Robert Battle, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's newly minted artistic director, has an openness in his voice, an eager willingness to listen closely, and to speak honestly, that belies his position as the head of one of America's most revered dance companies. What about that long-standing and unfortunate tradition of those in the "high arts" keeping their distance from the masses?
"We don't think of ourselves as part of the high arts, although we are in a way ... and we do get criticized for that sometimes," Battle says.
That probably explains why, amid general economic turmoil and huge cuts in arts funding, Alvin Ailey's audiences have continued to grow, both in the United States and abroad. That distance between exacting performer and awed spectator — think of a prima ballerina or opera diva accepting the earnestly tossed roses and effusions of an admiring throng, then retreating, head held high, to the sanctity of her dressing room — is not in the company's vocabulary. One only has to read the words of founder Alvin Ailey to understand just how fundamental this idea is to the organization that bears his name:
"I believe that the dance came from the people, and it should always be delivered back to the people."
It's an honorable value on which to build an arts organization, and it takes on special significance when one remembers that Ailey was an African-American choreographer and dancer who founded the theater and its accompanying educational components before the Civil Rights Movement had gained momentum. "As a black man in this country," Battle says, "[Ailey knew] what it felt like to be left out, and because of that I think he wanted the doors to be opened wide." Battle is 100 percent on board with this idea, which, no doubt, is a large part of why he was personally selected by the outgoing artistic director, Judith Jamison, to lead this most well-known of American dance institutions.
Though it's still early in Battle's tenure — he officially started in the position in July of 2011 — he answers without hesitation when asked what he's most excited about as far as leading the company: the dancers. "I'm so excited, because you know in my past career I really only did the choreography part of it with my own company [Battleworks] and with other companies, and that was wonderful. But this is wonderful because I get to bring together all of these voices and watch my dancers take on other choreographers' work. It's like planning a great dinner party and saying, 'Who do I want to take part in the discussion?'"
For their Spoleto program, which is the final stop on a 27-city North American tour, Battle and his associate artistic director Masazumi Chaya have chosen an eclectic collection of pieces that range from classically modern dance to hip-hop to improvisation. The seemingly vast diversity in choreographic style found in a single Ailey performance is one of the company's trademarks, and one of the reasons that Ailey audiences cross many lines in terms of age and race. Yet underneath the variety, Battle says, there is always a deeper connecting thread. "The choices are not arbitrary, in terms of 'this choreographer's really hot right now.' I'm really trying to think about the connections I have to the work and the dancers have to the work ... When the audience comes to see the Ailey company, as a repertory company, the fact that you can see the dancers go from Ohad Naharin's work to baroque music, to Rennie Harris' music to the classic Revelations [the company's most famous piece, choreographed by Ailey] — there's something really fascinating about that. The discussion is about physicality and artistic expression and the connection with all these distinct choreographers."
The dancers can testify to this purposefulness in the repertoire. As principal dancer Alicia Graf Mack says, "Mr. Battle has a great eye for dance and a unique vision for our company, which is exciting. He definitely makes sure that Mr. Ailey's vision is treated with the utmost respect, but he's also bringing our company into the future ... His choices of dancers and choices of repertoire are his biggest contribution yet."
When Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958, he did so with the mission of "enriching the modern American dance heritage, and preserving the uniqueness of the African-American cultural experience," according to its website. So how does a company with such a distinct cultural viewpoint — African American and, more broadly, American — achieve the level of mass appeal that it has, with audiences that span the whole spectrum of races, ages, and nationalities? As Battle told The New York Times shortly after the announcement of his new position, Alvin Ailey is all about inclusiveness. Discussing the question now, Battle elaborates: "I think they're all [the qualities of Americanism, African Americanism, and inclusiveness] closely tied together. If you look at the history of African-Americans in this country, we had to be inclusive to survive. We had to rely on one another and on others who were sympathetic in order to make it."
Battle feels this necessity personally: He was taken in, at the tender age of three weeks, by his great-aunt and -uncle when his mother found herself unable to care for him. His home with them was filled with music, poetry, and literature, courtesy of his English teacher cousin. This cousin also led a small group that performed African-American poetry, so from an early age Battle was surrounded by arts and culture — whether that meant Shakespeare or Langston Hughes. When it comes to maintaining the balance between the company's particular cultural heritage and the broader American, or even global, culture, he says, "I don't have to think about 'how do I balance it,' because it's part of my upbringing."
Mack sees this balance at work in the repertoire she dances each night. "Our repertoire is extremely diverse this year, and I think that says a lot about our company as an American company — we're able to have this classic American modern dance work, so we're preserving that treasure, but we also have an Ohad Naharin piece. We even have some audience participation on stage ... so it's very different for both our audiences and our dancers."
Plus, Battle continues, "We're in a different time now. [African-Americans] have the freedom to express everything that we are, without being completely defined. Our emphasis is on the 'American' right now, on freedom of expression."
But although the company is and will remain dedicated to the exploration of new and boundary-crossing dances, they still know when to come back to their roots. Revelations, Ailey's masterpiece first performed in 1960, has been seen by more people than any other modern dance work and is known as a "must-see for all people." An inspiring celebration of African-American history, it is one of those works of art that communicates to people everywhere. "No matter where we go, whether it's across the street or across the ocean — we were in Russia recently performing it — to see the audience just uplifted, inspired ... that to me is great testimony to its masterpiece. Revelations is an experience, and though it expresses the experience of the African American in this country, the uniting factor that crosses boundaries is that it expresses hope, and that is a universal thing," Battle says.
Battle first saw Revelations as a child in Miami, Fla., during an educational "mini-performance" for young people. "It moved me," he says. "When I look at my life now, that's the power of Revelations." And in an apt coincidence, it turns out his dancers are outdoing one of those performances for another generation of children right now, as he speaks, awakening the dancers who will carry on Ailey's legacy in the decades to come. And that — like hope — is a great, universal thing.