Tag Archives: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Preview: Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s 2019 Cultural Awareness Series

Justified Movement

Dallas Black Dance Theatre celebrates singer and Civil Rights activist Odetta Holmes in Matthew Rushing’s Odetta, part of the company’s Cultural Awareness Series at the Wyly Theatre.

Matthew Rushing. Anddrew Eccles

Dallas — The moments that have stayed with me days after watching Dallas Black Dance Theatre rehearse Matthew Rushing’s Odetta (2014) were, interestingly enough, not the full bodied-movements, grandiose jumping passes or powerful partnering skills, though these elements were incredible and well suited for the dancers. No, it was the quieter moments where the dancers relied on basic instinct and human connection to fulfill their roles that have left an imprint on me.

A perfect example is the opening scene when company member Kayla Franklin (who shares this role with Lailah Duke) slowly walks toward the audience as she cuts through the space with her arms and curves her spine over. As the opening notes of Odetta Holmes’ rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” fill the space, a joyous expression crosses Franklin’s face as she circles her hips and bounces from heel to heel to an internal beat that soon takes over her entire body.

Another memorable instance is the section where Jasmine White-Killins and De’Anthony Vaughan use mainly arm gestures while sitting on side-by-side stools in center stage to “There’s a Hole in The Bucket” sung by Holmes and Harry Belafonte. The song is fun and playful and White-Killins and Vaughan do an admirable job of conveying the emotions in the catchy tune. For example, as White-Killins begins to lose her patience, her arm movements become sharper and more pronounced, such as when she demonstrated how to sharpen an ax by rubbing her forearm intently across her right thigh.

And yet another picturesque moment occurs as Sierra Noelle Jones and Zion Pradier dance on a self-made dock to Bob Nolan’s “Cool Water” while the rest of the dancers watch attentively from their seated positions. At first I thought the couple was dancing on a stage, but as Jones cups her hand and extends it over the edge of the stage it transforms into a dock. The dock is actually six benches constructed of different-sized squares, which enables the benches to interlock with one another to appear as train seats as well as add a cool visual affect when they are placed vertically in other sections of the work.

“I wanted to work with something that was interchangeable and from scene to scene could kind of morph into whatever the scene was about,” Rushing says about the set. “I knew I would be dealing with a lot of different sections because Odetta Holmes’ work was so huge that I would be working with Blues and Jazz, protest songs and works from musical theatre so I knew it would be very layered within itself. So, whatever the set would be it would have to be able to morph and change in these different environments and settings.”

Come to find out, the idea for the set was actually a miniature I.Q. test that Rushing says he found while on tour in Germany and what we see onstage today is a much larger replica of these wooden Lego-like parts of this cubed puzzle.

This work also requires a high level of maturity, vulnerability and trust, which, when watching the dancers rehearse, it’s obvious to see DBDT possesses these qualities in spades. These ingrained abililties can also be attributed to why DBDT is the first company to perform Odetta outside of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.

“They are extremely versatile dancers,” Rushing says about DBDT. “They are able to go in and out of different genres of dance and that skill is required for the ballet Odetta so I just felt it was an easy fit.”

He adds, “They are incredible artists who are also extremely expressive as well as technically strong in different styles of dance. And just like Odetta’s work was extremely diverse and layered I feel that the artists of Dallas Black Dance Theatre are exactly that as well. They are extremely diverse and they have many layers to their artistry.”

This is not the first time Rushing has worked with DBDT. The rehearsal director for the Ailey Company choreographed Tribute for DBDT in 2016, which was also when he first brought up the subject of DBDT possibly doing Odetta sometime in the future.

“I remember being in tech rehearsal sitting next to Ms. (Ann) Williams and it hit me at that point. I could really see the dancers of Dallas Black Dance Theatre performing Odetta,” Rushing says in a press release from DBDT.

