Artistic Directors are an unusual caste of artists within the dance world. Their job is to curate a diverse repertory, maintain a stable of the highest caliber dancers, and convince funders that their artistic choices enrich the communities that they serve. Robert Battle is Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s third Artistic Director, succeeding Mr. Ailey’s muse Judith Jamison in 2011, who led the company following founder Alvin Ailey’s death in 1989. Despite having worked with the Ailey company and the school multiple times over the years, Battle’s background as a dancer was mainly formed outside of the Ailey umbrella. A Juilliard graduate, Battle danced for Parsons Dance Company before heading his own Battleworks Dance Company. This outside perspective has been instrumental in the expansion of the Ailey frontier–it is the same Ailey company, but with an expanded imagination that Battle’s new voice brings. This trickles down to all aspects of the Ailey organization: The AileyDance Kids programs brings dance to local schools; AileyCamp visits nine US cities to give students the chance to engage in personal growth through dance; and the Ailey School remains one of the top dance academies in the world. I sat down with Battle to discuss the artistic legacy at Ailey, and the delicate balance between preservation and innovation that keeps the company engaged with the community that supports it while taking bold steps forward into uncharted artistic territory.
PHIL CHAN: With your season in December coming up, how are you continuing the Ailey story while exploring the frontiers of dance in the 21st century?
ROBERT BATTLE: We have a lot of firsts. We’re looking at doing a new work by Hofesh Shechter. I think he’s a marvelous choreographer, coming from the Ohad Naharin tradition. That kind of primal movement is wonderful and I think will be a great fit for the company. We’re doing After The Rain by Christopher Wheeldon, which I have seen different versions of through the years. I’m always struck by the sublime simplicity of it, and I think my dancers add another dimension to the work. It will be Chris’ first time working with the company. We also have a new work by Matthew Rushing, a dancer, rehearsal director, and a guest artist with the company for many years. This work will be on the life of Odetta, the great folksinger. We know about Nina Simone, we know about Ella Fitzgerald, but Odetta really was a pioneer. She used her voice as a weapon for change. I was at her memorial service when she died, and Maya Angelou spoke about her friend Odetta. I was fascinated: someone should make a dance about this! So I commissioned Matthew to do it.
PHIL CHAN: I have to commend you: I think the repertory that you’re bringing in from Europe is incredible. You’re even encroaching on the traditionally “ballet” repertory and giving the two major New York companies a run for their money in terms of repertory and programming. How do these Ailey dancers rise to the challenge of having more diverse work in the repertory?
ROBERT BATTLE: This repertory is their bread and butter – that’s who they are, so that’s why I choose these ballets. Within every human being there is inherent diversity on so many levels, and that to me is what the repertory represents. That’s what I’m trying to expose and have people look at the company differently. I’m consciously challenging the notion of what we’re capable of.
I’m a deconstructionist. (Laughs) Now I know bigger words than I did when I was little kid! But I knew when I was a little that I liked taking things apart. My grandfather had a tape recorder – in those days there weren’t too many electronics – we came from a modest background. I was fascinated by that tape recorder. My grandfather would tape things, mainly sermons in church, and play them at home. I remember thinking, I have to take that apart to see what’s making it turn, making that sound. And I would take the whole thing apart, secretly, and see all the gears and parts, the little generator. I was satisfied. And then I would try to put it back together again, inevitably putting one part back wrong or leaving it out. And then it wouldn’t work and then my grandfather would yell at me. But this continued, and even when they brought me toys I would take them apart to see how they worked. And that is never left me. When I look at Chroma by Wayne McGregor, I think about what would happen if we did that. I see all this language in the torso that is very much cornerstone of what we do. There is some African, the body is talking.
PHIL CHAN: “High art” is no longer immune to other influences. All of that articulation is going straight into the classical ballet technique.
