Steering Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater through a pandemic
To direct Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT), one of the preeminent companies in the world that was founded by choreographer, dancer, and visionary Alvin Ailey in 1958, is no easy feat. But to helm the troupe that has been hailed as “ambassador to the entire world for American culture and art” during a global pandemic, would seem like a daunting task. For artistic director Robert Battle, who took the reins in 2011 and is only the third person to lead the company after Ailey and Judith Jamison, he was more than up to the challenge.
“We were already on tour,” Battle explained by telephone from his home in New York, “and it was going pretty well and then realized we needed to bring the dancers home. As soon as we got off the road in March, we were coming to grips with the reality of the situation and the dancers started online content. We codified it [as] Ailey All Access, and people would see us that would probably never see the company. We reached 10 million people in 121 countries through our online [initiative].”
Indeed, since the March shutdown, Ailey reinvented its audience outreach with the streaming of free performances from AAADT repertory, classes, conversations and original short films created by the Ailey dancers, “separate but together,” from wherever they were. And on December 2-31, what would have been the troupe’s annual month-long season at City Center, Ailey is offering its first-ever virtual season—also for free.
Included is the world premiere of “Testament,” a tribute to six decades of the troupe’s signature work, “Revelations.” Choreographed by associate artistic director Matthew Rushing, company member and assistant to the rehearsal director Clifton Brown and former company member Yusha-Marie Sorzano, the opening night will also include commentary and analysis by Ailey experts and former dancers. “A Jam Session for Troubling Times,” a premiere by Ailey resident choreographer Jamar Roberts is also on tap, while a variety of other special programs and a series of BattleTalk conversations, moderated by Battle, are scheduled, as well.
Many of the films, directed by Preston Miller, were shot at Ailey’s permanent home—the largest building dedicated to dance in New York—with the concept of producing digital content coming with a number of health protocols.
“A lot had to go into consideration,” said Battle, “the health of the dancers, plus the school started classes, as well. We had a task force that worked with local officials and doctors to come up with safety precautions. That was very important. We had testing with an app that everybody had to use every time you went into the building, which is a very modern building, thankfully, in terms of having filters.
“Dancers [were] also in certain groupings that they had to stay in,” added Battle. “If you’re with this group of 10 dancers you were in a different studio. Let’s say we’re doing two new works, dancers couldn’t be in both works. But they rose to the occasion. We’ve also been filming the works outdoors before we started the five weeks of conditioning and slowly bringing the dancers back [since] they’d been off for several weeks. We did that and then started working on choreography.”
Regarding “Testament,” Battle pointed out that Miller is married to Jacqueline Green, one of the troupe’s 28 dancers. “He was also a former Ailey student who went on to do some filmmaking and Matthew called on him to do the re-imagining of “Revelations,” which was filmed in different spaces. We’ve really had to embrace the digital world, but not just as a substitute but as an actual art form itself.”
And talk about an art form, “Revelations,” which closes nearly every Ailey performance and has somewhat of a holy mystique about it, would surely qualify as the apotheosis of terpsichorean art. Possibly the most beloved modern dance work—and easily one of the most recognizable in the world—the 10-part, 38-minute opus that premiered in 1960 and harkens back to Ailey’s church experiences in rural Texas as a child, is not only gorgeous, but mixes choreographic, historical, and anthropological elements with spirituality, technical brilliance and dollops of humor.
Ailey, who died in 1989 from an AIDS-related illness at age 58, called the work, which is set to traditional folk hymns, “a gigantic suite of spirituals,” with critic Allen Hughes writing in the first New York Times review of the piece in July, 1962: “In “Revelations,” there are pleading, struggle, protest, pathos, humor and much more. Some of these qualities are expressed in magnificent solos by Mr. Ailey and James Truitte; others are given to the entire group. All were communicated on this occasion with stunning directness and intensity.”
For Battle, who first saw “Revelations” as a “kid in Miami,” the connection he has to the masterpiece is personal. “As someone who grew up going to church, hearing spirituals, knowing something about the importance of spirituals on the Black culture, that we sang all the way through slavery, the Civil Rights movement and on and on, seeing “Revelations” was the embodiment of the survival of a people.
“It was,” he continued, “so fulsome to see it done through dance, through song in such a brilliant way, it’s both heartbreaking and resilient at the same time. Alvin Ailey managed to give us, “I Been ‘Buked” [in the opening] and finds a way to end with “Rocka My Soul.” An artist like that shows us the possibilities and the fact that we can get through this—we will get through this. That’s why “Revelations” to me is contagious. No matter how small or large our troubles are, we all have some obstacle to overcome. “Revelations” is about overcoming.”
And “Testament,” the 21st -century response to this timeless piece of art, surely expresses the idea of conquering misfortune. Filmed at Wave Hill Public Garden & Cultural Center, the site that overlooks the Hudson River and was founded in 1965, the work reverberates with history, the park having its own legacy of community engagement. In conjunction with the performance, the trio of choreographers will also join together for a discussion about creating their tribute to “Revelations.”