As for Rushing’s inspiration for this work, singer and actress Odetta Holmes, he says, “One of the biggest “aha!” moments I had with choreographing this piece was finding out just how Odetta Holmes used her gift as an instrument and as a weapon for social justice. That spoke to me directly and it encouraged me and challenged me that I could do the same with choreography and with being a dance artist.”

He adds, “She might not have been the person leading the marches, but she was the person who led the rallies before the marches and I was like WOW how amazing that we all in a sense have a piece in this puzzle about making this world a better place. And she was very confident and clear that her place fell into using her gift as a singer and musician and I really connected with that when I found out about her work and how she literally changed the world with her gift.”

Odetta makes its Dallas premiere at DBDT’s Cultural Awareness Series, Feb. 15-17, at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre in Dallas. The program also includes Dianne McIntyre’s Nina Simone Project, an evening-length work DBDT premiered back in 2011.

This preview was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

 

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Dallas Dances: 6 o’Clock Dance Theatre

Executive director Marielle McGregor on carving out space in the local contemporary dance arena and presenting Brush to Canvas at Dallas Dances.

6 o’Clock Dance Theatre dancer Sophi Marass. Photo: Ace Anderson

Dallas — As the Dallas arts scene continues to grow so has the number of contemporary dance companies in the area. With well-established companies such Avant Chamber Ballet, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Ballet Dallas, Bruce Wood Dance, Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, 8&1 Dance Company and Dallas Neo-Classical Ballet claiming large chunks of the city’s ballet and contemporary dance audience, you have to wonder what a newcomer like 6 o’Clock Dance Theatre can possibly bring to the table.

Executive Director Marielle McGregor says the answers lies in the framework of the company, which was founded by Zach Law Ingram in 2014. “What makes us unique is that we are career professionals working across many industries in Dallas. But, instead of happy hour at 6 p.m., we meet to explore our art. We decided that dancers should not have to choose between art and a living wage. You can have both!”

She adds, “We have dancers who are UX designers, mathematicians, marketers and engineers. We have 9-to-5 jobs, but at 6 o’clock—that is when we dance!”

McGregor is currently the senior digital editor for Dallas County Community College District. She is also a co-founding member of 6 o’Clock Dance Theatre and serves as the executive director, managing company business and equipping the company dancers and choreographers for success.

6 o’Clock Dance Theatre will be performing Ingram’s Brush to Canvas as part of Dallas Dances’ Saturday evening program. Ingram is a Dallas native whose professional experiences include Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Dallas Black Dance Theatre. He was also in the Broadway production of The Lion King. He officially moved back to Dallas this summer.

In Brush to Canvas McGregor says Ingram was inspired by the fact that a painting has no real finish. “The painter begins not knowing the end,” she says. “He [the painter] creates his art by throwing out ideas to the canvas, mixing his paints and seeing what comes back. And at some point the painter—through feeling—knows it is a complete work. And yet, at any time, he could pick the brush back up and again continue to explore more.”

McGregor adds, “Zach was also inspired greatly by the music itself. He said it gave him a lot of freedom and rather than dictating what the movement should be, it just let him paint.”

Brush to Canvas is set to “Infra 8” by Max Richter and “Thunders and Lightings” by Ezio Bosso. The piece features company members Darwin Black, Shelby Stanley Campbell, Sarah Cat Hendricks, Constance Dolph, Katricia Eaglin, Sophi Marass, Madison McKay, Marielle McGregor, Katherine Parchman, Laura Pearson, Allison Wood and Alex Yap.

> This preview was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

 

Q&A: Camille A. Brown

This weekend, the award-winning dance and theater choreographer Camille A. Brown opens the TITAS Presents season with BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play.

camilleabrown
BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play. Photo: Christopher Duggan

Dallas — 2018 has been quite a year for Camille A. Brown whose powerful combination of storytelling and modern, African and hip-hop movements has been capturing audiences from every angle, including concert dance, on and off-Broadway, and television. Most recently, her work has been seen on NBC with the Emmy-nominated special, Jesus Christ Superstar LIVE, and also on Broadway with the 2018 Tony award-winning production, Once On This Island. Her other theater credits include A Streetcar Named DesireCabin in the Sky, Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM and Dallas Theater Center’s world premiere productions of Stagger LeeFortress of Solitude, and Bella: An American Tall Tale.

