How a bullied kid from Liberty City grew to lead the internationally acclaimed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Artistic director Robert Battle, sitting, with members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Photograph by Andrew Eccles.
Artistic director Robert Battle, sitting, with members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Photograph by Andrew Eccles.

Back when Robert Battle was growing up in Liberty City, after the school kids chased him home, he’d escape up a mango tree.

He used to climb his way into the canopy, crawling along branches until he had a spot overlooking the things that defined his life. Then he’d imagine himself as the world’s most famous dancer. With wind passing through the leaves, he could hear the applause.

“I loved being elevated off the ground when I was trying to imagine my own life being elevated,” said Battle, 45. “It was an elevated existence, because the imagination is such a powerful tool.”

It’s unlikely that the kid sitting up there in the tree could have imagined just how real his hopes would become. After studying at Miami’s New World School of the Arts and The Juilliard School in New York, Battle made it big in 1994 when he danced with the Parsons Dance Company.

Robert Battle: Master of Dance

He has since danced in and choreographed most of the world’s biggest dance companies and festivals. Of Battle’s many accolades, perhaps the most significant came in 2005, when the Kennedy Center declared him among the Masters of African-American Choreography.

All of that would have satisfied the hopes of the kid escaping the bullies. But in 2011, Battle was selected as Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a New York company declared by Congress to be a vital American “cultural ambassador to the world.” He is only the company’s third Artistic Director in its 60-year history.

1 Artistic Director Robert Battle
Robert Battle has been Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since 2011. He is only the third person to have that role in the company's 60-year history. Photography by Andrew Eccles.

Battle returns to his hometown in February, when his company will perform five times over four days at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. For choreographer, Battle tapped fellow Miami native Jamar Roberts, who will debut a blues-inspired work called Members Don’t Get Weary, incorporating music by John Coltrane. The shows conclude with Alvin Ailey’s signature masterpiece, Revelations.

Turning Imagination into Inspiration

Battle will, as usual, find a place to watch from the wings or up in the back, where he likes to see the reactions of the crowd. He also will return to Liberty City, thinking back to the days when he began studying martial arts and carrying himself in a more confident way that kept the bullies from singling him out.

‘When I go home, I go back to the starting place.’

“The kids, still to this day, misunderstand what it means to be a male dancer,” he said. “They focus on the fear that they have of their own sexuality that has always been taboo. When I go home, I go back to the starting place.”

He also hopes that his appearance back home and the story of how he made it will inspire a child today who needs a version of the mango tree to hide. If Battle could talk to that kid?

“Start with your imagination,” he said, “because that is something you don’t have to share with anybody. Picture the thing it is you would love to be doing. If it’s dancing, if it’s playing baseball, whatever — imagine yourself doing it better than anybody in the world. And imagine people delighting in that. When you start to feel that, to understand what it feels like to be respected and to inspire people, that will motivate you to go beyond your fear.”

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

When: February 22-25.

Where: Ziff Ballet Opera House, 1300 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami.

Tickets: arshtcenter.org.