Another December offering, “Family Program: Ailey and Ellington,” showcases three of the 14 ballets—“Night Creature,” “Reflections in D” and “Pas de Duke”—that Ailey made to celebrate the musical genius of the beloved American composer Duke Ellington. Newly recorded performances of some of those works will also feature archival material that shows the impactful pairing of Ailey and Ellington. One of the dances, “Pas de Duke,” was performed for the camera by Green and Yannick Lebrun at, of all places, the top of the Woolworth Building, a spectacular location for the celebration of America’s two great art forms—modern dance and jazz music.
Said Battle: “The Ailey and Ellington collaboration was mind-blowing anyway, and when Woolworth contacted us to shoot something on top of the building, I thought this could be [something]. And,” he noted, “it’s safe. Rita Allen, a longtime dancer with the company in the days when Ailey was creating some of the works, is going to do workshops talking about their collaboration. She’s also going to teach a bit of “Night Creature,” with the assistance of some of the dancers and I’m doing a series of BattleTalks, this one with [trumpeter/composer] Wynton Marsalis. It’s going to be quite cool.”
Another Ellington-related tribute honors husband-and-wife duo, Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims, the longest tenured dancers in the company, who, after 25 years, will bid farewell to AAADT when they premiere a new recording of the central duet from “The Winter in Lisbon.”
Said Battle: “They’ve been there so long and have so many fans in the company and outside that we thought it would be wonderful to honor them. They found each other in the company, had a baby together and even named their boy Ellington. It’s a love story, a story of their artistry and their staying power.”
Also blessed with staying power is Ailey’s first resident choreographer, Jamar Roberts. Appointed in 2019, he began his tenure with that year’s, “Ode,” a study of life in the age of unyielding gun violence and which the New York Times’ Brian Seibert described as “daring, delicate and heartbreaking.” For the December season, Roberts’ newest work, “A Jam Session for Troubling Times,” features the music of revolutionary saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker, whose centennial is also being celebrated.
“Jamar loves jazz,” Battle enthused, “and each work he’s done has jazz. He wanted the piece to be kind of fun and have the feeling of improvisation. There’s so much Sturm und Drang now, but he wanted to show the side of Ailey that entertains as well as educates. That you can have fun and also have relief is as important as seeing work that reflects what’s going on in our country. That’s the feeling of it—loose and fierce.”
When Ailey founded his company in 1958, it was a time when the civil rights movement was gaining its first political victories for African Americans. Since then, although the country now seems to be at a similar inflection point, with the brutal police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others, Battle believes that art is needed now more than ever.
“What we can do as a company is offer people some sense of feeding the soul, some reflection of stories that speak to the tenacity of the human spirit, art that brings people together from different races, different economic backgrounds, even if it’s just virtually. That’s what we can do as an organization.
“Yes,” added Battle, who was honored as one of the “Masters of African American Choreography” by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2005 and received the prestigious Statue Award from the Princess Grace Foundation-USA in 2006, “we’re in an inflection moment where we need to take stock. And if you’re asking me personally, we’re losing touch with our humanity where we can’t even hear anyone anymore. It’s all become a reality show, but it isn’t a show it’s real life.
“I think in this time where we’re forced to slow down,” continued the director, also a sought-after keynote speaker, “I’m fortunate, because there are people who have lost everything. I think the notion of this company is to celebrate our common humanity and we, as artists, have to continue to show our humanity. Mr. Ailey said, ‘I’m trying to hold up a mirror to society and see how beautiful they are.’ I hope we can get to that as a country.”
As only the third director to lead AAADT, Battle was hand-picked by Judith Jamison, who originally danced with the troupe for 15 years beginning in 1965, becoming a muse, of sorts, and international star before leaving the company and forming her own troupe. She returned, though, in 1989, when Ailey asked her to succeed him as artistic director, a post she held for 21 years, with Jamison now artistic director emerita.
But little did that kid from the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, Florida, know that he would one day be directing the troupe that has performed for an estimated 25 million people in 71 countries on six continents—with millions more having seen the dancers through television broadcasts, film screenings and online platforms. “Sometimes I’m still in disbelief,” Battle acknowledged, “but I have to get on with the job in shepherding the company forward. It’s an awesome responsibility that I don’t take lightly. There was a master plan and here I am. Come pandemic, hell or high water, this company was built to last.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Battle is still in touch with Jamison, who, he said, initially gave him this advice: “She said, “Always follow your singular voice. That’s why I chose you. Trust in your own voice.” She knew it was a big responsibility and that there would be lots of noise in my own head that would create doubt, but she told me to trust that you have everything you need to be successful.”
That has decidedly proved true, as next year Battle, now 48, celebrates his 10th season as director of the renowned troupe. But because of Covid, he isn’t thinking too far into the future. “Hopefully, we’ll be back on the stage, touring, because that’s what we love—that young dancers have the opportunity to reach all of these audiences that love us and is given back to them. The applause, the cheers, you can’t replace that, no matter how well you do virtually, but I think we’ll be even stronger and even better. That’s what I can see right now.”