The dancing It Girl is also a four-time Princess Grace Award winner, TED Fellow, Ford Foundation Art of Change Fellow, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award winner, Guggenheim Fellowship recipient and Audelco Award winner. Her work has been commissioned by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Complexions, Ailey II, Philandanco!, Urban Bush Women, Ballet Memphis, and Hubbard Street II, among others.

With all these creative accolades it’s no surprise to learn that Brown has been choreographing since childhood when she would make up dances to cartoon shows. A lot of her movement is influenced by the social dances of her childhood, including hip-hop, African and step dance. She was also versed in salsa dancing and musical theatre thanks to her parent’s love of musicals and Latin social dances. Add in her point of view as a strong black female from Queens and you have the foundation of BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play (2015); the second part of a trilogy that her troupe Camille A. Brown & Dancers will be performing as part of TITAS Presents in Dallas Aug. 24-25.

TheaterJones caught up with the busy dancemaker to talk about her current success, working on Once On This Island, finding her artistic voice and what Dallas audiences can expect to see from her dancers this weekend.

TheaterJones: Most young dancers dream of becoming performers, and yet you knew you wanted to choreograph from a very young age. Dancers don’t usually come across composition classes till they reach high school age, so how did you foster your interest in creating movement growing up?

Camille A. Brown: I have always been a quiet child. My voice was small, so I got teased a lot, and it made me more self-conscious about speaking. I watched Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson videos as well as musicals (which my mom introduced me to). I would spend hours learning all the routines from videos and musical numbers. I also created movement to the opening credits of cartoons I watched. Family gatherings were opportunities to put on a show with friends and cousins. My family would support our efforts and was always a great audience.

How has your upbringing in Queens influenced your artistic choices throughout your career?

One of the first works I did was about rush hour in New York City and what happens when everyone is waiting for a delayed train. I took all of my experiences riding the subway since 13 to create six minutes of material. The work was eventually commissioned by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. My most recent work is also pulling from my experiences growing up in the city. Some of it is inspired by my neighborhood. A couple in Queens walking down the street with their isms bold and bright. The guys that play basketball outside. The hand gestures (dab) they do greeting each other.

In BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play, there are moments that are inspired by relationships with my mother, grandmother, and cousin. Q85, Farmers Blvd., Guy R. Brewer, Foch Blvd, E/F train (last stop), Green Acres Mall, Rochdale Village, grandma and granddaddy’s house. We carry our stories with us and they never let us go. 

Looking back, would you still have chosen to go to college before starting your professional dance career?

Absolutely! I wasn’t ready to be a professional dancer after I graduated high school, and still wanted to learn more as a student.

How did you get involved with Once On This Island? What research did you do leading up to teaching the choreography for the show?

I had never seen OOTI, but was very intrigued by the story. I knew it was a very popular musical, which made me nervous! It’s hard stepping in as a choreographer creating material for a show that’s been done thousands of times. I got a little bit in my head about it. I knew my role as a part of the creative team was extremely important. I wanted to honor the culture of Haiti and the Caribbean islands, but also honor my choreographic voice.

People ask me what the inspiration behind the movement for the show was. Culture always tells you where to go. The challenge was to create a language that combines culture, my voice and the actor’s creative identities. I connected with an Afro-Haitian/Afro- Cuban consultant, Maxine Montilus. We had four sessions together. I told her that these sessions were not so I could implant these specific steps into the show. It was about me knowing the origins of steps so they could help to inform my choreographic choices.

