Photo by Andrew Eccles
Robert Battle discusses his first season as artistic head of the Alvin Ailey company. [33:04]
Robert Battle: As a young child, growing up in Miami and we were bussed to Miami Beach, Jackie Gleason Performing Arts Center, to see a mini performance, as we called them. Of course, to us, as young people, it was a major performance, you know?Â We didn't know the difference. And I had seen "Revelations" and "Cry" and Mr. Ailey's masterpieces on videotape but never up close and personal and I think that was just such an eye-opening, heart-opening moment for me, to see this live in that theater and to see this magic on stage, these larger than life dancers moving that way, such brilliance and eloquence. In a way, I learned more about my history through that movement than I could ever learn from a textbook or anything else because the dance says so much. It's brilliant. There's a reason why it still exists and people still break down the doors to see it and I think that that movement, that moment moved me from Miami, Florida, to now the helm of the company somehow. And so, in a way, I don't even have to tell the story all the way through. I saw it. I was moved. I had my own revelations. Then came to New York City and just made my way here to it,. So I don't know. And I'm, you know, this is still so new for me that I'm still sometimes trying to examine what that is, you know? In some ways, I'm always puzzled at how to answer that because, in some ways, it just feels right. It feels like I'm where I'm supposed to be, you know?Â It feels like it's all been set up. It's like the way this office was set up, you know?Â You had the microphones ready, blah, blah, blah and I just sat down. And, in a way, that's what I feel like, that Judith Jamison chose me, she knew and now I know. And it fit, it fit.
Jo Reed: That was the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Robert Battle.
Welcome to Art Works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.
Robert Battle assumed the role of artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in July 2011, He is only the third artisitic leader since Mr. Ailey began the company in 1958. Judith Jamison, a leader dancer in the company picked up Ailey's mantle and became its director with Ailey's death in 1989. She chose Robert Battle to follow her saying at the time: "Robert Battle is without question the creative force of the future."
The Alvin Ailey Company is a rarity in the world of performing art: it Â operates in the black, selling out its annual five week season in City Center's 2200 plus seats. Seeing the Ailey Dance theater is a joyous event, and its dedicated audience feels a great kinship with the company. Generations of children have been introduced to dance through Mr Ailey's masterwork "Revelations" which premiered in 1960 and is still performed to standing room only audiences.
So while Robert Battle brings a lot to the table -- a career as a dancer, an innovative choreographer, and as founder and director of his own company, Battleworks, he also had his work cut out for him. Â He needed to honor the wonderful traditions of the company while still moving it forward as a modern 21st century dance troupe. Well, if his very successful recently-ended first season is any indication, Battle has found the right balance with an ambitious program that stretches the company in new directions while still maintaining its identity.
I spoke with Robert Battle in his office at the spectacular Alvin Ailey studios in NYC's Joan Weill Center for Dance. I wanted to know how he met the challenge of balancing tradition with the future.
Robert Battle: I thinkÂ that the whole structure of the company and the brilliance and genius of the founder, Alvin Ailey, was this openness of it being a repertory company and not a single choreographer company made it possible to be past, present and future. And so that we don't sort of ignore the past and our roots, where we come from and historical works and all of that but that we are also, at the same time, honoring that but moving into the future and being in the present. It's so much a part of the reason this company, I think, is so relevant and so successful because of that. I don't have to sort of give up one for the other but I can do them all at the same time is really fascinating, I think, for the audiences as well.
Jo Reed: You know, that's what's interesting and that was actually my third question is why do you think Alvin Ailey is so successful, this company, when you know how many other arts organizations are struggling.
Robert Battle: Yes.
Jo Reed: And you fill huge theaters.
