Q&A: Robert Battle of the Alvin Ailey American Theater

Photo: Andrew Eccles

Photo: Andrew Eccles

The artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on his new position, his plans for its future and Ailey’s masterpiece, Revelations.

Dallas — TITAS closes its diverse 2012-2013 season with the beloved Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Hailed as one of the first truly American modern dance companies, the Ailey Company makes its debut at the Winspear Opera House, May 3-4, after a 20-year absence in Dallas (it has been to Fort Worth’s Bass Hall several times since, though). The program will feature works by Alvin Ailey, Robert Battle, Ohad Naharin, Paul Taylor, Rennie Harris and Ronald K. Brown and will also include Ailey’s signature work, Revelations (1960).

Dancer, choreographer and visionary Alvin Ailey created Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to carry out his vision of a company dedicated to enriching the American modern dance heritage and preserving the uniqueness of the African-American cultural experience, according to the Ailey website.

Robert Battle is only the third person to head the Ailey Company since it was founded in 1958. Led by Judith Jamison since Ailey’s untimely death in 1989, Jamison personally selected Battle as her successor on July, 1 2011.

Growing up in Miami, Battle trained at the New World School of the Arts before moving on to The Julliard School where he met his mentor Carolyn Adams. Battle performed with the Parsons Dance Company from 1994 to 2001 and began setting his choreography on the company in 1998. A frequent chorographer and artist-in-residence at Ailey since 1999, Battle has set many of his works, including Strange Humors, The Hunt, In/Side and Takademe on the Ailey Company, Ailey II and The Ailey School.

TheaterJones asks Robert Battle about the challenges of running the legendary Ailey Company, his plans for the future and preserving the Ailey legacy.

TheaterJones: This is your second season as artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. How has the transition been going for you?

Robert Battle: It’s been a fairly smooth transition. Partly because Judith Jamison chose me ‘cause she felt that this would be the right fit for the company moving forward. So, I think that has been reflected in the ease in which we’ve made this transition. It’s also comforting to know that she is there if I need advice or just to say “Woo! This is intense!” Whatever it might be she’s always right there to encourage me to trust my own instincts and to follow my own singular voice. So, in that way the transition has been painless.

But taking the helm of such a major institution that has meant so much too so many has brought about the question about whether or not it would be recognizable with a new artistic director. But it’s really more like a calling than a job, and so I have just been moving forward and doing the things that I think are important to keep the company going. And to keep it exciting! I think that’s represented in the repertoire and certainly in some of the repertoire that I have brought into the company.

How do you find that balance between the Ailey tradition and your own singular voice?

It’s a fun challenge. It’s challenging, but it’s also rewarding. There is so much great work and finding ways to play off of the company’s history and to think about people who may come in with certain expectations and to sometimes defy those expectations, all that is built into what I do as a choreographer.

Ailey Company in Ohad Naharin"s Minus 16. Photo: Paul Kolnik

Ailey Company in Ohad Naharin”s Minus 16. Photo: Paul Kolnik

I also use the same principles when I’m looking at potential work for the repertoire. For instance, looking at Minus 16 and some of the elements of that work I’m thinking this would be different for the audience, but the heart and soul of the work really speaks to the company’s core values. [The Ailey Company will perform Minus 16 opening night.]

Did you always have a passion to choreograph?

I was a member of the Parsons Dance Company for many years, but I always knew that there were other things I wanted to do beyond dancing myself. I have always had that instinct to create movement. Even when I didn’t know how it would manifest there was always this restlessness about it. So, in some ways, it was an internal compass that steered me toward the position that I’m in now.

When I was little I used to take apart my grandfather’s old-fashioned tape recorders just to see what made the things turn and be able to record sound. And then I would try to put them back together and end up forgetting pieces so, my Grandfather would yell at me and have to get a new one. So, there has always been that curiosity about construction and deconstruction, the manipulation about how people see things and the magic around what you’re presenting to an audience. That whole notion is why I am where I am today.

Can you describe your relationship with Judith Jamison?

When I first started dancing I saw these iconic photos of her dancing Cry, the masterpiece Alvin Ailey created for her, so I have always been in awe of her. So, it has always been one of admiration and respect which has grown into mutual respect as she enjoyed my choreography and chose me to do works for the main company. But I have always maintained that respect and reverence for her because that was my initiation into knowing who she was. I keep those things sacred because that’s my upbringing. She will always be held in my eyes as a legend in the field. And that is how the relationship has developed. It’s a wonderful connection that we have and relationship that we keep.

I am so excited to see Revelations again. Why are audiences still so drawn to this particular Ailey work?

Ailey Company in Revelations. Photo: Nan Melville

Ailey Company in Revelations. Photo: Nan Melville

I think the intent of the work is clear and everyone gets something from experiencing it. No matter what your age, cultural background or how much of dance you know Revelations manages to have some impact on you. And I think the mark of any true masterpiece is that it defies place, time and circumstance.

But the work is also joyous. It really takes you on this journey that is almost like a baptismal in a way. It brings people together. Most people in the audience don’t know one another, but by the time Revelations is done everybody feels united in the experience that they’ve had. It’s more than seeing dance, it’s having a visceral experience and in some ways a spiritual one. And no matter what anyone’s religious preference is they have this kind of intense experience.

You talked about being welcomed into the Ailey family. Can you describe this family dynamic?

Well, I think that has a lot to do with the founding of the Ailey Company. The African American experience in this country was one in which the idea of family was extremely important for survival. And this lesson that it wasn’t just about dance, but it was also about opportunity, a social and political statement and the personal experiences of Alvin Ailey is the foundation on which this company was built. So, I think the very notion of the way the company started has so much to do with the sense of family and humanity that is displayed in the work.

What are some of your long-term goals for the company?

That’s really to be seen. I really am just following my instincts. I don’t have a five-year plan laid out. I am responding to the times, to the new choreographers who are saying things in a different way and in a way to the dancers in the company who are inspiring me to do different works. So, that part of it is very more organic and difficult to plot out.

But you always want more. You want to make sure you reach more people. In addition to the main company we also have the Ailey II touring company and the Ailey School, which also has a BFA program in conjunction with Fordham University. All of this is an extension of the initial vision of the company. So, in a way it’s really about moving on from where we are and reaching out. Alvin Ailey’s oft repeated quote is that dance comes from the people and should be delivered back to the people. So, I want to make sure that continues to happen and we reach even more people. That’s my hope for the future.

This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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About kddance

I am a dance fanatic living in Dallas, TX. Not only do I teach dance but I also love writing about it. My love for dance started at the age of six when my mom signed me up for my first dance class. I have training in ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical, modern and acrobatics. In college I minored in dance and majored in journalism. I have had articles published in Dance Spirit, Dance Teacher and the Dance Council of North Texas' DANCE publication. Let me share my stories with you.
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