The other challenge for me was the production was staged in the round and I had never choreographed anything in the round before. I was creating my latest work, ink, at the same time so I used that creative process as an opportunity to practice. It’s interesting how many projects can support one goal. I’m grateful for it all.

How have your experiences working on Broadway and TV impacted the way you think about movement for your company dancers?

I have always been interested in telling stories, but working in theater with collaborators and putting an entire show together that has music, acting, dance, set design, sound design, costume design and orchestrations has made me a better storyteller and communicator. The information that I absorbed working in theater has helped me to create my movement language and given me the tools to communicate what I want to my dancers and musicians.

Can you please talk to me about the building of BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play? Is it mainly autobiographical? Is it one complete story or broken up by experiences?

BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play is the second piece of the trilogy and it reveals the complexity of carving out a self-defined identity as a black female in urban American culture. In a society where black women are often only portrayed in terms of their strength, resiliency, or trauma, this work seeks to interrogate these narratives by representing a nuanced spectrum of black womanhood in a racially and politically charged world.

Kyra Gaunt’s book, The Games That Black Girls Play, talks about the contributions of black girls to hip hop through childhood games. If we look at the mechanics of the hand clap game “numbers”, it’s highly intelligent, mathematical and musical. Social dance grounds a time and place. The body has so many stories to tell and we can see them through social dance. We can also see people’s creative identities.

There is artistry in childhood games and social dance.

I am bringing all my stories, my personal experiences of being a woman and of being black into the work. BG:LP is about my childhood. It has glimpses of the relationship I have with my sister-friends, cousin and mother.

At what point did you know you wanted to make this part of a trilogy?

After creating Mr. TOL E. RAncE, my headspace was still in the world of black identity. My mentor and dramaturge, Talvin Wilks, encouraged me to go with the flow. Three evening length pieces later!

Where do you want to go from here?

I want to stay focused, clear and keep growing. It is my goal to continue creating works for my company, become a director/choreographer for musical theater and do more TV and film. Debbie Allen is a huge inspiration. She does it all. Her body of work makes me believe that all things are possible.

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

 

Q&A: Bridget L. Moore, AD Dallas Black Dance Theatre

Bridget L. Moore. Photo: Brian Guilliaux

The artistic director of Dallas Black Dance Theatre on her new role and the world premiere of her Uncharted Territory at the TITAS Command Performance this weekend.

Dallas — Bridget L. Moore is no stranger to the Dallas dance scene. She was born and raised here, and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (BTWHSPVA) in 1989 before heading to The Ohio State University where she earned a B.F.A dance and a concentration in choreography. She would later go on to earn a M.F.A in dance from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2006.

As a professional dancer Moore toured with New York-based Ronald K. Brown’s EVIDENCE/Dance Company from 1999-2008. She was the first recipient of Project Next Generation, a commission to an emerging female choreographer by Urban Bush Women Dance Company. She was also commissioned by the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography to work with Philadanco Dance Company in a creative residency. She also co-directed This Woman’s Work with colleague Princess Mhoon Cooper and was listed as one of Dance magazine’s “25 to Watch” in 2006.

Throughout her professional career Moore has returned to Dallas numerous times to teach and set works for many arts institutions, including Dallas Black Dance Theatre (DBDT), University of Texas at Dallas and BTWHSPVA where she was also the artistic director of the World Dance Ensemble. In May of 2016 a group of Moore’s students from Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, South Korea, were asked to perform at DBDT’s Spring Celebration. All of these experiences as well as her close rapport with DBDT Founder Ms. Ann Williams make her an ideal candidate for the artistic director position. The selection committee obviously agreed because at the beginning of this year it was announced that Moore would take over for Ms. Williams effective Feb. 1.

If you haven’t had the opportunity to see Moore’s work then you are in luck because her new work Uncharted Territory, which was commissioned by TITAS, is on the roster for the annual Command Performance Gala at the Winspear Opera House this Saturday. The piece includes music by Kangding Ray and features DBDT Company Members Claude Alexander III and Kimara Wood, who is filling for Matthew Rushing of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. The evening’s program also includes works by Alvin Ailey, Wang Yuanyuan, Moses Pendleton and Dwight Rhoden, just to name a few.

