Jordan Levin

Artistic director Robert Battle helps Alvin Ailey troupe leap from history into the present

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Matthew Rushing’s "Odetta"
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Matthew Rushing’s "Odetta"

Robert Battle has been leading the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for four years now. But there are still times the Liberty City-raised artistic director can’t quite believe he’s heading one of the most famous dance troupes in the world.

Like the day last November as he waited in the White House to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom on behalf of the troupe’s late founder, Alvin Ailey, along with Meryl Streep, Stevie Wonder and Tom Brokaw.

“I was the first one up — A for Ailey — and all of a sudden it hit me,” Battle says from the troupe’s New York offices. “I was looking at the president, thinking about Martin Luther King and standing on other people’s shoulders, and the importance of Alvin Ailey to African-Americans, and the shoulders that President Obama stands on.”

“I just thought no, no, no — if Meryl went first and cried I could probably get away with it. But this is not the moment. You’re gonna take this from him, walk back to your seat and try not to trip over Tom Brokaw.”

Those thoughts of responsibility and legacy inspire Battle’s vision for the Ailey troupe, and much of the program the company will dance at Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center for the Performing Arts this week. (The shift to Broward from the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House, where the company has performed each year since 2009, was prompted by scheduling conflicts with the Florida Grand Opera, which is rehearsing at the Ziff this week. An Arsht Center spokeswoman says the Ailey troupe will return next year.)

Perhaps the most ambitious new piece the troupe will dance this week is Odetta, named for a folk singer who was a leader and songstress in the civil rights movement. Battle attended a memorial for her in early 2009 at New York’s Riverside Church, where one of the speakers was Maya Angelou, a longtime idol of Battle’s. “She took [Odetta] off an iconic pedestal and brought this person into focus, who used her voice to motivate and inspire people,” says Battle.

He gave the project to Matthew Rushing, a revered longtime dancer with the company who is now rehearsal director and guest artist. Harry Belafonte, the actor, singer and civil rights leader and a friend of Odetta’s, attended the premiere in New York last December and went backstage to congratulate Rushing and the performers. One of the songs in the dance’s score is Odetta’s version of Bob Dylan’s Masters of War, which is featured prominently in the soundtrack to the film Selma. And the focus on Odetta resonates at a moment when protests over police killings of African-Americans and the dismantling of parts of the Voting Rights Act have again made race and civil rights a potent issue.

“There are so many connections that happened to be timely,” Battle says. “So in a lot of interesting ways this is all connecting to the now.”

The connection to the present is less apparent in Awassa Astrige/Ostrich, a 1932 solo by Asadata Dafora, a dancer, singer, scholar and native of Sierra Leone who came to New York in 1929. Dafora started a dance company and was one of the first to blend African and modern dance — long before choreographers like regular Ailey contributor Ronald K. Brown.

But history has long been important to Battle, who is 42. His mother (really his great-aunt, who adopted him as a baby and raised him) was a teacher and member of an amateur group that performed black songs and poems. He went to high school at Miami’s New World School of the Arts, where dance dean Daniel Lewis emphasized the techniques of foundational modern artists like Martha Graham and Jose Limon.

Battle’s respect for tradition was crystallized when, while in college at the Juilliard School, he talked with a jazz student who had just accompanied a solo Battle had choreographed.

“He asked where does that dance style come from, and I said I just made it up,” Battle says. “As a musician he was so appalled. Jazz musicians know their history, the big band era, the bebop era. He admonished me, he said you need to know where this stuff comes from, whose shoulders you stand on. It really made an impression on me.

“It’s great to look to the future and all those choreographers who are hot right now. But it’s also important that we look back and celebrate those works that have influenced generations. It’s powerful to know that. Too often we forget where we come from, not just in terms of race but in terms of the art form.”

