Robert Battle, Artistic Director Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater “Dance Connects Us All. It’s Our Passport to the World”

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Robert Battle's The Hunt. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor

Revelations. It doesn’t matter where you live in the nation, most people know of this iconic dance work by Alvin Ailey, the founder of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The piece is a national treasure created at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA.

Revelations is performed at most every performance given by the company. The person responsible for maintaining this piece is Robert Battle, the Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since 2011. Battle’s journey took him from Miami to the dance program at The Juilliard School. He danced with The Parsons Dance Company before forming his own company, Battleworks Dance Company. I spoke with Battle on the eve of the company’s appearance in Miami on a tour celebrating the troupe’s 60th anniversary.

Battle was about 13 years old when he first saw the Ailey company perform on Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Performing Arts Center. To say it left an impression would be an understatement. He saw Revelations and he says “they looked like me-especially seeing the male dancers.” Battle was bullied and picked on growing up. “I saw the dancers on stage living out their dreams on the world stage and it did a lot for my confidence.”

As Artistic Director of a major dance company, Battle is faced with many decisions including auditioning dancers. So, what does he look for in a dancer? Not someone that wants to dance but someone that has to dance. “The only way they can tell their story is through dancing…If I can see that then it will be relatable to the audience.” Choosing choreographers is another decision Battle faces. He speaks on the idea of authenticity but the main ingredient is that he finds the choreographers’ work to be fascinating.

Robert Battle
Robert Battle

Choreographer Rennie Harris fits the bill. Harris is a hip-hop artist who Battle chose to do a piece as a tribute to Alvin Ailey on the 60th anniversary. What Harris created is nothing short of miraculous. Lazarus is a ballet in two acts. Act I depicts the raw horrors of slavery and beyond. Harris came up with images that takes the mind a moment to realize what you are seeing. Such is the reality and verity that shows the world Ailey saw growing up in  Rogers, Texas in 1931. The piece is filled with rich moments and sophisticated choreography. Act II is pure dance, a homage to the world that Ailey immersed himself in.

Battle was chosen to lead the company by Judith Jamison, who took over as Artistic Director after Ailey’s death in 1989. Jamison gave  him the advice to “trust your singular voice.” He does this by thinking of the audience — of what might challenge the audience in a personal way while making sure that the works that are the foundation of the company remain fresh and out front. He speaks of having a perfect blend of works from the past, present and future.

I asked about the longevity of the company. Battle explained that the company was started with a mission, not just to entertain but to educate, inform, inspire and uplift. In 1958, when the company was founded, there weren’t a lot of opportunities  for African-Americans on the concert dance stage. “Out of that, the company has sprung into this large well-oiled machine that it is today. Never forgetting the disenfranchised or someone who may have been left out, in the way Ailey might have felt as a young child. Mission driven intensity is why the company is still surviving today.”

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Photo by Andew Eccles
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Photo by Andew Eccles

As for the future of the company, Battle would like to see it “continue to grow and expand its outreach programs, continue to challenge our audiences with messages of social justice that address the inequalities of our world, but also have humour, joy and hope. Continue to remember that dance is for everyone.”

Battle grew up in a home filled with music, dance and his mother reciting the poetry of  Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou. He learned of the civil rights leaders, such as Dr. King.

“We still need to know what they thought and who they were.” When Battle thinks of Miami,

He says he thinks of “flavours: spicy, sweet and bitter.” He knows what it’s like to feel ostracized, but he also knows what it means to be a nurtured by the community, by the church, “It takes a village…I bring that village with me when I stand on the world stage and represent the company.”

Revelations. What’s behind its phenomenal success and longevity? Battle says it’s an African-American spiritual that express the experiences of African-Americans in this country.

“Spirituals meant so much at that time-of getting people through the atrocities of hate. It has a universal message of hope, of getting through something and finding joy at the end. It’s infectious, it gives people hope. It unites people.”

Sixty years of I Been ‘Buked; Wade in the Water, and Rocka  My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.  60 years strong.