Robert Battle: Yeah. Yeah. Well, yeah, I think that the heart and soul remains intact. Judith Jamieson, of course, who led the company for over 20 years after the passing of Mr. Ailey, also made sure we remembered where we came from. I think that so much of the story of the company but, more than that, it's a bigger story of African-Americans in this country of really understanding their past and keeping those songs, those stories that are passed on from person to person, from your grandmother, that was a part, to me, represents a part of the survival. And I think the company has that embedded in it, you know, that sense of tradition and I think that the audiences that come to witness the company, when they see "Revelations," the masterpiece, "Revelations," I think that they're reminded of that, our humanness and I think that's a big part of it. Once you lose that identity, then you lose the whole thing. So if anything, going back to that first question about how do you sort of move the company forward, because it's such a historical company, in a way, that does make it a fine line between how you do that. Now, when I'm choosing the new repertory, how does this relate to the image of the company but also moves the company forward?Â So it's a little bit of a balancing act.
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Robert Battle: Yeah.
Jo Reed: I would think it was. Let's talk about that for your first season. How did you choose your dances?Â I think it was a pretty ambitious...
Jo Reed: ...first year.
Robert Battle: Yes. Yes, it was. It was and, you know, it's hard to have the last name Battle and not do <laughter> you know?Â Not kind of...
Jo Reed: And not go forth...
Robert Battle: Yeah. Go forth is right. And so just thinking of that, thinking of Ohad Naharin, the Israeli, American-Israeli choreographer, Ohad Naharin and thinking of "Minus 16," I had seen that work many years ago but what I loved is that it challenged the audience to see dance in a different way, the bold statement, the work as a bold statement and that, by the end, the dancers step off the stage and into the audience and invites them onto the stage. Now, that could seem simple, but I think, if you're used to seeing, you know, these marvelous Ailey dancers, you know, and that proscenium stage, all of a sudden, it's like 3D. They step off and there they are and now, not only that, there you are on the stage. I think, for the people who are still sitting in the audience, there's something about that that just breaks that, as we say in theater, fourth wall. So I knew that that would have meaning, especially now as we move into my time here. It's a historical moment for the company and I thought that that was a statement I wanted to make. Also, Paul Taylor's "Arden Court."Â Paul Taylor is extremely influential and I wanted to show the versatility of the dancers by choosing that work. And then the work by Renee Harris, which was my first commission, called "Home," that was inspired by Bristol-Myers Squibb contest, Fight HIV Your Way, that is inspired by the stories of people living with HIV. And I thought that was very important because we're about entertainment but also about advocacy and modern dance has that tradition of being not only seen but being heard, you know, and modern dance being an American art form. And then hip hop coming from the streets. In a way, I say it's like a reclaiming of our drums, you know?Â The influences of African dance and all of that in hip hop speaks to survival. And so all of these things, for me, I was looking on all fronts and that's the wonderful thing about the position I'm in, that I don't have to be myopic, that I can have a broader view and I think that's needed.
Jo Reed: Yeah, you have to.
Jo Reed: You have to have a broader view.
Jo Reed: And you also had three pieces of your own, didn't you?
Robert Battle: Yes, yes, yes.
Jo Reed: The Hunt, In/side.
Robert Battle: Takademe.
Jo Reed: Takademe. Well, it's a beautiful, beautiful piece.
Robert Battle: Oh, thank you.
Jo Reed: And I love the play on Indian dance.
Robert Battle: Yeah, yeah. Well, when I was a student at Juilliard, there was a class, an Indian dance class. I didn't take the class but, as I was deemed a lurker by my teacher, Caroline Adams, I would always walk around and watch classes. And now that's what I do here in our building, the Joan Weill Center for Dance, I walk around and I look at what the students are learning and I love to watch the exchange. And so I watch these classes and I found all the gestural language of Indian dance so fascinating in the use of the feet and the sounds and the stamping and the complex rhythms and all of that. And so, when I created this work, I always look at it and think it's a combination between Michael Jackson and Indian dance and all of the things that sort of interest me, you know?
Jo Reed: Just as an aside, I think NEA has National Heritage Fellowships and we gave one a couple of years ago to Chitresh Das, who's an Indian dancer, and...
Robert Battle: Wow.