TheaterJones asked Bridget L. Moore about coming home to Dallas, her plans for DBDT’s main company and working with Matthew Rushing and Claude Alexander, III on her work Uncharted Territory for this year’s Command Performance Gala.

TheaterJones: How are you settling into your new role as artistic director of Dallas Black Dance Theatre?

Bridget L. Moore: It’s been going very well. I’ve had some time to learn about the day-to-day operations, but of course you are talking about 40 years of history and commitment to the field so there is still a lot that I have to learn. Fortunately, I have been able to shadow Ms. Williams which is really great and it has been very special to have her there with me. I have really appreciated her advice and guidance.

What type of growth would you like to see within the main company under your leadership?

What I really want and I’m planning to do is to build on the legacy and the excellence that is already present at DBDT. Now, I would like to continue to expand our national and international touring as well as enhance and continue to push our educational outreach program through our academy. As well as foster relationships through our community and connect our community through culture, dance and innovative programming. And also put forth initiatives that ensure the mission and the structure of the organization and that also empower our next generation of artists.

What made you decide to come home to Dallas?

Well, I have spent that last three years in South Korea teaching at Sungkyunkwan University as a visiting professor and it was such a wonderful opportunity, but I love Dallas and I was ready to come home. And now I have the opportunity to share those experiences with others.

What motivated you to apply for the position?

One of the main things that attracted me to DBDT is their mission statement which is to create and produce modern dance work at its highest level of artistic excellence. And because they also have the arts and education program as well as the educational outreach program that really support my overall personal and goals. It just seemed like a great fit for me and it’s something I was already thinking about doing while I was in Korea. I was trying to come to an agreement with myself in terms of what I wanted to do in the next phase of my career. I absolutely love teaching and choreographing, but to be able to do all of it and support the professional dancers on that level is definitely something I am excited to do.

What changes in the Dallas dance scene have you noticed since returning home?

I would say that particularly in the Arts District I am noticing a lot more collaborative projects and community engagement projects that really involve the people that they serve. And I think it’s so important that we are involving and working with our community because that truly drives the economy and also just really connects us. So, I am seeing a lot of collaborative projects that I didn’t necessarily see as much before.

What was your inspiration for your piece, Uncharted Territory, for the TITIS Command Performance?

Conceptually, a lot of the piece comes from my travels while I was in South Korea. I was able to venture out to several neighboring countries, including Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China and Japan. And I travelled alone to these countries which was very unusual and awkward at times, but still very enjoyable yet unfamiliar. So, I wanted to choreographically challenge myself with this new work by finding new ways to approach the movement. I tried to take a very experimental approach to creating the work. It is a duet with two men and I eventually want to make it a larger work for the company.

Why did you select Matthew Rushing and Claude Alexander III to be in the number?

Charles Santos has always liked the idea of connecting dancers from different companies such as Alvin Ailey and DBDT, which both have rich history and are very dynamic. So, Charles thought it would be great to have Matthew and then I decided on having Claude from DBDT. They are both dynamic dancers and have such beautiful artistry and sensibility when it comes to movement that I knew they would look great together. But unfortunately Matthew is injured so Kimara Wood of DBDT will go into his place. I think it’s going to be fantastic and I can’t wait!

Choreographers Justin Peck, Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky have received a lot of heat recently for their responses to a question in a New York Times article asking them why most of the major choreographers in classical dance are male. As a female choreographer who has travelled around the world what are your thoughts on this imbalance? Where should the change begin?

