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March 14, 2013

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Artistic Director Robert Battle

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Written by: ndigo
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Executive Director of the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, Brett Batterson, welcomes world renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to Chicago for an unprecedented 10 performances, March 8 – 17. Robert Battle returns for his second year as Artistic Director to lead one of the most popular dance companies through a 21-city tour, continuing to inspire and delight audiences with both new, innovative work as well as traditional pieces that have made Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater a staple on the international stage.

Robert Battle – embarks on a 2nd anniversary as helm of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and gives N’Digo an insightful look into his journey.

N’DIGO: How did it feel to be asked to continue the legacy of Alvin Ailey?

RB: I was completely honored to be chosen by Judith Jamison – one of the greatest dancers and artistic directors ever.  There were a couple of distinct honors – To be chosen by her and also to be chosen to lead the company. It is an incredible honor. It still is of course. I felt excited, elated, nervous and happy. It’s just incredible. To know that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is one of the most cultural institutions in the world and certainly what it represents for people everywhere but certainly African Americans made it even deeper than that. So it’s wonderful.

N’DIGO: What characteristics do you think Judith Jamison saw in you to chose you as the 3rd Artistic Director of the company?

RB: She often said that I reminded her of Mr. Ailey. So one can surmise what that can possibly be. I don’t want to put words into her mouth or ideas or thoughts but that was one of the things that both she and the Associate Artistic Director Masazumi Chaya both said.  She felt that I had the sensitivity, strength, the artistic vision and leadership to lead the company.

N’DIGO: There’s an old bible adage that saids  “To whom much is given, much is required”. Describe the task of carrying the torch as Artistic Director of AAADT.

RB: Well it’s true. I think the hardest thing about success is that the expectation, not only from yourself but from others is such – you continue to be successful. And so that’s realistic and unrealistic.  But having said that – the real challenge is trusting one’s gut.  The greatest advice that Judith Jamison gave to me was to trust my singular voice. Even if I had questions or feelings of doubt she always said you can do this. I totally trust the way you’re going to lead the company and how you’re going to broaden the repertory and what you’re going to bring to it. So trust your singular voice is something she always said. And so that’s the real challenge. The challenge is trusting myself that I have what I need to do what I’m doing. Lacking no essential characteristics. That’s the challenge. But all that is to say that I’m not alone. The dancers and certainly the dancers that’s been here a while. The administration, the Associate Artistic Director (who of course danced with the company) and was Alvin’s friend. All of these people who knew him and loved him. Sylvia Waters who was the Artistic Director for the second company (Ailey II) from 1974 to last year. People like that I’m surrounded by. So it’s a group effort.

N’DIGO: So it’s deeper than a community – it’s a family. You have people you can talk to and trust. 

RB:  Yes! Absolutely! Which is sort of rooted in the African American tradition of family. And that’s what I think what makes the company so strong is that we’re still rooted in that notion of family. That’s an important part of what you see on stage.

N’DIGO: What changes have you made to the company’s repertoire and do you plan on making any more changes?

RB: I don’t know if I see them as changes. They’re additions.  The works that are in the repertory remain in the repertory. So I don’t see them as changes in so much as adding my own taste to the repertory. Meaning that when I added the work of Paul Taylor or when I commissioned Rennie Harris to do a new work called “Home” which is a house-gospel work inspired by people living with HIV. There are things that I’m doing that are certainly my own interests but I think very much in mind with the mission of the company. So I just want to continue to expand on that and to continue to challenge the audience and the dancers alike with new and interesting ways of seeing the company but maintaining the heart and soul of it.

N’DIGO: Who or what influenced you to dance or to the arts?

RB: Oh I would say the people who raised me. My great-aunt and uncle- (who) took me in when I was a baby. I was bow legged and needed braces and all of that. In 1979 my aunt passed away and her daughter Dessie Home helped raise me. She was into the performing arts and was an English teacher that taught drama. She had a performing arts group called the Afro Americans who did song and poetry relating to the African American experience. So I watched them rehearse. She played piano for the church and I grew up going to church and hearing her practice and sing in the choir. So I was surrounded by artistic expression. Even growing up in church watching and hearing the preacher was somewhat like an artistic expression in a sense of the cadence of the voice, the gesture and trance in terms of the way that it sort of captured the essence of whatever story or biblical passage and also relating it to everyday life. So that’s somewhat of an artistic expression in a way, the stuff of making great dancers and great literature. It’s story telling in that way. In fact all of those things contributed to me wanting to express myself artfully.

N’DIGO: How has life prepared you for this journey?

RB: From the beginning my upbringing of having people – from my birth mother who didn’t raise me but made sure I was in capable hands of my great aunt and uncle (who didn’t raise me) and their cousin who took over that role of mother. I feel that I always understood what extended family meant and people who cared beyond what seem to be their role. That sense of outreach was embedded into me early on to my consciousness. I believe that’s the reason why I do what I do. That’s the reason why I’m in this position. It’s not for me just dancing, but it’s really is about life, about sharing, inspiring and bringing other people along.

It’s the wonderful thing about the Ailey Company because yet it’s the main company (which is the most important) because that’s the beginning of it all. But also our school, our second company (Ailey II) our outreach programs and arts and education. All of this is a part of what we do and certainly is the reason I am where I am today. Because of that kind of outreach, the way I first saw the company. So I believe all of that has prepared me for this role.

N’DIGO: There are hundreds of dance entities across the world. What sets Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater apart from other companies?

RB: I think the mission of the company. I believe the beginning of the company having started in 1958 by Alvin Ailey (during the time of the Civil Rights Movement) wanted to express the African American traditions and culture in this country through the principles of modern dance. Modern dance being an American invention in a way that he called it the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. And that American part of it is a way of claiming that we are American too. That really is rooted in a social and political statement and we are cultural ambassadors for our country. It is absolutely dance but its so much more in the terms of what the company represent. I think that’s why the company remains relevant. And also when he created Revelations in 1960 who knew it would be one of the most important and often seen dance creations ever made. This personal expression became a universal expression. No matter if we’re across the street or across the ocean that people relate to it. So here we are…

N’DIGO: Yes it’s 2013 and people will be upset if Revelations is not part of the program when they come to see the program.

RB: (Laughs) People will get mad!

N’DIGO: Lastly three words to describe yourself.

RB: Curious, tenacious, and humble.



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