Revelation

A scene from Alvin Aliley American Dance Theater's signature piece, Revelations. Picture: Christopher Duggan

New York's Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, widely regarded as the finest contemporary dance company on the planet, return to Birmingham Hippodrome after an absence of six years and Diane Parkes has been talking to its Artistic Director Robert Battle who was inspired to dance, when as a small boy, he saw the company he now leads . . .

 

WHEN Robert Battle was a young boy growing up in a tough neighbourhood in Miami he went to see a show performed by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It was a turning point for the youngster as he suddenly realised he wanted to dance.

Now artistic director of that very same company and a leading figure in the international dance world, the achievement is all the more dramatic because Robert was born bow-legged and spent months of that childhood with his legs in braces.

“I still have an image of my face sitting in that audience,Robert Battle” recalls Robert during a visit to Birmingham’s Hippodrome Theatre where Alvin Ailey will be performing on September 23-4 as part of a UK tour.

“We were bussed to see the company in Miami and I had a real sense that everything I had learned as a kid, going to church and something about the poetry of our past, was there through dance – I just opened up. I knew I wanted to do something like that.”

Robert Battle, artistic director of the company that inspired him to dance

Fortunately the days in braces were past and Robert was able to follow his dream. Having set his sights on becoming a dancer, Robert first trained at Miami’s New World School of the Arts and then at the prestigious Juilliard School. After graduating he performed and choreographed with New York based Parsons Dance Company before founding his own Battleworks Dance Company in 2002.

It was here he came to the attention of the Alvin Ailey company and its then artistic director Judith Jamison. AAADT had gone from strength to strength since its foundation by Ailey in the late 1950s and was at the forefront of a movement to explore African-American experience through dance. Ailey had asked Judith to take over the company in 1989 and in 2010 she stepped down and, in turn, asked Robert to lead it.

“When Judith Jamison first said ‘the company’s yours’ in 2010 I was reduced to that child again and remembering that moment when this company had made such a difference to me,” Robert recalls. “I think about how that child would think about me now. I was this timid little boy and I didn’t like to talk in front of people because I had a really high pitched voice at the time so I was really shy. What I’m doing now is completely the opposite of what I thought of myself as then. That boy would go ‘what are you doing up there?’

“When I look back I think this could never havepas de deux happened. Remembering that makes me ready to try new things and think ‘what have I got to lose?’ because in my life I’ve already won.”

Knowing the heritage of AAADT from his own childhood experiences, Robert was keen to develop the company while ensuring it remained true to its roots.

“When I started people said ‘so now you’ll change the company’ and I thought ‘no – it’s already set up to be past, present and future’. Alvin Ailey did that by making one of the first modern dance repertory companies.

Akua Noni Parker and Jamar Roberts in Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain Pas de Deux. Picture: Paul Kolnik

 And Judith Jamison would always tell me ‘stay true to your singular voice and be true to yourself – I chose you because I know you will do what is necessary.’ And that is what I have tried to do, to trust the things I feel passionate about and how I see the company.”

Those decisions have seen Robert working with a host of interesting and sometimes surprising choreographers to ensure AAADT continues to create new and exciting work. Birmingham audiences will see two programmes including Exodus by hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris, Open Door, a Cuban-inspired Afro-Latin jazz piece by Ronald K Brown, tango-inspired Piazzola Caldera by Paul Taylor and After the Rain Pas de Deux set to music by Arvo Part and created by Christopher Wheeldon who is best known for his contemporary ballet choreography.

Both programmes finish with AAADT’s most famous work Revelations, created by Ailey in 1960 and set to traditional spirituals.

With Black History Month just a few days away in October, Robert believes companies like his have a role to play in ensuring the past remains a part of our present cultural identity.

“It’s important that we look at the issues of the day in the context of the past and that we see how far we have come but also how far we haven’t come,” he says. “It gives us some idea of where we want to go in the future. I try to make sure that the choices I make reflect that importance of social justice, of making sure that our voices are heard in whichever way we can.

“So for example Exodus is actually looking at the issues around police brutality, communities and the things we’ve been seeing in the news of late - Rennie Harris wanted to take a look at that. The dancers start in regular clothing in jeans and whatnot and by the end, bit by bit, they return to the stage in all white. So thtangoere is a catharsis and a sense of transcendence in that work. I think Exodus shows that the company is not just about being seen but also about being heard. Exodus is a hip-hop work so you see our dancers doing hip-hop which might be unexpected to some people but hip-hop is such a celebration of life and it’s also very much in the ‘now’ in so many aspects of pop culture. The company started as a way of providing opportunities to black dancers who were often left out of the concert dance world - that was the impetus and it’s still important that we find new ways to express ourselves through dance.

“And when we tour internationally we are taking those ideas to other audiences. I officially took over the company while we were in Russia and it was fascinating to see how people responded to our work and particularly Revelations there. I felt so far away from home but then Revelations started and people were clapping in the audience and tapping their feet and cheering - you would have thought you were back home in a Baptist church.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theaters Linda Celeste Sims in Paul Taylors Piazzolla Caldera. Picture: Paul Kolnik

 "It was completely immediate – as if they had been waiting for that moment. The notion that we can celebrate our humanity is not just a talking point, it’s true. That was a real eye-opening moment for me, a window into the history of the company. It’s really powerful.”

And Robert is determined to keep that history moving forward.

“I really want to keep expanding the appetite for that sense of wonder, that sense of being on the precipice of discovery, of challenging the dancers and the audiences to go in different directions. I’ve done a little bit of that so far but want to open our arms as wide as possible, to never become a museum piece. As a company we need to make sure we honour the past but also go boldly into the future.”

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs at Birmingham Hippodrome on Sept 23-24. For ticket information contact 0844 338 5000 and www.birminghamhippodrome.com

 

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