In the last five years, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s annual performances have become a highlight for dance and performing arts lovers. But for growing numbers of Miami-Dade schoolchildren and aspiring young artists, the troupe has become something more: a source of pride, inspiration and hope as the company builds its connections to Miami.
That is largely due to artistic director Robert Battle, a graduate of New World School of the Arts raised in Liberty City, who is strengthening connections between the world-famous troupe he began leading in 2011 and the city that, in many ways, still drives and inspires him.
“It feels so cathartic when we’re there that I thought it would be great to be there longer and have more of a presence,” Battle said from Washington, D.C., where the troupe was performing at the Kennedy Center on the tour that will bring them to the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts Thursday through Sunday. “It’s connected to that feeling of giving back, and it feels direct in Miami because it’s so connected to my roots.”
In addition to their regular shows, the Ailey troupe will do weeklong residencies at Charles Drew Middle School in Liberty City and South Dade Senior High School in Homestead. Ailey dancers, including New World School of the Arts graduate Jamar Roberts, will teach master classes at New World and the Arsht Center. On Friday morning, the company will give its first performance just for Miami-Dade public school students, with more than 2,000 being bused in for the show (much like the field trip that enabled Battle to see the company for the first time when he was 14). A number of them will be graduates of Ailey Camp, the summer program for middle school students that teaches discipline and self-esteem along with jazz and modern dance, also in its fifth year in Miami.
For the 21 aspiring girl dancers in the Revelations Residency at Charles Drew, learning firsthand from the Ailey company is a powerful experience. One recent morning session, led by former Ailey dancer Nasha Thomas-Schmitt, included a short technique class and practicing the yearning I Wanna Be Ready solo from Alvin Ailey’s famed gospel dance Revelations. But Thomas-Schmitt demands more than even that intense physical effort. The girls add “focus” and “inspiration” to a list of words that represent dance to them, from “passion” and “discipline” to “streets” and “Beyonce.” They work on a poem and choreographing a dance. They discuss a biography of Ailey, with Thomas-Schmitt drawing connections to his life and theirs; he went to church on Sundays, was raised by a single mother, discovered dance on a school field trip.
“The important thing for them is to look at this man and see parallels in their own life,” Thomas-Schmitt says. “A lot of these young people are told they can’t do things. … We give them a platform to have a voice and be heard.”
The parallels these girls feel to the company’s current director are even more powerful. He grew up in their neighborhood. And they are all the more impressed by what he’s done because he has brought that success home to them.
“It makes me feel proud to be from Miami,” says eighth-grader Taelor Dalton, 13. “Knowing that someone from here who became famous in New York, that he’s remembering where he came from and trying to give something back in dance.”