American Dance Theater: Universal message

Published in Financial Mail, 13 August 2015:

SINCE Robert Battle took up the reins at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater as artistic director in 2011, he has received nothing but praise from the world’s dance critics. From his choreography to his successful expansion of a repertory grounded in past riches, Battle is credited with injecting new life into a company that has performed for an estimated 23m people in 71 countries on six continents.

He is only the third person to lead the company since its formation in 1958, and succeeded Judith Jamison.

So what has been his most humbling experience? Battle paused to reflect when he was asked this — the question was clearly unexpected. The answer was: his acceptance in 2014, on behalf of the group’s founder, Ailey, of the foremost US civilian decoration, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “I was overcome by emotion,” said Battle, “thinking of my own trajectory as a dancer, being raised by my great-aunt and great-uncle, standing on the shoulders of Ailey and being chosen by Jamison to continue their great work, looking at the first African-American president [Barack] Obama and thinking about the shoulders he’s standing on.”

Battle’s aptitude for modern dance became evident at high school. He went on to join the dance programme at New York’s Juilliard School, danced with the Parsons Dance Company from 1994 to 2001, and formed his Battleworks Dance Company, which made its debut in 2002. He was recognised as one of the Masters of African-American Choreography by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2005, and received the prestigious Statue Award from the Princess Grace Foundation-USA in 2007.

He was never an Ailey dancer but has produced many of his works with the main company. He also set up the New Directions Choreography Lab to help nurture young choreographers.

Determined to build on the company’s existing repertory — by introducing works by artists as diverse as Kyle Abraham, Aszure Barton, Ronald K Brown, Garth Fagan, Bill T Jones, Jirí Kylián, Wayne McGregor, Robert Moses, Ohad Naharin and Paul Taylor — Battle sees every new commissioned piece coming to life as a highlight of his tenure. “Some of the works I’ve chosen have never been done by a modern dance company, but they are so virtuosic and versatile you can’t help but be informed by the people dancing it,” he says.

“Brown, for example, uses African dance infused with his personal style to create his own way of making movement a message. That’s what’s exciting.”

Brown’s “spiritually” charged work, Grace, forms part of the upcoming SA tour.

Also on the programme is Rennie Harris’s Exodus, which had its world premiere in June. Set to gospel and house music, along with poetic narration, this piece uses hip-hop to express ideas about social injustice. Inspired by protests between African-American citizens and police, it highlights the need for action to effect change.

“We have a unique group of dancers, and they bring their own uniqueness to our work,” says Battle. This prompted the recent restaging of a piece he had made for students at the Juilliard School, No Longer Silent, which a New York Times journalist in 2007 imagined Ailey staging to great effect. The dance was choreographed to a 1925 score by Erwin Schulhoff, who died of TB in a Nazi concentration camp. “He was silenced,” says Battle, “and his music was not allowed to be played. Works like that are very important for me; they are humbling.”

While he has not choreographed a new piece for the company since his appointment as artistic director, audiences can look forward to seeing Battle’s 1999 creation of Takademe. It features the complex rhythms of the classical Indian Kathak dance against a jazzy score by Sheila Chandra. “I made that in a living room in Queens, New York, never thinking that a dance that couldn’t even travel across that space would now be travelling all the way to SA,” he says.

He never studied Indian dance, but used to watch classes while at Juilliard. “There are some Michael Jackson influences too, in the snappiness of the movement. The sophisticated rhythmic structures of the music reminded me of Ella Fitzgerald, and I wanted to demonstrate what the sounds made me feel. Dance becomes words,” he says.

Jamison has been quoted as saying that “Battle’s choreography has the ability to draw audiences into his work, and it reminds [me] of [Ailey].” Takademe is a case in point. “It’s only about three minutes long, but the dancers love it and audiences get a kick out of it,” says Battle.

The company will perform two programmes in SA, and in both local fans can look forward to seeing Revelations, the signature Ailey piece that continues to move generations of dance lovers the world over. “It inspired me to be where I am today,” says Battle. “Its message is universal, and carries so much meaning beyond dance itself. Watching it is a rite of passage.”

Jamison, who performed in the piece for 15 years, said it “set a tone for what is human in all of us, no matter where you come from. We’ve done that piece all over the world, and everyone understands exactly what it’s about — it is humanity, it is triumph, and what it is to be human.”

The Los Angeles Times quotes Carmen De Lavallade, dancer, choreographer and Ailey friend since junior high, as saying: “[Revelations] is one of those moments when you put something together and you don’t know really why or how it gets there — it appears like magic. I don’t think [Ailey] ever expected it to do this. He had no idea that it would grow to be something of a phenomenon. And neither did I. When you’re younger, you never realise that your best friend is going to be as famous as Coca-Cola.”

On the rare occasion when Battle is not promoting the company (“I get pulled in many directions”), he exercises his creative juices in the studio. “It’s about activating those inventive parts of your mind, solving movement and timing challenges with the dancers, keeping the engine running.”
Battle spends so much time living Ailey’s legacy, presenting other people’s work, that he steers clear of taking class with the company in favour of keeping fit in the gym. “I haven’t danced professionally in a long time, and I find it humbling to enter the studio space in that capacity,” he adds.

Battle is a sought-after keynote speaker and has addressed, among others, the UN Leaders Programme and the UN Children’s Fund Senior Leadership Development Programme. “What is an artistic director going to say to a group of scientists, for example, who may be a little more connected to the world? I tell my story, and how I create dances, linking the process to thought development. It starts with one movement idea, one infinitesimal gesture; the beginning of a journey. Leaders have to have a sense of openness and creativity. That has to be emphasised. It’s not always that obvious,” says Battle.

Leadership is also about staying relevant, and Battle explains that key to the impact of modern dance is that it’s about social issues. “There’s a sense of it being about people’s lives and I think there’s a need for that. Abstract or not, it touches the soul.

“It’s that part of the Ailey legacy that is still vital today.”

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