Jo Reed: ...to watch him perform was extraordinary. And he did a duet with- I think his name is Jason Samuel Smith, a tap dancer.
Robert Battle: Oh, yes.
Jo Reed: And to see them going together, it was fantastic.
Robert Battle: Wow. Oh, wonderful. Yeah. Well, in folk dance, I mean, the use of stamping and the use of those kinds of rhythm and being in contact with the ground, I think, is a common thread, you know?Â And the way that tap dance has influences of clog dancing, you know there's all of these sort of bridges, you know, that make for- and that's such an American story, how these things are bridged together to become tap dance from the Juba, from Africa, all the way through to Master Juba, to the influence of clog dancing and then here we are with tap dancing. So much of it has to do with jazz and how it has all of those influences. And, in a way, that speaks to the ideals of this country and I think the Ailey company also has that in its repertoire and how it reaches all of these sort of corners. Especially when we go to places like Russia and then Germany and all over, now, traveling with the company and seeing how people respond to the work, you know, to watch people in Russia clapping to
"Revelations," in time, <laughter> might I add. So there's something wonderful about that passport to the world and I think that's what dance does.
Jo Reed: What makes an Alvin Ailey dancer and an Alvin Ailey dancer?
Robert Battle: I think that there's something about the Ailey dancer that-- I've heard Ms. Jamison say it so well, that it's more than steps, that they want to communicate something to the audience. And one could say, well, that's true of any dancer but I think that what we look for is that dancer that is not constricted by movement. Meaning that the movement is only a vehicle to express their personality. So I look for people who have personalities and different personalities. I don't like, and Mr. Ailey didn't like and Ms. Jamison didn't like cookie cutter dancers. Mr. Ailey always said use my movement and show yourself. And that's very important. Sometimes we get leveled this charge of entertaining the audience. Well, that's built into the idea that they bought a ticket and they came to the theater to watch a performance. I'm sorry but that's kind of what we all do in a proscenium stage. But I think we also inspire audiences. I think that the Ailey dancer, of course, is an excellent technician but I think that they show what is unique and strange and beautiful about themselves and that, somehow, they're able to communicate that. With all of those steps and all of those pirouettes, you remember the dancer. You remember the person. So person first, dancer, yes. And I think that that's what I look for. After I get through examining whether they can stand on one leg and, you know, all of that stuff that they have to be able to do, I really start to say, "Is this person communicating something to me?Â Will I be in a studio and be inspired by this person?" You have to travel so much with each other and there's so much investment, it is like a family. That personality and that person, who that person is, becomes extremely important.
Jo Reed: How did you get involved in dance?Â When did you know that dancing was what you wanted to do?
Robert Battle: Well, let's see, when I was young I tried lots of different things, you know, singing and then I was interested in playing piano so I took piano lessons, my mother's very theatrical on and off stage, it didn't matter. So I was influenced by her embracing of the arts so it was almost a part of my upbringing to express yourself in song, dance, music, whatever. And what happened was I had a soprano voice, I know it's hard to tell, I always say that, but it's true, <laughter> because people always look at me puzzled, that voice started to change as I started to grow up. And, at that time, everybody was imitating Michael Jackson and so was I. And also my mother loved watching movies with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly and all of those things so I used to imitate them for my mother. So all of that sort of led me to dance. And then I studied martial arts because I was doing all of these sort of fancified things that other kids were not doing, in a way, they didn't understand that and some of the guys, particularly, didn't understand that so I figured I needed to know how to defend myself because I grew up in a neighborhood where you should know that, you know?Â And so I started taking martial arts. So then I had the flexibility and all that so, by the time I auditioned for dance in high school, I was kind of ready. I had all the things, musicality, had flexibility and discipline because of martial arts, and all of this stuff came into being through dance, you know?Â And I always say that I can use all of that, especially now as a choreographer.
Jo Reed: Do you remember the first time you performed on stage as a dancer?
Robert Battle: Now, that I don't...
Jo Reed: Or the first time professionally?
