recently by phone from New York. "It was a revelation. The way he danced was like a cat. I'd never seen anyone move across the stage like that."

It was two years later, in 1965, that Ailey decided he was impressed with Jamison's dancing as well, and she spent the next 15 years as the star of Ailey's innovative and popular dance troupe.

It was no surprise, then, that Jamison was tapped to head the Ailey company after Ailey died in December.

"I think taking over the company was always somewhere there in the back of my mind," said Jamison. "Once you're an Ailey dancer, you're always an Ailey dancer. That's been said many times before, but it's true. This was what I was meant to do, and Mr. Ailey and I had discussed it before, so I knew it was right."

Maintaining artistic direction after the loss of a founder is always a challenge, but more so with Ailey because he infused his company with a highly personal energy that shaped everything the company did. His dancers always seemed to have a special power and expressiveness. His choreography tackled tough issues of race and politics in a style and manner that was easily digestible, wise and usually suffused with optimism.

Jamison talked about the Ailey legacy.

"He left us a company that is totally accessible," she said. "He created a company that is filled with extraordinary technicians, but who also lift you spiritually. The Ailey dancers are not a bunch of robots. They are people who love what they're doing, and they project that in the theater."

This enthusiasm has been a hallmark of the company since Ailey founded it. As one of the premiere companies in the country _ as well as being a path-breaking multiracial ensemble _ Ailey and his company represented the United States on a number of government-sponsored world tours. Ailey often turned his attention to minorities in this country, encouraging a pride and interest in their dance heritage that had previously gone unremarked.

Though Ailey's African-American heritage was a crucial element of his art, Jamison said she hoped that Ailey's dances will be viewed without any labels.

"I think one of these days we'll be able to talk simply about the dance and simply about the choreographer, and not as anything distinct," she said. "Mr. Ailey talked about sorrow and joy and suffering and hope, and those are emotions that are universal. If the African-Americans have such a wealth of information to communicate, it's because we've been around so long. And there's such a thing as talent as well."

Jamison said that Ailey's vision will require that the company grow and change without him, rather than stagnate under the weight of his legacy.

"The vibrancy of the Ailey company is that the motion has always been forward," she said. "Consequently, this will not become a museum in homage to Alvin Ailey. All the classic works will remain, and we'll resurrect some of the older ones. But we will always be presenting new choreographers and looking to the future as well."

The fit between Jamison and the Ailey company will likely be a smooth one. She has been involved with the company intimately for more than two decades, and her personal style has been indelibly shaped by her involvement with Ailey. Jamison's own company, the Jamison Project, is so charged with the Ailey ethic that she said the two could be sister companies.

"Many of the dancers in my company are Ailey dancers," she said. "There's a funny story about that. We were in New York when one of our dancers was injured, and we borrowed a dancer from the Ailey company on very short notice. When we opened, nobody could pick out the Ailey dancer from the rest of the company."

Jamison will have to juggle the two troupes for only another six months before she turns her full attention to Ailey. Though there are the traditional challenges of being an artistic director of a dance company, Jamison said the group has received an outpouring of support since Ailey's death that will help sustain his vision.

"There's been a surge of support, people coming forward to help us," she said. "Funding is always a challenge, but as I speak there are people who are very enthusiastic about seeing the Alvin Ailey company continue to grow."

This could prove a difficult goal, even if Ailey himself were still here. After a decade or so of dramatic growth, most experts are predicting rough times for dance in this country. Recently, the Dance Theater of Harlem had to cancel part of its season and lay off its dancers.

Does Jamison see a dark period ahead for dance?

"Not if I having anything to do about it," said Jamison. "My engine is just revving up. I love working in the face of difficulty."