Written by | Ray Cornelius
For years, the name Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre has been synonymous with uniquely crafted dance moves, beautiful costumes and visually appealing dancers. AAADT’s an American institution that has entertained audiences world-wide with such signature ballets as Night Creatures and Revelations. These soul-stirring performances catapulted its company founder Alvin Ailey into dance icon status and made an instant star of dancer, Judith Jamison.
Jamison took over the company as Artistic Director in 1989 when Alvin Ailey died, branding its name and establishing it as a “Cultural Ambassador to the World.” She held that position until last year when she retired and the company named Robert Battle as its new Artistic Director.
Now Battle is challenged with continuing to carry the mantle of Ailey and its rich legacy. He and I chatted recently about the 2012 tour and what Atlanta fans can expect when AAADT arrives February 16-19 at the Fabulous Fox Theatre…
RC: Congratulations on becoming the Artistic Director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. What can Ailey audiences expect from the company under your new leadership?
RB: This year I created a repertory that incorporates the classic dances that Ailey is known for while bring new styles to the stage as well. Audiences can expect to see my first commissioned piece for the Company, HOME, which was choreographed by Rennie Harris. The Company will also premier a modern dance masterwork by acclaimed choreographer Paul Taylor called Arden Court and a Bravura solo by myself, Takademe, all culminating to performances of the timeless masterpiece by Alvin Ailey, Revelations.
RC: You were raised in Miami, Florida, home to a very large Caribbean and Latin American population. How much of an influence do these two distinct cultures have on your artistic point of view?
RB: I think these cultures have had a huge influence on my artistic view point. Miami exemplifies the “melting pot” theory and I grew up next to Little Haiti, so I was influenced by the food, culture and the people.
RC: Let’s talk about this year’s world premiere of HOME, a gospel house set inspired by the stories of people living with or affected by HIV-AIDS.
RB: Yes, HOME, is my first commissioned piece for the Company and I was really excited to work with visionary hip-hop choreographer, Rennie Harris. Bristol-Myers Squibb launched a contest which called for people infected with or affected by HIV to illustrate – through a photo and essay – how they fight HIV their way. The ten winning entries, two of which are from the Atlanta area, serve as inspiration for the choreographed piece. The Company premiered the work on World AIDS Day 2011 at the New York City Center as part of the 2011 opening night.
RC: If last year’s presentation of The Hunt signified your “coming out” as new Artistic Director of The Ailey Company, then what does the premier of Takademe signify for this year?
RB: For me, it signifies going back to my beginnings. Takademe was one of the very first solos I created. I didn’t create it in a studio but in a living room in Queens, New York. It was the first solo that, I believe, made people really pay attention to me as a choreographer. So, going back to that humble beginning to where I am now is an important statement about where I could possibly go in the future.
RC: Modern dance master Paul Taylor is entering one of his works in the AAADT repertoire for the first time. How did this collaboration come about?
RB: I have always been influenced by and loved Paul Taylor’s work. I believe it was important for Mr. Ailey and Ms. Jamison that the Company host a repository of great modern dance works and considering ‘American’ is a part of our definition of ‘Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater,’ to me, we needed to have an American master represented and Paul Taylor is one of the greatest.
RC: Revelations, the Ailey Company’s signature and most well known work first premiered in 1960. What, in your opinion, keeps audiences coming back to see it every year?
RB: It’s the humanity in the work. Everyone knows about trials and tribulations and trying to overcome adversity. When people see the performance, it somehow helps release them from their inhibitions. I think people relate on that base level, making it a timeless masterpiece.
RC: February, of course is designated as Black History Month, I’m going to name three different dance works from three distinct periods in our history. Tell me why each is so important? La Revue Negra featuring Josephine Baker; the Temptations on the Ed Sullivan Show; Thriller video by Michael Jackson
RB: You can’t leave any one of these dance works out! They all signify a pivotal point in the evolution of dance. Josephine Baker was a visionary before her time, redefining the perception of beauty and the way African American entertainers were depicted. La Revue Negra is definitely classic work.
The Temptations, although a different style of dance than I choreograph and perform, were trailblazers with their unique style of performance.
And, Michael Jackson’s, Thriller? This work changed dance, music and television forever. Many people don’t realize that much of his choreography is based on classical ballet moves. I was imitating Michael Jackson’s pliés before I even knew what a plié was!
RC: What will be the Robert Battle legacy?
RB: Anything is possible. As a human being, nothing human is un-relatable to me and that we’re only limited by our own imagination or lack thereof. That’s what I hope leave.
RC: Define the Robert Battle style of choreography?
RB: Many people recognize my work as often being intense, ritualistic, rhythmic, athletic, sometimes funny and sometimes serious. But there are other aspects of my work that are complete opposite, very slow lyrical, soft and gentile. I’m still redefining it every day. Who knows what my next work will be?
For a full 2012 tour schedule and more information about the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, log onto www.alvinailey.org