When Robert Battle took over as artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2011, his biggest fear was that audiences would stop coming. “I kept picturing people not showing up,” he admitted one afternoon in January, a dapper presence in the bar of Atlanta’s Georgian Terrace Hotel. His fear was unfounded. The 56-year-old company has enjoyed record-breaking seasons under Battle’s leadership and arrives in Atlanta February 13 for a five-performance run at the Fox Theatre. (Editor’s Note: the performance scheduled for Thursday, February 13 has been rescheduled to Sunday, February 16 at 7:30 p.m.)
A large part of his success has been his ability to stay true to the Ailey aesthetic while stretching both dancers and audiences with unexpected new repertory. One of them is Wayne McGregor’s “Chroma,” a raw and extreme work that was enthusiastically received by critics during the company’s New York season in December. Sadly, Atlanta won’t get to see it — the set is too big for the Fox stage, Battle explains — but we will see new works by Ronald K. Brown and Aszure Barton, the Atlanta premiere of D-Man in the Waters by modern dance great Bill T. Jones, four familiar favorites, including Ailey’s gospel masterpiece Revelations, and two revivals, Pas de Duke and The River, both created by Ailey and Duke Ellington. The River features the composer’s first symphonic score written for dance.
“We are celebrating the fact that these two giants collaborated,” says Battle. “I picture the two of them calling each other on the phone, and Mr. Ailey saying ‘I need two more phrases of music.’ There were no computers back then, of course. I picture them working with a reel-to-reel tape recorder.”
Pas de Duke (1976) is an exuberant pas de deux originally created for Judith Jamison and Mikhail Baryshnikov, icons of their generation. The River was created for American Ballet Theatre in 1970 and has rarely been performed by other companies. Originally danced on pointe, it’s performed barefoot by the Ailey dancers.
“The fact that Mr. Ailey could walk into that company of classically trained dancers and produce this beautiful work while maintaining his own style — that’s difficult to do,” says Battle. “As a choreographer I probably would have declined the invitation. I wouldn’t want to make a fool of myself.”
Battle is only the third artistic director to run the ensemble, and unlike Jamison, his predecessor, he never danced in the company or even met Ailey. He grew up in Liberty City, Florida, and remembers being bused to Miami’s Jackie Gleason Performing Arts Center as a child to see the Ailey dancers perform. He was smitten.
“In my childhood I would picture myself performing in front of people,” he remembers. “I pictured myself being ‘famous.’ I could see the details. I could see people’s faces watching me.” Sounding a little embarrassed by this dream now, Battle has indeed fulfilled it, beginning with his move to New York in 1990 — the year after Ailey died — to attend the Juilliard School. He remembers sneaking into the building next door to watch the Ailey dancers rehearse.
As a freelance choreographer, Battle created several works for the Ailey dancers starting in 1999. When Jamison offered him the directorship 12 years later, he was running his own ensemble, Battleworks Dance Company. The demands of running the Ailey company, however, leave him little time to choreograph; his Strange Humors, being performed here Saturday evening, was created in 1999.
Battle is deeply loyal to Ailey’s original mission — to give African American dancers and choreographers the opportunity to create and perform. (Ailey founded the company eight years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act and less than a year after George Balanchine created a stir by pairing an African American man with a white woman in his ballet Agon.)
“For Mr. Ailey, [founding the company] was a moral issue,” Battle says. “I think about the many people who came before — Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price — they made a statement.” Ailey did, too. Battle says that this sense of purpose is alive and well in the bloodstream of the company today.
One work with both moral and kinetic juice is Jones’ Bessie Award–winning work, D-Man in the Waters (Thursday night and Sunday afternoon). Jones choreographed a piece for the company 30 years ago, but D-Man (1989) was created for his own company and has just joined the Ailey repertory, thanks to Battle’s perseverance.
Set to Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings in E-Flat Major, D-Man is a defiant celebration of life in the face of loss. Its impetus was the AIDS epidemic. Jones was deeply affected by the epidemic both professionally and personally — his partner, Arnie Zane, died of the disease, and Jones is HIV positive. The man of the title was Demian Acquavella, a dancer who performed briefly with the Ailey company before joining the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. He died of AIDS just months after D-Man premiered. Atlanta audiences will see part one of the classic piece. Battle hopes to add the rest of the work to the repertory in future.
Battle relishes his career-long relationships with choreographers and dancers. He met award-winning dance maker Aszure Barton years ago through her sister Clarissa, who was one of his Juilliard classmates. Barton’s LIFT received its world premiere during the company’s New York season in December, to mixed reviews.
“LIFT fits the company very well,” Battle explains. “It’s very theatrical, very physical, immediate and whimsical. Even a bit controversial, which is great. You need people who push the envelope, and she does that.”
Battle is constantly fighting the assumption that his dancers are best served by choreography inspired by African dance or street funk, but he is excited about the way Ronald K. Brown incorporates West African dance into his new work Four Corners (Saturday night). “He blends it with concert dance beautifully so you don’t even notice the mixing. It just is,” Battle explains.
Another cornerstone of the Ailey aesthetic is the visceral response the dancers inspire in audiences around the world. (They have performed in an estimated 71 countries.) Ailey fans don’t just watch a performance, they feel it — clapping, swaying and demanding multiple encores. The company appeals to the soul in everyone: black or white, young or old, British or Brazilian. “We are celebrating our common humanity,” Battle says. There is, however, a special, deep-rooted connection with African American audiences, a shared sense of history that is always evident during the ensemble’s Atlanta performances.
A large part of audiences’ love for the company is the spectacular virtuosity, sensuality and personality of its 30 dancers, one third of whom are new to the company since Battle took over. “I look for certain qualities in movement ability,” he says, “the rhythm, the weight, the vernacular, the slang, but also the refinement, the classical line. As Mr. Ailey would say ‘use my steps, show your self.’”
The dancers are Battle’s greatest inspiration. “People ask me what I see next for the company. I see it through the dancers. I watch them in the studio, when they don’t even know I’m watching and I see what they can do. That’s when I know what the next move should be. They are my compass on how to move forward.”
Thursday, February 13, 8 p.m. — LIFT, D-Man in the Waters, Revelations
Friday, February 14, 8 p.m. — Night Creature, Pas de Duke, The River, Revelations
Saturday, February 15, 2 p.m. — Night Creature, Pas de Duke, The River, Revelations followed by Q&A with the dancers
Saturday, February 15, 8 p.m. — Four Corners, Strange Humors, Minus 16, Revelations
Sunday, February 16, 3 p.m. — LIFT, D-Man in the Waters, Revelations
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