How do you step into the shoes of a dance legend?
With a mixture of modesty and derring-do, it turns out.
Dancer-choreographer Robert Battle is now in his third year as artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. And when the company comes to town this weekend (April 11-13), dance fans will get a taste of how he is both preserving its legacy and tweaking its repertoire.
Battle is only the third director in the company’s 50-odd years of existence, following Ailey himself (1958-1989) and Judith Jamison (1989-2011). In a recent phone interview, he was simultaneously droll and thoughtful on what he’s brought to the company and how he’s settling in.
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“It’s really going better than I expected,” he said with a chuckle.
The company will perform two Ailey classics, “Revelations” (1960) and “The River” (1970); Ronald K. Brown’s “Grace” (1999, brought in on Jamison’s watch); and two pieces that Battle has acquired for the company since he took the helm: “Minus 16” by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin (Batsheva Dance Company) and “D-Man in the Waters (Part I)” by Bill T. Jones.
Battle’s aim in expanding the Ailey repertoire is to find “work that connects to the DNA of the company.” The question he asks himself: “How do I see this work fitting into the vernacular of the company, but also being somewhat unexpected?”
Once he can envisage his dancers doing it, then he knows it’s the right choice. “If I can’t see the marriage, then I don’t choose it,” he adds, “even if it’s a great work.”
Battle grew up in Miami and got his start in dance by imitating Michael Jackson (this was the 1980s) and joining his mother in watching old musicals, featuring Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. He saw Ailey’s work on video, too. But it was a live Miami performance by the company that made an indelible impression: “I was about 12 years old, and that just sealed it for me.”
By the time he was in high school, he was taking dance classes. He wound up going to Juilliard in 1990, and was hired to dance with Parsons Dance Company before he even graduated.
After seven years with Parsons, he started his own troupe, BattleWorks Dance Company, which he led until he came on board as artistic director at Ailey. In the meantime, he’d been choreographing for the Ailey company since 1999. You won’t see any of his works during this run, however. It’s his new curatorial role at Ailey that he relishes.
“I so much want to show other choreographers’ work,” he says. “It’s almost taken my focus off me and my own work.”
While Ailey’s “Revelations” is the centerpiece of the company’s repertoire (it’s featured on all three programs), some contemporary dance fans will be particularly excited to see Naharin’s “Minus 16.” (Local choreographer Eva Stone, director of Bellevue’s annual Chop Shop dance festival, is one of them. “Having ‘Minus 16’ at Chop Shop,” she says, “would be a dream come true.”)
Naharin, Battle notes, had an Ailey connection through his wife, Mari Kajiwara, a dancer with the company from 1970-84, who died of cancer in 2001. “Minus 16” is dedicated to her.
“Minus 16” is performed with “Grace” and “Revelations,” 8 p.m. Saturday, April 12. “The River,” “D-Man” and “Revelations” are performed 8 p.m. Friday, April 11, and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 13.
Local note: Jeroboam Bozeman, who made a huge impression during his yearlong tenure with Spectrum Dance Theater, is now an Ailey dancer and will be performing on this tour.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org