With nearly ninety performances slated for its North American tour, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has a long three months ahead. Artistic Director Robert Battle says it’s exactly the type of tour Legendary Founder Alvin Ailey would expect the company to launch. “We’re cultural ambassadors to the world,” Battle says, invoking one of Ailey’s many adages.
“We tour like no other dance company.”
Battle, only the third person to head the company since Ailey himself, says the new repertory is “electrifying,” but still the signature “challenging” that is known in classic Ailey pieces like Revelations and The River.
The tour commemorates the 25th season since Ailey’s passing, featuring new productions of Pas De Duke, set to Duke Ellington music, and a group of fresh choreographic voices like British Choreographer Wayne McGregor and modern dance choreographer Bill T. Jones.
We caught up with Battle to hear his thoughts about the new Ailey, the direction he sees the company going, and why performances that speak to the cultural experiences of African Americans are still critical.
EBONY: You’re only the third person to head the company since Alvin Ailey himself. Do you still feel pressure?
ROBERT BATTLE: Naturally. It’s both challenging and rewarding. But I think the pressure is more so for myself that I want to do well. This company has meant so much to so many people. Knowing the weight of that and how that has made a way for African Americans to express themselves on a concert stage in such a vital way–it’s been wonderful. It’s a company started in the brink of the Civil Rights Movement, but nothing that I’m not equipped to handle–nothing I’m not prepared to handle. It an honor to be following in the footsteps of Alvin Ailey and Jamison.
EBONY: What kind of stories or performances should we expect from this tour?
RB: The amazing thing about the company is of course the dancers and the versatility of the dancers is like no other. And especially the repertory reflects that–these dancers are capable of everything–modern dance, jazz, hip hop, ballet.
Chroma--which was created initially for the royal ballet–its not a work you would think African Americans would be doing. And Bill T. Jones’ D-Man In The Waters-–he created that work at the time of the AIDS epidemic and he saw so many of his friends die from the disease. He made this work as a way to reflect on what's happening and say something about the tenacity of the human spirit.
EBONY: What is it about Alvin Ailey’s Revelations that makes it such a timeless piece and why is it important to continue creating pieces like it?
RB: Revelations is one of the most important pieces to the African American arts. It assesses the hope and despair of a people and overcoming the struggle with our faith. Expressing why this company after 50 years is still relevant today.
It is genius on so many levels. Lets take away the subject matter; sometimes with a great work of art we miss that its brilliantly constructed. The composition of the work is genius and the content of the work is universal. It starts with “I’ve been booked and I’ve been scorned” and these dancers in a pyramid. The very image is like a testimony. I remember sisters would stand up in church and say everything that happened to them in a week. And to think that it crosses the color lines. No matter if we’re in Russia or Asia or Atlanta, people can relate to this work. And the way it ends (with) “Rocka My Soul” and “The Bosom of Abraham.” That’s what I mean from despair to hope. And that's related to all peoples.
I remember seeing this mother of these two young children at a performance. The curtains went up and the child said “Mom is this it?” and the mother said “Yes, this is Revelations.” Those are the kinds of experiences we’re sharing with people.
EBONY: Ninety performances in just a few months sounds like a lot. How did you all prepare for this and why so many?
RB: We’re cultural ambassadors to the world. We tour like no other dance company. But that really is what Ailey wanted us to do. He said, “Dance comes from the people and should always be delivered back to the people.” We’re always preparing and always prepared; one season sort of rolls into another season. Ten weeks out and then come home–Lincoln Center for two weeks–road again for about five weeks—then come back and get new works ready in the summer—then go to Europe and before you know it, it’s December again.
EBONY: Where do you see the company going in the next 25 years?
RB: I think the sky is the limit. I think it will continue to strive for excellence. To continue to inspire somebody like me, standing in the mirror in their room, trying to imitate an Ailey dancer. And that dancer will make their way to this company some how. To think of myself as just 12 years old when I first saw the company in Florida. I was one of those young people. It’s important that we continue to inspire people all over the world. I can't even say what specifically we’ll be doing then. What kind of dances we’ll be doing. But I will say we’ll be at the forefront.
For more information on Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s 23-city North American tour, visit www.alvinailey.org.
Riley Wilson is a New York-based writer and director of the upcoming short-film Orange Bright. You can read more of his work on his site www.rileySwilson.com. Follow Riley on Twitter: @RileySW.