Robert Battle: I'm not sure. I don't remember. I remember being a shy type, I guess not as much any more so it always took so much nerves for me to do it that it was almost kind of- I kind of grew out of that but I just remember being so nervous that I would forget- I'd be nervous that I would. I didn't forget the steps but I would be just terrified. I remember the first times, I can say that. I found it harder, for me, it was harder to sing on stage because your voice is so delicate, you know?Â It's so personal that way. So is movement but movement always felt like the release of that tension, you know?Â The release of that fear because, to move, it's, in a way, an act of being fearless, you know?Â When you're on that stage expressing yourself through your limbs and you're panting and sort of there's something about it that is inherently courageous. And so, for me, dance was the thing that, even though I was nervous, I could still get through it. The singing, sometimes the voice would leave me. Playing piano, I remember, as a little child, playing in the church, you know?Â I'd get to have my little solo and I knew it, I had practiced it, I was ready to go and then I sit and I look at those keys and it looked like Greek, you know?Â But dance, I could just sort of plow through somehow and so that's when I knew that that was home to me.
Jo Reed: You could get to the other side.
Robert Battle: I could get to the other side. You know, sometimes my Chopin solos missed a few pages, you know, and I'd just sort of end wherever I could and get up and bow. People said, "I thought that didn't sound like the end of the piece." <laughter> Anyway, it's true and I'm not making it up.
Jo Reed: Now, you were the head of your own company called Battleworks.
Jo Reed: Can you just briefly talk about the movement from dancer to choreographer to heading your own company?
Robert Battle: Mm hm. In most things that I tried to do, even as-- I started martial arts, for instance. Then I would teach the neighborhood children, my friends, because I wasn't happy unless I was teaching it. I think, at the heart of all of this is the teacher in me, you know?Â And I barely knew what I was doing in martial arts but I would get ten people together and I would teach them martial arts. And so there's a through line there. So, even as a dancer, I was interested in choreography because I was also interested in pulling things out of dancers. Even when I was a student at Juilliard, I would work with a couple of friends of mine and I would make up movements and I was always interested in being in the front of the room, not just in the room. And even when I was younger than that, as a child, my mother had to sit me down one day and say, you know, "You can't boss your friends around. They're not your subjects, they're your friends." Because she overheard one of my friends outside of her bedroom window, because we used to make little clubhouses out of wood, but I figured that the clubhouse needed a captain of the clubhouse and then my friend, he could be the co-captain and the rest- everybody had- we had- one was a chauffeur who would push me around in a shopping cart, you know, so that I had business that I had to do and they would push me down the street. One time, they pushed me over. I think it was intentional but they say that it was an accident. Anyway, I'm investigating.
Jo Reed: That's so funny.
Robert Battle: And so what happened is she overheard him say, when I went in to use the restroom, say to the other friends, "You know, we don't need no boss. I don't know why he always wants to be the boss." So she overheard and that's when she sat me down and said, "Robert..." Well, here I am. <laughter> And so, in a way, going from dancer, I was dancing with the Parsons Dance Company and I was always still creating in hotel rooms, wherever I could. So I was always still making things and David saw that and David allowed me to choreograph on the company so I was dancing and choreographing for a little while. And that started to take over. Once Sylvia Waters, who's the head of Ailey II, since 1974, since the beginning of the second company, and she saw my work and, well, she saw my work because I kept sort of pushing it on her. "Please come and see my work, please see my work." And she saw it on the Parsons Company and then gave me my first way into the Ailey Company, my real way in, by commissioning me to do a work in 1999. And so as that started to grow and then Judith Jamison commissioned me to do work, my first work on the main company was called Juba. That moved me into the choreography started to take over and so then I stopped dancing and I started my own company, Battleworks. And, from there, just sort of progressed and you never know who's watching you. I mean, I would have never- people asked me, "Did you ever think this would happen?" I said, "Absolutely not," you know?Â Some people like to say, "Yeah, well, I always dreamed of this moment." No, I did not dream of this moment and I'm pretty, you know, I have a pretty healthy imagination and a healthy ego but I just never pictured it. But I think there were people watching and here I am. That's why I always tell students, "You never know who's watching you."
