By Alexsandra Bowie
In the world of the stage, first impressions are everything. My first impression of Robert Battle is that when he enters a room, his elegance and command of the space are unmistakable. These are impressive, but unsurprising qualities for a man dynamic enough to fill the well worn and oft celebrated shoes of Alvin Ailey and Judith Jameson. Upon sitting down with and speaking to the current Creative Director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the main message I take away is that within the breadth of Robert Battle’s vision, anything is possible.
I sit in on a rehearsal of the esteemed company as they prepare for a holiday season return to New York’s City Center, December 3rd to January 4th, 2014/15. As I silently and gleefully observe, I pick up on a peaceful and harmonious energy that defies typical dancer stereotypes. I discover that there are no principal dancers with Alvin Ailey, which fosters a refreshingly egalitarian environment. There is also a freshness to the repertory, which includes choreography by Matthew Rushing, Ulysses Dove and Hofesh Schecter, to name a few. The combination of styles ranging from classic ballet to street dance demonstrates the new and vibrant direction in which Battle, along with Masazumi Chaya, Associate Artistic Director and Matthew Rushing, Rehearsal Director and Guest Artist, are bringing to Alvin Ailey’s stage.
Apparently the fans aren’t complaining. Entering its 57th season, last year’s record breaking ticket sales make it clear that the world remains seduced by the beauty and spirit of Alvin Ailey. In the three years since Robert Battle has become Artistic Director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, he has found the experience to be amazing and challenging in all the right ways. After rehearsal, we have a conversation which reveals his humility and energetic love for dance, life and the human spirit.
Battle’s words have a mesmerizing quality. I listen raptly as he weaves tales of his childhood growing up in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, Florida. His home was, in his words, “filled with poetry and music”. His mother, Anna, taught English and also held a poetry group in their home. Poetry is sacred to Battle because he grew up hearing the words of Phillis Wheatley, Maya Angelou and Shakespeare mingled with the voices of his home. The pitch perfect songs of Leontyne Price and Sarah Vaughan rose up, leaving an indelible mark upon his senses. Battle was enchanted by Black arts, realizing there was something wonderfully important about it before he even understood it to be art.
Like so many, Battle’s major influence in dance as a child was Michael Jackson and the whole phenomena of “Thriller.” He decided that dance went beyond enjoyment to a life calling when the Alvin Ailey Company came to Miami. Battle was bused to the theater where Alvin Ailey was giving a mini performance that ended in REVELATIONS. “When I saw ‘Revelations’ it [gave] me that feeling. It transported me. It was as much inner body as it was outer body. You could see who you were and who you could possibly be. That [performance] left its imprint on me,” proclaims Battle. He did not think about it every day, but it was there. The seed was planted. Battle is a great proponent of the power of dance to tell a story to the masses, and to transform the viewer as well.
Although Battle has been preparing for this role his entire life, he still cannot believe he is the Artistic Director of Alvin Ailey! With proper Southern charm, he still refers to his predecessor as “Ms. Jamison” and recounts the moment when she welcomed him into the company. He says it was such a surreal moment because part of him was still in that theater as a little boy watching them perform. Even as he now stands on the opposite side of the process, Robert Battle remains in awe of the ritual of the audition; waits for that moment when he gets to say, “Welcome to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.” The single word, “Welcome” is a powerful one. “When a dancer hears a yes it seems like their life flashes in front of them and it is almost like a holy ghost moment,” says Battle.
There are many elements of being third to take on the mantle of leader of a world renowned company like Alvin Ailey that Battle finds humbling. For instance, knowing that Alvin Ailey stepped out on his own to start his company when it was not “logical” to do so in a world that separated us by color. Or how Judith Jamison continued to trailblaze, a towering beautiful figure speaking to her history when she danced in CRY. According to Battle, one of the most powerful parts of her performance was that “little girls could say that looks like me…that could be me.”
Robert Battle is invested in the power of diversity. It is clear that he continues to stretch boundaries and push diversity on the Alvin Ailey stage by what we will see this holiday season. Matthew Rushing pays tribute to folk singer, activist and actress, Odetta Holmes. ODETTA will be Rushing’s third ballet for Alvin Ailey. BAD BLOOD (1986) is a ballet choreographed by the late Ulysses Dove and brings to the stage the complexities of relationships. POLISH PIECES (1995), choreographed by Hans van Manen, displays mastery through simple motifs and geometric patterns, creating vibrant kaleidoscopes of color.
What Feeds Robert Battle’s Mind
Deconstructing and reconstructing things. As a child, Battle would take apart his grandfather’s tape recorder. Much to his grandfather’s frustration, Battle didn’t always remember how to put it back together. He now does that same deconstruction with dance but puts it all back together beautifully.
What Feeds Robert Battle’s Body
Battle is obsessed with ribs. Yes, ribs! From Chicago to Israel, Battle seeks out the best ribs in the world. Cooking them is one of his favorite things to do too. The ritual of cooking, seeing something go from one state to another and be appetizing to the body is what he loves.
What Feeds His Soul
The most obvious answer, dance! He is also inspired by people who can still see the humanity in others. “People are seeking accessibility, not only to see a dancer on stage, but to feel them. As we become mired in technology, people want to come out and experience something; to feel inspired when witnessing this physical effort, beauty and grace; to laugh and maybe cry a little in a collective space.”