Alvin Ailey’s artistic director: Expanding dancers’ prowess

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performing "Revelations". Photo: Andrew Eccles

The mighty ship that is the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater docked at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall this week for a residency that begins tomorrow, March 13, and runs through March 18. The company’s Artistic Director, Robert Battle, stands as the captain of an organization that has known only two previous leaders.

Battle has choreographed on the company Alvin Ailey founded in 1958 and drove to a pinnacle of international acclaim, before passing the reins to dancer Judith Jamison in 1989, but he has never performed as a member of AAADT.

All of which has meant that the passing of the baton in July 2011 was preceded by a long, intricately planned transition. Battle has been groomed for the role with the same care that is poured into each movement the dancers execute.

“Basically, it included being on tour with the company, getting familiar with the important venues —like Berkeley — meeting donors, supporters and people who have been instrumental with the company, getting to know the dancers, seeing them perform and deciding what I wanted to do with the season…. It took years,” he says, during an interview a few weeks before opening night.

Alvin Ailey's Linda Celeste Sims. Photo: Andrew Eccles

He also had to familiarize himself with the AAADT school, the BFA in Dance program at Fordham University, the outreach classes, and the 10 six-week summer AileyCamps for underserved youth — including one produced by Cal Performances.

The idea that he might become the third director of a company heralded by Congress as an American “Cultural Ambassador to the World”, was first mentioned to him by Jamison in 2008, just when his own company, Battleworks Dance Company, was dissolving.

“That’s when everything started to change,” Battle says. “My company was beginning to unravel. During the interview process, I started to assume the role. The more I had to talk about my feelings about the [Ailey] company and what I could contribute, the more I started to realize I had something to offer.”

Initially, Battle regarded the position as something he simply couldn’t refuse.

“But it was good when it felt more natural,” he says. “You’re sticking to a script when you interview; saying what they want to hear. Somewhere along the way, I started to speak from the heart.”

What was in his heart was the history of African Americans in this country, of having to kick doors open, of unlimited creative potential.

“Even the title — the “American” in our name — is political in a country that hasn’t always honored our being a person, let alone our being American,” he says.

Now, with a successful New York season and strong, even exuberant critical reviews under his belt, Battle is challenging the dancers with new movement possibilities and inviting audiences to see the company in a new light.

Alicia Graf Mack performs "Streams". Photo: Eduardo Patino

Will his arrival mean there is a new physicality defining an Ailey dancer?

“Yes, we will add to what is already there,” he says. “New approaches will broaden their palette and will open part of the dancers that hasn’t been opened before. It will expand their prowess.”

The three Berkeley programs reflect his approach, with work by hip-hop artist Rennie Harris (Home), American master Paul Taylor (Arden Court), and Israel’s Ohad Naharin (Minus 16), along with two of Battle’s dances (Takademe and The Hunt) and the Ailey Classic, Revelations.

Battle makes special note of Home, because it is inspired by people living with HIV, and of Minus 16, saying the improvisational component has led his dancers to “simply be”, instead of the more typical “projecting” the company is known for.

“I see the works as very lifting, but also as a way to honor our father, Alvin Ailey,” he said.

There’s a reverence and an energy behind his words, especially when he paraphrases an ancient Roman playwright whose perspective he admires: “I am a human being and nothing human can be alien to me.”

“That’s where I lead from; that’s what I try to focus on,” he says. “We’re not limited by our own imagination and that’s the way it should have been [in the past], and certainly the way it should be now.”

Wrapping himself in the embrace of audiences who he described as “happy and delighted,” Battle’s opportunity has transitioned into a feeling he’s at home.

“Everyone should come out to see things they never expected to see,” he says, playing the host. “This is a wonderful time to celebrate our history.”

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Tuesday–Friday, March 13–18 at Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley Campus. For program details and tickets, visit the Cal Performances website, or call the Cal Performances Ticket Office at (510) 642-9988.

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