Jo Reed: The vision has to change. If one is a dancer, you're basically concerned about your steps clearly in conjunction with the other performers. Whereas, the choreographer has to think of the entire stage.
Jo Reed: And then the artistic director has to think of the entire season and the seasons to come.
Robert Battle: Yes. Yes. You do. You have to always be a few steps ahead. And that's something I think you grow used to as a choreographer is being in a not empty space, a space with dancers and sometimes an empty space but being able to re-imagine that space takes a little bit of being sort of ahead of yourself. E ven when I'm sort of dealing with the dancers, you know, I'm always watching them and thinking which way are they gonna go?Â Either with their personalities or how are they feeling emotionally and always trying to be a little bit a step ahead so that you can lead, otherwise you can't if you're trailing. And so that's just a part of the way I think movement is. To be a dancer, I mean, we always say, "Stay in the moment" but we also contradict ourselves when we teach and talk about dance because we say, "You have to be in the moment but, in a way, you always have to, like driving, think ahead." You know what I mean?Â Because, eventually, you're going to run into a stop light or a corner that you have to turn or whatever so you always have to have in your mind that I'm where I am but what is the next step, you know?Â So that, to me, is inherent in what we do and how we learn.
Jo Reed: Well, part of what you're doing as the next step is the New Directions Choreography Lab. Tell me about it. It seems fascinating.
Robert Battle: Oh, that, you know, I'm very proud of that program and what it's already doing. For me, it's something I talked about awhile ago and just talking about the need for young -- well, not young choreographers to have the- and this will sound funny, the opportunity to fail. Meaning that, not everything that you create will be a masterpiece or even a good work but the exploration of invention is critical to a creative person's development. And I find that, what happens, is, as we have less and less companies that are thriving, what happens is that sometimes the choreographer is stretched in so many directions just to make ends meet that the idea of process is less and less. So then the choreographer has to survive in the field sometimes by continuing to sort of do the same thing because the idea of taking big risks becomes too risky.
Jo Reed: It can be a career killer.
Robert Battle: Yeah. Everything is a big commission and it's going, like, do or die and I'm going, no, well, "what if the choreographer was supported to just be in the space with dancers that they were not paying and just say, you know, I've always wanted to go in this different direction." I want to try it out and not have it based on product because I think that's something in our culture that has been- the imbalance of it being always about product, product, product and just sort of held together with airplane glue, you know?Â And so this is wonderful because four choreographers are chosen each year, two per semester. They work with the students of the Ailey School and they always have with that, they're paired with a creative advisor, so someone in the field who's been around and can sort of be an eye for them and sort of keep them honest.
Jo Reed: Someone from the company?
Robert Battle: No.
Jo Reed: Not necessarily.
Robert Battle: And the thing about that is, often, as we get more successful as choreographers, we get more and more lonely, you know?Â In the sense that no one will tell you truth because you're the boss. And so, to have another eye or someone to say, "You know, maybe if you think about this." Or when you write books, you have editors. We don't have that in dance, you know?Â We sort of just have to trust and wait to read about it in the paper. And I don't think that that's a great tool for learning and growing. And so this is another way of looking at it. So they get seven weeks, which is almost unheard of, to create. I don't tell them, you know, "You have to have this much material." If they want to work on a phrase, some of them, if that's what they want to do, that's what they need to do, you know?Â Bsut the benefit is two-fold because it also benefits the dancers of the Ailey school, you know?Â We have a BFA program. The school is extensive and extremely important and so they get a chance to work with choreographers who are now making work and so that's a part of networking and knowing that language, that little dance between choreographer and dancer, is very important. Sometimes you don't learn that until you leave an institution and then, all of a sudden, you have this job and, like, how do I communicate with this choreographer?Â What do they need and how do you do that?Â That's a very particular thing to be able to do. I remember having to learn on the job.
Jo Reed: And so unique to dance.
