In 1958 when Alvin Ailey had a vision to bring dance to the people through his newly formed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, he couldn’t have envisioned 2020, and how dancers locked away at home would take to their screens to share their joy of dance with millions and millions of people across the globe – a scope of instant reach that surely would have exceeded even his wildly creative imagination.
Artistic Director at the Ailey company, Robert Battle, is excited about the return to in-person performance in December. He acknowledged, however, that it was hard to talk about the new season without talking about the pandemic.
“We were in the middle of our tour, and it was going well, but of course we had to come home,” he said of the pandemic shutdown that started in the spring of 2020. “It was surreal at that time, and I think made more so because we were doing the very thing that Mr. Ailey would have wanted us to do: to bring dance to the people.”
Battle was encouraged by the dancers’ quick adjustment to a digital platform, sharing that one of the first thing some of them did was simultaneously perform the first part of “Revelations” – a signature work of the company choreographed by Alvin Ailey in 1960 – “I Been ‘Buked” from their homes to a virtual audience. “It was amazing, it was beautiful! And it went viral!” he said.
He added that “it said something deeper to me about the dancers’ instinct to continue to inspire people and to reach people, even if we have to do it apart, we still do it together,” he said of the digital performances that expanded to eventually become known as Ailey All Access, with the whole company coming together to provide content.
Robert Battle is in his tenth year at the helm of the company that was birthed during the Civil Rights Movement and that “celebrates the uniqueness of the African-American cultural experience” while preserving the heritage of American modern dance. Personally selected for the position by star-performer and choreographer Artistic Director Emerita Judith Jamison, herself hand-picked by Alvin Ailey to replace him as artistic director before his untimely passing in 1989, Battle is an acclaimed choreographer who has created many works for the Ailey Company over the past 20 years, and who now continues expand the company’s repertory with works commissioned from a diverse group of established and emerging choreographers.
Two New Works
The new season at New York City Center from December 1 – 19, is highly anticipated by dancers and audience alike. Ticket sales were “through the roof” during the first week of sales – and the company is eager to share two new works that premiered on film during the pandemic, moving them from screen to the stage.
“There’s a work called ‘Holding Space’ by our first Resident Choreographer Jamar Roberts, and a work I created called “For Four” to the music of Wynton Marsalis,” Battle said. The performances will be part of the three-week repertory including Ailey classics such as “Revelations” and the 50th anniversary of “Cry” that was created for Judith Jamison, along with special programs celebrating Battle’s decade of leadership at the company.
Battle says his role is more than a job.
“It’s a blessing. It’s not a job so much – yes, I know technically it is – but I also believe it is a calling,” he said. He gets to choose the dancers when they audition “who, their dream is to dance with the company, and I get to see that dream come to life on stage. That, to me, is the true blessing of what I get to do as an artistic director.”
Battle says as wonderful as the streaming experience was, the dancers can’t wait to be back in person, missing the immediate response they are used to receiving from the audience.
“We feel like what we do well as a company, and why this company has lasted over 60 years, I think it brings people joy,” he said. “It’s about suspending time, for that time you’re in the theater watching the Ailey company.”
Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott likes what they do. In June, the company announced that they had received “an exceptional gift of $20 million” from her. Battle said that the arts not only help people in terms of feeding the soul, but it also feeds the economy. “So when we get a generous gift like that, it helps us not only with what we see on stage, but with the Ailey School; with our Arts in Education programs,” and expanding scholarship opportunities. He also spoke about the Ailey Extension program created specifically to serve the community where anyone at any level of dance ability can come to the Ailey studios (or join online) and find a class at their comfort level.
“It is incredible, it is so rare, but when it happens, it is more than a gift,” he said of Scott’s generosity.
Of the upcoming season, Battle encourages people to come to be inspired, to be uplifted, and to be reminded to always celebrate our common humanity. “That is the Ailey way,” he said.
To view the schedule of performances from December 1 – 19 at New York City Center and to learn more about programs available to the community visit: https://www.alvinailey.org/