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The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre
Robert Battle & The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre | photo credit Dario Calmese

Interview with Robert Battle as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre Prepares to Open in Philadelphia

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre embarks on a national tour this month. This weekend, it will be at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia with two separate programs, with ballets by artistic director Robert Battle and signature repertory by Alvin Ailey. In a phone interview earlier this week, Battle talked about the Philadelphia programs and what it took to get back on the road after almost two years.

“It’s been challenging to navigate this,” Battle intimated, “Who knew we had to become quick experts on viruses and transmissibility. We had planned for a three-week run. We were doing relatively fine with very few cases. As it did all over the city, the ability for Omicron to spread so easily, even with all of the precautions, it became untenable, so we canceled the third week.”

The company safely got back in the studios in early January in preparation for their extensive upcoming tour. “The New York performances couldn’t have gone better under the circumstances,” adding, “Even without the third week of shows, I think we managed to inspire people, and the dancers were truly inspired being back in their element on stage.” 

“And, in the last analysis, there is something they receive in real-time that we can’t manufacture as an artistic director or staff,” he acknowledged. “We can give them compliments, and we can give them corrections, but when they are untethered from that and on that stage, and having that love come back across the footlights to them, that’s their lifeforce. And so, it was thrilling, even life-affirming, to be back and feel that support.”

There is always a sense of dance occasion when the Ailey company performs in Philadelphia with many local connections, including Philadelphia-born dancer Judith Jamison, Ailey’s chosen successor as artistic director. Many of Philadanco’s dancers and choreographers became members of the Ailey company. The company last performed here in 2018 for a sold-out run that featured Philadelphia choreographer Rennie Harris’ ‘Lazarus’ based on the life of Alvin Ailey. 

This weekend’s programs feature new works by Battle and repertory classics by Alvin Ailey. “My latest work I made called ‘For Four’ with music by Wynton Marsalis, we had filmed for Ailey All Access (digital platform). l never thought it would be for live performance, but we liked it so much that we decided to put it on the stage.” 

The piece has a political message. Battle goes on, “It says something about what we’re dealing with as people of color. In these inflection moments, we’re reminded of the fragility of democracy. So, For Four is very timely.”

“Mass’ I created for Juilliard in 2004. It is reflective of my being in the church choir. It has an ensemble feeling with the emergence of the solo artist. 

‘Ella’ is a tribute to jazz great Ella Fitzgerald. Battle reminisces, “whose music I was introduced to as a child by my mother and knowing something about her brilliance.” 

In/Side,’ Battle scored to music by Nina Simone, in tribute to “another giant in our culture, not only about her artistry but protest. She used her voice as a weapon for change. I think it’s so important now in this climate that we are in now to hear her voice of resilience, truth, and beauty. 

Love Stories
Love Stories | photo credit Christopher Duggan

Judith Jamison had commissioned Love Stories, set to music by Stevie Wonder, “when we were moving into our first permanent home, The Ailey Dance Center. She commissioned this piece for three choreographers with the theme of our company’s past, present, and future. Judith made the first section about the company’s beginnings when they had to perform in basement studios and funky spaces with no light, except for the light of creativity. She had asked Rennie Harris to do the present (at the time) utilizing street dance and hip-hop to address what was happening in cultural dance. And I did the finale section, and I don’t think she thought that I would eventually be named artistic director.” 

Battle said that for this tour, they also “wanted to pay tribute to our founder Alvin Ailey, so we’re doing ‘Blues Suite,’ the first work he choreographed, for the notable performances at the Y in 1958. As part of his blood memory, ‘Reflections in D’ and excerpts from ‘The River’ and other collaborations Ailey had with jazz master Duke Ellington are included.

Michael Jackson Jr. 'Reflections in D'
Michael Jackson Jr. 'Reflections in D' | photo credit Paul Kolnk

Battle said that for this tour, they also “wanted to pay tribute to our founder Alvin Ailey, so we’re doing ‘Blues Suite,’ the first work he choreographed, for the notable performances at the Y in 1958. As part of his blood memory, ‘Reflections in D’ and excerpts from ‘The River’ and other collaborations Ailey had with jazz master Duke Ellington are included. 

And as is their custom, all Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre performances, they will close with Ailey’s 1960 masterpiece ‘Revelations.’ Battle assured, “We don’t want to be run out of town for not doing it, after all.”

Battle credited the dancers for the company developing ways to stay connected to audiences during the pandemic. “Actually, the dancers’ first instinct when we brought them off the road in March of 2020 was to gather together virtually and do a rendition of the first part of revelations.

One of the dancers had the idea that we’d do it like the Brady Bunch in different boxes on the screen. It worked so well it led to Ailey All Access. Now we have reached out in this way to build new audiences. The dancers brought us into the digital world, and I think it says something about their commitment to this idea that Alvin always had in mind, ‘that dance comes from the people and always be delivered back to the people.'”

Battle is philosophical about the path forward for dancers dealing with the challenges of our times. “You really see a different quotient of commitment and tenacity when times are rough and tumble. I think that they have been able and will be able to channel that into their own individual performances on stage.” Even Battle intimated, “An appreciation of the fragility of mortality and time.” So, there is an urgency of now in their performances with this tour. That is the overarching message that is reflective of this tour we are embarking on.” 

 ~ performances Jan. 28-30 at the Academy of Music, Philadelphia PA  | www.kimmelculturalcampus.org

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