Robert Battle: Yes. So unique to dance, right, right. Because you don't have just, you know, your notes in front of you and you go home and sort of practice that way. It's so much about community and knowing how to navigate that is important and I think this is an opportunity for the young dancers to learn that. So it's really, I think, important in some of the ways that we need to look at how do we support creative people now. What do they need now to make good work?Â And then, of course, that will affect, eventually, what we see on the stage for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Jo Reed: I find it interesting that you're not just making this available to emerging choreographers but it's also for mid-career choreographers?
Robert Battle: Yes. Yes. Because sometimes they're left out of the conversation, you know?Â There are all of these programs or funding or whatever it is for emerging. You hear that word a lot, emerging choreographers, emerging choreographers. And then, at the other end of the spectrum, there are the established choreographers. And so, often, there's a place for them.
Jo Reed: The master.
Robert Battle: Yeah. Yeah. There's funding, oh, well, look at their body of work, of course, give them that. Oh, they need space, give them that. And I'm not saying that we just have all this wealth but I am saying that the mid-career choreographer sometimes is lost in the middle. And so I think we have to look at that as a field in how we're addressing that. I think also, too, it's really important that more and more we learn as a dance community how to support each other and not be threatened by that I think we're constantly complaining about not having enough outside support. And I think that that may be true but how can we support each other in new ways?Â How can we look at ways that will really benefit the entire field?Â How can we come together around this thing that we love, which is dance?Â And that's a way of hopefully influencing other people to take a look at that.
Jo Reed: And I wonder, was that percolating in the back of your mind by bringing Paul Taylor in and using his piece, Arden Court, for your first season?
Robert Battle: Yeah. Yes, yes. I'm really looking at building these alliances, you know?Â I'm trying to say something that really has to do with my upbringing, in a way. That's why this fits so well. I mean, I was raised by my first great aunt and uncle because my birth mother was in a situation where she couldn't raise me. And so, at three weeks old, my great aunt and uncle took me in, bowlegged and all of that. And they got me braces for my legs and so I could stand up straight eventually and now here I am standing on this precipice. And then their daughter, my cousin, is the one who I refer to when I've been talking to you about my mother and so there's something about the spirit of that. I have a lot of gratitude about things that have happened positive for me in my life and I owe it to that moment of generosity. So I think that generosity that I have comes out of that, my wanting to teach. If I'm learning something, I don't feel comfortable in it unless I'm passing it on to someone or someones. It's a part of who I am.
Jo Reed: Finally, three wishes.
Robert Battle: Three wishes.
Jo Reed: For dance or for the company.
Robert Battle: Oh, wow. Well, one wish is that we continue to expand, that we're only limited by imagination, that the sky is the limit. I don't know if I just said two wishes in one. Let's see, that I continue to make work that is meaningful for the dancers and the audience but, more importantly, meaningful for me. Also, that somehow, when I'm ready to do the little side step that Ms. Jamison has done, that I've left some kind of legacy that leaves the company better than it was when I came in and that it is continuing to inspire people, that somehow all of these things that I'm talking about, the choreography lab, that some day one of those choreographers says, you know, "I owe a lot to that choreography lab for illuminating something in me that I didn't know was there." But also for the dancers or somebody to say that, I think, for me, is my greatest wish.
Jo Reed: Robert Battle, thank you and congratulations on a magnificent beginning.
Robert Battle: Thank you.
Jo Reed: That was Robert Battle, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey Ailey American Dance Theater. The company has just begun its national tour; to see if the company is coming to a city near you, go to alvinailey.org and click on calendar.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from I Been 'Buked
arranged by Hall Johnson
Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel
arranged by: James Miller
Fix Me, Jesus
arranged by: Hall Johnson
Processional/Honor, Honor, Wade in the Water, Sinner Man
Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham
All adapted and arranged by: Howard A. Roberts
All from Revelations and used courtesy of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U -- just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. Next week, the director Stanley Nelson discusses his film, Freedom Riders.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.