The more recent history of the Ailey company moved Battle to add two other pieces on tap this week. One is Bad Blood, an intense dance of battling couples by Ulysses Dove, an Ailey dancer fostered as a choreographer by the troupe’s founder, who died of AIDS in 1996 at just 49. Dove was one of many African-American choreographers presented by the Ailey company in its 57-year history, providing a platform that has elevated the standing of black modern dance artists. And his physically demanding, emotionally fraught pieces were audience favorites that beautifully suited the Ailey troupe’s dancers and to-the-wall ethos.

“He was part of the movement of pushing the physical boundaries of speed and daring,” Battle says. “There’s a sense of urgency in the movement he was exploring in terms of its relation to human relationships. [Bad Blood] still has that edge — it doesn’t feel like looking back, it feels very much in the present.”

The initial impetus for adding Jacqulyn Buglisi’s Suspended Women was the sudden death of two beloved longtime company crew members, Calvin Hunt and E.J. Corgan, last year. Buglisi is a former dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, the godmother of modern dance whose gutsy technique is integral to the Ailey dancers’ training, and she had taught many of the company’s current members in her many years at the troupe’s school. Battle thought Buglisi’s deep connections with the troupe would be reassuring to the dancers, and that its images of women overcoming challenges throughout history would be inspiring.

“It was a tough time for the company,” he said. “I’d been thinking about Suspended Women, and I said I need to bring this dance to the repertory, it would be a wonderful thing for the company now.”

Among the other dances the Ailey troupe will perform in Broward are Christopher Wheeldon’s pas de deux After the Rain, which joins Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, as another dance by a major contemporary ballet choreographer; a revival of Dutch balletmaker Hans Van Manen’s Polish Pieces, from 1995; Bill T. Jones’ D-Man in the Waters (Part I), another revival; and Aszure Barton’s Lift, a major premiere from last season. As they always do on tour, the company will perform Alvin Ailey’s signature work, the perennially popular Revelations, at each performance.

The renewed debate on civil rights has also prompted new thoughts from Battle about his responsibilities in leading a dance troupe — founded by a black man in segregated 1958 — that has become one of the most successful and popular arts groups in the United States. He remembers going through the violent race riot that exploded in Liberty City in 1980, after the four policemen who killed a black motorcyclist were acquitted, and as a young man in Miami, he was taught to be wary and well-behaved if pulled over by police.

“Things happen just below the boiling point all the time, then they get hot and boil over,” Battle says. “There’s a moment when part of the world says I can’t believe that just happened. And other folks say I believe it, it happens all the time. For me growing up in Liberty City, I was always aware of that.”

He has struggled with how he and the company should respond to incidents like the police killings of unarmed black men in Missouri and New York.

“As an artist I’m always confounded by that conflict,” Battle says. “Should I take a stance politically? Should the company?”

But he has come down, not on art’s potential to protest, but its power to inspire — the way listening to his mother’s poetry group, and seeing the Alvin Ailey company dance for the first time, inspired Battle as a boy.

“There’s a moment in Selma where Martin Luther King has a sense of fear about the march and everything he was up against, and he called Mahalia Jackson and asked her to sing Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” Battle says. “You can motivate, inspire, heal. Alvin Ailey said ‘what I’m trying to do is hold up a mirror to our society so people can see how beautiful they are.’ I remember Maya Angelou saying ‘I’m a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.’ There’s something so powerful in that and in the work that we do. I think it’s our way of taking a stand.”

If you go

What: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

When: 8 p.m. Thursday – Program A: ‘Polish Pieces,’ ‘After the Rain,’ ‘Bad Blood,’ 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday – Program B: ‘Odetta,’ ‘Suspended Women,’ 8 p.m. Saturday – Program A, 3 p.m. Sunday – Program C: ‘Lift,’ ‘Awassa Astrige/Ostrich,’ ‘D-Man in the Waters.’ ‘Revelations’ will be performed at all shows.

Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 Southwest Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale

Tickets: $35 to $95

Info: BrowardCenter.org or 954-462-0222

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