When Robert Battle became artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2011, he was already an experienced choreographer who had made dances for his own company as well as the Ailey troupe and other groups.
But when he began last fall to make Awakening, his first piece since taking over the storied troupe, he found that fully stepping into the artistic shoes of founder Alvin Ailey, who started the company in 1958, was still a daunting experience.
As a young dance student at Miami’s Northwestern Senior High School, Battle, 43, was inspired by seeing the Ailey troupe perform its beloved classic Revelations. And he’s highly conscious of the weight of tradition he carries as the third director of a company that is a powerful expression of African-American culture and achievement, and one of the most influential institutions in the dance world.
“The dance has so much to do with my feelings around a sense of calling, of standing on Alvin’s shoulders,” Battle said during a recent visit to Miami. “Wondering what it was like for him leading what became this huge organization. The responsibility and the glory of it.
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“There’s that sense of being lost but found, that constant renewal, that sense of feeling like you’re flying without a net. And sometimes being completely grounded. When I first saw Revelations, it was an awakening. After seeing it you’ll never be the same. It’s always going to be a part of you. That’s what I’m trying to get at.”
That Awakening, which the Ailey troupe will perform when it opens its four-day run at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday, was commissioned for the center’s 10th anniversary adding another layer of meaning to the piece. (It premiered in the Ailey company’s season at New York City Center in December.)
“It was an honor,” Battle says. “This is where I’m from. So I’m very excited that it’ll be here. It’s a full circle moment.”
The Arsht Center has highlighted Miami’s connection with Battle in forging a close relationship with the company. The center hosts Ailey Camp, a summer program for middle school students, and a number of community activities during the company’s regular Miami visits. This year they include residencies at the Lenora B. Smith and Holmes elementary schools; master classes led by Battle and company members; an audition for the Ailey School in New York; and a free performance for Miami-Dade students. On Monday Battle will speak at the Café at Books & Books at the Arsht Center about his Miami roots and a new children’s book about his life, My Story, My Dance; Robert Battle’s Journey to Alvin Ailey.
Arsht Center president John Richard says that sponsoring Awakening was a natural next step.
“We’ve forged a great relationship that’s gone beyond the season … and we wanted to be there with him creating the first new work he would do as artistic director,” Richard says. “To bring a young organization like the Arsht Center into a role to create a new work for a company that is an ambassador for the United States and a hometown hero like Robert was a no-brainer. Now we get to see it as our very own. This feels like family and we treat each other as such.”
Battle’s fears about creating Awakening were calmed once he began rehearsing with the dancers.
“I said, ‘it’s my turn now,’ and they all applauded,” he says.
The work’s central figure is Jamar Roberts, a powerful, fluid mover who is one of the troupe’s most compelling performers. Roberts says he and the other dancers were happy to finally get into the studio with their director.
“Anything he wants to do we’re on board,” Roberts says. “If he says jump off the bridge we’re like, ‘OK.’ Everyone wants him to succeed and wants the company to succeed.”
Roberts emerges from an embattled group in Awakening. “I’m part of a community of people in distress, but I’m chosen and pulled out … exalted in some way,” he says.
“There is a large part of dancing his work where you feel you’re under attack, stressed by situations outside your control,” Roberts says. “But there is a type of relief you get in bashing yourself into the floor. There’s been times he’s asked me, ‘Why do you do it so hard?’ And I say because I have to, because it feels best to go 110 percent rather than hold back.”
Roberts’ shared background with Battle helps him understand that sense of stress. Both men come from poor Miami-Dade neighborhoods where being a boy who wore tights could be frightening, and both studied dance in high school at the New World School of the Arts. Battle, who grew up in Liberty City, was so afraid of being attacked while walking to school he used to carry a hammer in his dance bag.
Roberts, who comes from a football-loving family in Goulds, says that pressure emerges in their art.
“It comes from years and years of pent-up aggression,” he says. “I grew up in some pretty [crappy] situations that turned me into a person who needs to get it out in dance.
“Maybe he’s built up an extra element because he’s had to be in leadership roles that are really stressful. That’s the blues, growing up with that fear and sadness, and you don’t even realize it until you’re out of it.”
The troupe will dance several other recent premieres this week: Exodus, by hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris, inspired partly by the police killings of black men that have been in the news; Paul Taylor’s Piazzolla Caldera, a sensual, emotionally fraught dance to tango music by Astor Piazzolla; and No Longer Silent, a 2007 piece by Battle commemorating composer Erwin Schulhoff, who died in a Nazi concentration camp. Contemporary ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain Pas de Deux and former Ailey artistic director Judith Jamison’s A Case of You are also on the program.
Of particular interest to Miami will be Ronald K. Brown’s Open Door, the sixth work he’s made for the Ailey troupe, which premiered in New York in December. Set to music by Cuban-American jazz composer Arturo O’Farrill (son of renowned Cuban musician Chico O’Farrill) and his Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, a leader in musical exchanges to Cuba, Open Door is inspired by Brown’s visits to the island, most recently to create a piece for the Havana-based Malpaso dance company. In Open Door, Brown, known for his innovative blend of African and contemporary styles, uses dances for Santeria gods such as Chango, Ogun and Elegba, and even some Cuban-style salsa.
Battle says Open Door shows a new side to the choreographer of spiritually inspired dances such as 1999’s Grace, a popular Ailey staple.
“He’s very playful in this work,” Battle says. “He shows another, looser side of himself that’s quite fun to watch.”
Like Battle, Brown was inspired by seeing the Ailey company as a young boy.
“I saw Ailey in second grade on a school trip, and I understood, wow, I can make dances on real people,” Brown says. “I feel like I can have a dance company because Mr. Ailey had a dance company.”
That the troupe continues to inspire and support new generations of dance artists is in part because of its more than half-century legacy.
“You see the seeds, the ground, the foundation,” Brown says. “That’s the importance of tradition.”
If you go
What: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday (Open Door/A Case of You, Awakening/Revelations).
8 p.m. Friday (Exodus/Piazzolla Caldera/After the Rain, Revelations).
2 p.m. Saturday (Open Door/Case of You, Awakening/Revelations, followed by a Q&A with Robert Battle and Jamar Roberts).
8 p.m. Saturday (Exodus/No Longer Silent/Revelations).
2 p.m. Feb. 21 (Open Door/Case of You, Awakening/Revelations).
Where: Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.
Info: $25 to $120, arshtcenter.org or 305-949-6722.