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Q&A: Alvin Ailey’s Robert Battle on coming home and art as a political act

Miami native Robert Battle is back home this week as the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the famed dance company that first brought African American dancers to the mainstream dance stage. The Adrienne Arsht Center has commissioned him in celebration of their 10th anniversary. 

Founded in 1958 on the brink of the civil rights movement and inspired by Alvin Ailey’s upbringing in Texas, the company’s repertoire includes gospel music, spirituals, and the blues.

Artistic Director Robert Battle. Credit: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Artistic Director Robert Battle. Credit: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Thursday night was the world premiere of Battle’s piece Awakenings, just a few miles from where he grew up. He first saw the company perform in person at Jackie Gleason Theater on Miami Beach at a performance for students — a transformative experience for the Liberty City native who had fallen in love with the arts, but wasn’t sure how far he could take that.

When the curtain went up, “There was a reflection of all of us,” he said, referring to his mostly black classmates. “There was a sense that I belonged in the theater that day.”

We spoke with Robert Battle about coming home and the intersection between art and politics. (This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

What was it like for you to see Alvin Ailey perform here in Miami?

It was extraordinary. One of the reasons that Alvin Ailey founded the company was because the opportunities to see African Americans on the concert dance stage were not there in the way they should be.

Growing up here and having this company come through town was amazing. I’d first seen the company, like a lot of young students, via video tapes, and never seen the company live. To see the Ailey company live and in person, to see dancers who resembled me, showed me what possibility was all about.

Especially seeing Revelations [the company’s signature piece, it] really sort of connected the dots between the history of African Americans in this country, the trials and tribulations, and the use of music and art to wake up the consciousness of a nation. A lot of [Revelations] has to do with the civil rights movement. The spirituals, the poetry, the eloquent speeches — you know, I think the arts have always been a part of change and social justice.

What kind of role has the Alvin Ailey company played in drawing attention to social issues?

Through the arts, there’s always been protests and always been a kind of urgency about the issues of the day. The Ailey Company plays a huge role, not just because of the performances that we do but because of the work we do in the community.

Our arts and education program, our outreach programs, all of that plays a part in the magnitude of this company and I think the company plays a huge role, especially as we see the performing arts taken out of the public school system. Performing arts really broaden the imagination. Young people who are not able to express what’s in their own imagination and hearts, I think it’s quite dangerous. We have a special role in making sure young people are exposed to possibility.

The new work in the repertory by choreographer Rennie Harris [is set to] house gospel and has to do with the issues of police brutality — it has to do with transcendence. It’s about social justice, but it’s really about moving from darkness to light. The choreographer’s mother passed away as he was starting to make the work. A lot of this work has to do with transcendence, with infinity. Works like that are extremely important for audiences.

Having a piece in the repertoire that addresses police brutality is very political. Have you gotten any backlash to that?

It’s inevitable… That’s what art is supposed to be, it’s supposed to be provocative, it’s supposed to make you think. We want to give the power to the people who are experiencing the art to have their own sense of what they’re seeing and how it relates to their lives. It leaves room for people to take from it what they will.

We’re all political in some ways. The thing that’s important about Revelations, although it’s about the experience of African Americans in this country, it’s also a very American story. Revelations is a masterpiece because no matter where you’re from, whatever your background… people can relate to the work. It is a personal expression that speaks to the universal. I think that’s what this company is about.

The Company with Artistic Director Robert Battle, Associate Artistic Director Masazumi Chaya, and Rehearsal Director and Guest Artist Matthew Rushing. Credit: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
The Company with Artistic Director Robert Battle, Associate Artistic Director Masazumi Chaya, and Rehearsal Director and Guest Artist Matthew Rushing. Credit: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

This run is the world premiere of your first piece since taking over as artistic director. What does it mean to do that here, in your hometown?

I think it is more about the necessity of coming home, the importance of remembering how you started out. That can happen just in walking down the streets you grew up in, remembering your innocence. It’s so easy to become jaded. It’s not an easy life, being a director, being an artist. Anytime I come home it reminds me of that young self who was eager and ambitious and excited about what the future would hold. It gives you some perspective on how far you’ve gone. The Adrienne Arsht Center didn’t exist when I was still living in Miami. That area was a little bit empty. To be commissioned for their 10th anniversary celebration is really extraordinary.

[When I’m back] I return to that young self, I return to my foundation, so when I leave again, I take all of that with me.

It’s wonderful that my mother would be in the audience, that at my first world premiere since I took over five years ago, so many of my teachers would be in the audience, so many people who drove me to classes or saw me dance somewhere in the city when I was just starting out.

How does your Miami upbringing reflect in your work?

I think that’s why my choices are eclectic. I’ve always been interested in lots of different things. Different language, different styles of music. I think the soundtrack playing in my head is always interesting because I was always encouraged that way and I was always surrounded by it. Even in terms of cuisine, I’ve always been interested in stepping outside my comfort zone. Being outside my comfort zone is comforting to me, and I think that’s reflected in the choices you see on the stage, from Rennie Harris [who does a lot of hip hop] to a work I created called “No Longer Silent,” about a composer who died in a concentration camp in 1942. That dance is about so many voices, especially during the Nazi regime, that were silenced. “No Longer Silent” is a way for me to give voice to the voiceless.

What did the arts mean to you growing up in Liberty City, a part of the city that has long been marginalized?

I felt that the arts was just a way to expand my imagination. There have always been issues in underserved communities. Often we say that at-risk young people are at risk because they’re underserved. It’s not a Liberty City problem, it’s a problem in this country. You have neighborhoods that are often forgotten and the notion of improving the neighbourhood is to make it so that people who don’t live in the neighborhood can’t survive in the neighborhood. It [creates a] sense of hopelessness.

When I was little, at least we had school music class, things that sparked our creativity. I am certain that having those things not easily accessible is a big part of the hopelessness that we often see in underserved communities.

[The Alvin Ailey Company does] the best we can to make sure that [communities] have access to what I believe can be transformative. That’s the best we can do. We’re not a political entity. We focus on what Alvin Ailey said, [which is that] dance comes from the people and should always be delivered back to the people.

What do you miss about Miami?

It’s just being home. I miss the home cooking. My mother and my Aunt Bernice are some of the best cooks in the world.

You can’t ignore the weather. I miss a great Miami rain. There’s just something about it. There’s something about it that’s really quite beautiful.