First, we need to recognize and acknowledge that there is indeed a problem and that there is definitely a disproportion between women and men choreographers in terms of equal opportunities. There is a lack of presence of women, but we are doing the work and we definitely have women choreographers that are clearly capable and are just as technically capable as the men. In 2003 a college of mine, Princess Mhoon Cooper, and I created and designed a performance work as a response to that notion as a platform for women to present their work. And so, how do we solve the problem. I think the first initiative would be to come together and have dialogue to continue to talk about why there is an imbalance among women and men choreographers. I think we just have to support each other and lift each other up by using our platforms and our resources to empower one another.

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

 

Dream Maker

Ann Williams with DBDT company members. Photo: Robert Hart
Ann Williams with DBDT company members. Photo: Robert Hart

Ann Williams reflects on her time as artistic director of Dallas Black Dance Theatre, the company’s impact on the Dallas community and her plans for the future.

Dallas — Teacher. Mentor. Dream maker. These are only a few of the titles Ann Williams has acquired over the past 37 years as founder/artistic director of Dallas Black Dance Theatre, the oldest, continuously operating professional dance company in Dallas. But after the company’s Spring Celebration Performance at the Winspear Opera House this weekend Williams will hand the reigns over and take on a new title: retiree.

“Next year I am looking forward to completely stepping back and enjoying DBDT from afar,” Williams says. “I will travel some, play bridge and enjoy the company of my friends and relatives.”

The two-evening Spring Celebration includes performances by Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico, Bruce Wood Dance Project, Texas Ballet Theater and Kirven Douthit-Boyd (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater). Dancers from DBDT will also be performing in new works choreographed Lily Weiss (Booker T. Washington HSPVA) and Christopher Vo (dancer on Season 2 of the NBC show SMASH).

And while Williams will no longer be a part of the day-to-day activities of the organization once she retires, she will remain supportive and continue to seek out new funding opportunities. And the company can still expect to see her at rehearsals, programs, master classes and workshops. “But only on a limited basis and only as a guest/friend.”

As for the task of uncovering DBDT’s next artistic director Williams say the search has been going quite well. “We have 11 applicants from several different cities and states including New York. We have a dedicated committee not just from the Dallas community, but people who are interested in getting the best possible person for DBDT. The committee will choose a finalist very soon.”

The outpouring of love and support Williams has received since making her announcement last May proves DBDT is indeed a Dallas institution. “I do feel honored with all the love and attention that has happened this year from the local community, especially the dance community. It has made me feel special.”

Since starting the company in 1976, Williams has established five performing dance troupes and currently employs 12 administrative staff and 12 dancers on an 11-month contract. DBDT has performed in 14 countries with tours in Peru, South Africa, Uganda, Austria, Japan, Italy and many more. Most notable venues include Lincoln Center in New York City, The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and the 2012 London Olympics. DBDT’s repertoire includes works by Alvin Ailey, Ulysses Dove, Talley Beatty, Christopher Huggins, David Parsons and Darryl B. Sneed, to name a few.

Like all dance companies, DBDT has experienced its highs and lows: economic declines, dancers leaving for other cities and housing complications (DBDT’s home is now 2700 Flora St.), but the company has managed to stay afloat thanks to careful planning and realistic goal setting. “DBDT also has a staff and board of directors that are dedicated to keeping the doors of the company open and support our mission of providing artistic excellence. We are supported by many individuals, corporations and foundations. Our audience and patrons have been with us during the highs and lows and we have rewarded them with great choreography and programs.”

When asked if she has any regrets Williams says, “I think I have accomplished the goals that were necessary and achievable. There can always be more, but I am grateful for our home in in the Arts District and the performance space we have with the Wyly Theatre. It would have been super to get that $1 million gift, but I believe that can happen with the next artistic director.”

As for her legacy, Williams would like to be remembered for the services she has provided to many dance students who would not have had the opportunity otherwise. “I believe I have opened doors of opportunity for many dancers, students, parents, organizations in the City of Dallas, the State of Texas and many parts of the nation and around the world. I have given from my heart and soul so that others can fulfill their dreams.”

This feature was originally published on TheaterJones.com.

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.