Robert Battle showcases artistic vision in Boston with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Robert Battle, the artistic director for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, is pensive and soft-spoken. He is also leader of one of the most dynamic and recognized cultural institutions in the world.
Battle follows longtime director Judith Jameson as the head of the Ailey company, which has performed to more people in more places than any other dance company on the planet. Jameson was singularly responsible for the transformation of the dance company into a global phenomenon and financial success in recent decades.
Battle — only Ailey’s third artistic director in over 50 years — has his sights on preserving the past while also fostering future innovation and dance stylings for the 30-member, New York-based troupe.
Battle’s decision to retain Ailey’s classic “Revelations” as a element of each performance speaks to giving his audience what they have been fascinated by about Ailey for years. The soulful, expansive dance routine takes its name from the final book of the Bible which employs complex metaphors to convey how the world ends under God’s judgment.
“It’s a masterpiece. The context has so much to do [with why audiences like it] but it is the construct too. It’s a message of hope. Everybody can relate to going through something. They witness this piece and they come to an understanding about something in them that wants to survive…and thrive,” said Battle in an interview with the Banner last week.
“Revelations” was composed in 1960 by Ailey. Its greatness rests in its ability render human adversity and triumph with aggressive physicality and precise, telling emotional verve. It also possesses the power to transcend cultural and political experiences.
“When I was in Russia watching the audience respond to this great work, I was amazed,” said Battle. “Being there in a foreign country and watching people clap to the beat in that huge theater in Moscow was just incredible. That was such a testimony to the power of the work.
“‘Revelations’ changed my life,” he added.
Abandoned by his mother at age 2, Battle by 12 had his sights on the dance world that Alvin Ailey created in the 1950s-1960s. An Ailey presentation of “Revelations” to students at the Miami preforming arts school he was attending captured his artistic sensibility and catapulted him into the world of dance, the prestigious Juilliard School of Music and eventually as Ailey’s director.
As part of the Celebrity Series, Battle will lead the Ailey company into Boston at the Citi Performing Arts Center Wang Theater, from May 1 to May 4.
“He made dance accessible,” Battle said of Ailey, who led the company until his death in 1988 of AIDS-related symptoms. “People could come and have fun and not be intimidated by the music. He did not want it to be a highbrow experience.”
Battle’s tenure since 2011 has conveyed his willingness to wade into the different waters of contemporary dance.
Last year Battle incorporated “Chrona” into the company’s reportoie. Created by famed British director Wayne McGregor, the work ventures into flights of high abstraction and cryptic meaning that is more post-modern than any of Ailey’s work. Ailey is known for finding his home in naturalism, spiritual evolution and African-American mood and memory.
Battle ignores his critics about the decision to take on contemporary dance that appears removed from the Ailey roots.
“They might be completely right about what they are saying about my decision but that doesn’t mean we can’t push the envelope and challenge our audience in different ways,” said Battle.
Battle’s intentions for the Aliey dance company in the future are also steeped in the optimism of Ailey and Jameson.
“I am just glad that I will get to do what I do best and that is to bring good works to audiences … When I think of Mr. Ailey, I think about how he broke down so many walls in the dance world. And when Ms. Jameson left, she handed me a company that was financially successful … and known all over the world,” Battle said. “For me, leading Ailey will be more like an organic … naturally growing thing.”