“It makes me think that no matter what your background you can make it,” says Jazmine Edgecomb, 14, also in eighth grade. “If someone from New York came to me and said, ‘What’s Miami have?’ I can finally say, ‘Don’t say I can’t make it. Because Robert Battle came from here.’ ”
For Battle, inspiring girls like Jazmine and Taelor and confronting memories of his own struggles in Miami are both reasons to return. A choir singer and piano student before he started dancing in Northwestern High School’s arts magnet program — which many of the Charles Drew dance students will attend — Battle was shy and often bullied. He studied martial arts and put a hammer in the dance bag he carried walking to school through some of Liberty City’s worst neighborhoods. That tension is still visible in his choreography for dances like Strange Humors, an intense, symbiotic male duo the troupe will perform in Miami, and The Hunt, a fiercely bellicose dance for six men.
But Battle’s memories of the mentors who fostered him at Northwestern and New World are just as powerful as those of isolation and fearfulness. In bringing Ailey’s resources to Miami, he is both proclaiming his triumph and assuring others they can succeed too.
“It’s yes, me, and you can too,” Battle says. “All those memories are there rooted in Miami. … The fears, the tenaciousness, the curiosity — I didn’t leave it behind. Something about coming home again is not only invigorating but totally necessary. I think when you lose those roots and turn your back on even the painful part, you in essence lose yourself. I can’t do that and be a leader for anyone. So it’s both selfish and selfless.”
The Ailey company will perform several new pieces in Miami that show how Battle is beginning to put his stamp on the troupe. One is Petite Mort, by European contemporary ballet choreographer Jiri Kylian, a witty, sexy dance that attracted Battle in part because he thought it would let the dancers show a new side of themselves — and to put their own, weightier stamp on the neo-classical choreography. Another is From Before, an abstract modern dance by iconoclast Garth Fagan, which drew Battle for the way it confounded assumptions about the Jamaican choreographer’s work.
“When you hear about [Fagan’s] background, that has expectations around it,” Battle says. “I feel he’s defied those expectations by being himself.”
Jamar Roberts, who will teach one of three master classes led by Ailey dancers this week, didn’t have Battle’s struggles. A prodigious natural talent and imposing figure who joined the troupe just over a year after graduating from New World’s high school in 2000, Roberts has been one of the company’s stars. But he still feels connected to his hometown.
“I do feel a sense of community and almost responsibility to show the younger kids in Miami there’s something more out there,” Roberts says. “I’m sure they all have their own dreams. But I think it’s important to have someone in front of them who’s gone from point A to point B.”