ROBERT BATTLE: Exactly! It becomes fresh and accessible! That’s what I love about Wayne’s work. What about creating an excess of movement? What about a chainé turn that is shot out of a cannon and all of a sudden – stops. That’s how Wayne’s work hits me and I thought, oh, his work is perfect for us. The only reason people don’t expect us to perform it is because they see an arabesque and a ballet shoe and they think it’s a ballet piece. It was made on the Royal Ballet– I get that–but I thought this would be an interesting piece for the company, because I totally see us doing it anyway. I think our frontiers lie in the fact that I have to remain curious. I have to keep taking that tape recorder apart and trying to put it back together and see where we end up. And sometimes we might not end up so happily where we thought we might be, but that journey is the crucial to us to remain relevant. To keep the dancers engaged, to keep the audience engaged, because when the dancers feel challenged – in a good way – that’s contagious. The audience can feel that. That vibrancy. So that’s what we’re trying to accomplish.
PHIL CHAN: With this idea of moving forward, talk to me about the New Directions Choreography Lab. The Ailey company has always been a laboratory for choreography. Mr. Ailey himself had always envisioned his company as presenting a collection of works from a diverse group of artists, not just his own singular voice. Talk to me about how you’re looking to the future to make sure that our industry is sustainable through this program.
ROBERT BATTLE: The company is huge! It is only as good as the circle around it. I think the whole dance community needs to be healthy for us to be healthy. How do we bring the outside in even more, engage them more. Not just with commissions – that’s wonderful – but as we know commissions are sometimes hit or miss. I was trying to think about how we can engage a little bit further. I’m thinking about choreographers now who can’t afford to have companies. Maintaining a dance company is not as viable as it was. You rarely have time to really be in a process.
PHIL CHAN: You don’t have the funding…
ROBERT BATTLE: You don’t have the funding! So I thought, how can I address this in a small way? A choreography lab would be one way to do that. We use two choreographers per semester, both audition students and get seven weeks of work. They get some kind of stipend. They are also paired with a creative advisor to collaborate with them on a personal level. One year we had Carmen de Lavallade as the creative advisor for Camille Brown. Incredible. To see them in the studio together….
PHIL CHAN: It adds another dimension to the artist’s work, connecting it to history and the craft. Anybody can make dances, but to make choreography is a craft. A lot of young people don’t realize how many conscious choices you have to make, and by having a real mentor like that, it really helps people connect to that.
ROBERT BATTLE: Exactly! I always look at it from what I would have wanted more of as a choreographer, out there trying to scrape something together. When you’re commissioned, you don’t want to step outside of your box too far because you want to be commissioned again. What’s great about this is there’s no product at the end; we don’t ask you to make a dance. We try to deter people from doing that. Just work on something. Now you might happen to make a dance, fine. But if you want to work on the phrase, and come up with a phrase that you’ve never done this way we’re not judging that.
PHIL CHAN: You’re giving people the freedom to have creative play, something that is often restrictive.
ROBERT BATTLE: Exactly. A safe place to fail.
PHIL CHAN: Tell me how you’re preserving the Ailey classics. Looking a few blocks up the street, Peter Martins at New York City Ballet has to preserve the aesthetic of George Balanchine. It’s unavoidable that he’s judged against Balanchine. With an Ailey piece such as Revelations, which has such a deep emotional impact with audiences worldwide and such an iconic connection with the Ailey company, how are you making it relevant and accessible into the 21st century?
ROBERT BATTLE: Two ways: One is that Judith Jamison, who Mr. Ailey made many works on, will come in and work with the dancers, so you get that spirit directly from the horse’s mouth. We have Masazumi Chaya; he’s the gatekeeper, especially for Revelations, of Mr. Ailey’s repertory. The second is that you make sure that you give license to the dancers, within reason, to be authentic. And that’s what gives the work life. I find that if the dancers feel too beholden to the past, ballets can become museum pieces. Dancers must ask themselves, how is it relevant to me? Who am I in this? In that way, it’s the same question I keep asking myself.
My psyche can be heavy at times; the sense of responsibility is great. Walking in the path that has been carved out by these giants can bring uncertainty. The wonderful thing is that Judy [Jamison] is right here, right here in the studio, working with the dancers on the “umbrella section” of Revelations. She trusts me, and knowing how close she was to Mr. Ailey, in that way that gives me the sense that Mr. Ailey would trust me too. She’s always been very direct about that and it’s given me a lot of confidence. From the very beginning when she asked me to take the helm of the company, I said, “What do I do?” She said, “Whatever you want; you have everything you need. Be you. Do it your way.”