09.10.2018

Robert Battle

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was born out of the civil rights movement and has continued celebrating the African American experience for 60 years. Hari Sreenivasan sits down with its artistic director, Robert Battle.

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The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, an American cultural treasure, was born out of the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s.

Its founder, Alvin Ailey, used the language of dance to grapple with racial discrimination, America's original sin.

60 years later, the Ailey Company is still going strong with director Robert Battle at the helm.

Battle grew up in one of Miami's toughest neighborhoods using the security bars on his window as his ballet barre.

Now, as Ailey's artistic director, can he still lift up audiences at this time of discord and division?

Our Hari Sreenivasan sat down to find our when he spoke with Robert Battle in New York.

Robert, thank you for joining us.

Thank you.

You know, survival for an arts institution is not a given.

No.

The fact that it survived sixty years when you've seen other institutions rise and fall in that time.

Yeah, I think because the mission is very clear.

I mean Alvin Ailey said it best, 'Dance comes from the people and it should always be delivered back to the people.'

Always remembering why we're on that stage.

Always remembering that it's the act of communicating that is the most important in what we do and so the audiences that come to see us, they don't just see an Ailey performance, but they feel it, they take it with them and they want that feeling again because it leaves them uplifted.

That accessibility that Alvin had in his own person is the same blood that flows through the organization.

This is a company that tours pretty aggressively.

You're in dozens of cities.

Yeah.

You're even overseas.

Yeah.

Why?

Yeah because that's part of the mission.

To bring dance to as wide of an audience as possible.

To understand that - that the arts sort of that's our passport to the world.

That dance communicates where language falters.

And so the notion that we can tell our story all over the world I think was very important especially for a company that was majority black, right?

To tell that story.

So that we don't just entertain but we educate and part of that is the traveling, the touring, reaching different you know countries and audiences.

So no matter if we're across the street or across the ocean the truth is what we're getting at.

But how does dance cut through that rural versus urban that red state versus blue state line?

Because you're not discriminating where you go?

No, no.

I think that dance in a way uhh is wonderfully ambiguous [LAUGH]. So that you know where language sort of says what side [LAUGH] you stand, in a way dance has this way before you even know what it's about you find yourself caught up in it.

Mm-hm.

You know that it's able to deliver a hard truth but with a sense of uhh spirituality I think that is universal.

When I think about that I think of one of the most important dances ever created, which was created by Alvin Ailey in 1960 and that's Revelations.

That we do, we close pretty much every performance with Revelations.

And that work no matter where we are, when I first took over the company uhh we were in Russia.

Mm-hm.

And you know Revelations is a suite of spirituals that expresses the experiences of African Americans in this country and how we overcame through faith.

And here I was about to take over the company we happened to be in Russia and to see people in the aisles as if they were in a black church somewhere, you know sort of celebrating this dance I think speaks to his ability to break through and communicate to whomever, wherever, whenever.

Does Revelations take on a different meaning given the current climate that we're in today where we are seemingly questioning some of the basic things that we thought we sorted out - Yeah.

In the 60's and 70's?

Yeah.

I think that the arts, certainly dance is - is always important because it's the artifacts of human survival.

You know that it celebrates our common humanity and in times where we can be fooled into thinking that we don't need each other - Mm-hm.

I think it's so important that the arts speak loudly.

You know and so I think it's even more important now that we come and we see this company, that we come and see this rich legacy that's celebrating sixty years.

There's a reason why, it's because Alvin Ailey told the truth in his work, right?

And you don't have to question the truth it just is.

And so I think this is where the company means the most in times like these.

Mm-hm.

Is there a better pipeline today for American dance?

Obviously Alvin Ailey created this as a space to start highlighting the fact that African American dancers could exist and choreographers could exist right?

Where are we now versus where he started sixty years ago?

Because he started sixty years ago we have so many dancers that have come through the company as dancers or through the Ailey School, you know that are teaching now or whatever [it] is they're doing or just patrons of the arts.

Uhh when I think of his the arts and education programs that we have, one of them is called Ailey Camp that Alvin Ailey started uhh thirty years ago.

This was one of the last programs he implemented before he died.

He started it in Kansas City and now it's in about ten or eleven cities for young people who are you know sort of underserved in their communities to have access to the arts is life altering.

So we can't always measure the impact by numbers but we know that it is there.

We know that people have benefitted and continue to carry that legacy forward.

You're not the born dancer.

If you come out with bow legs, no one says this is the guy who's going to run the hundred meter hurdles or go to dance.

Right, yeah.

How did this happen?

Well, you know I think that - that sometimes the very thing you know that - that you are up against is the thing that becomes your best self.

You know I was also very shy, didn't like to talk a lot.

I know it's hard to tell now [LAUGH]. You know, and so luckily my great aunt and uncle who took me in uhh when I was uhh you know an infant got me to the hospital to get braces for my legs that they have - they had to put on every night to get those legs straightened.

But, you know the - the artistic part really came I think from - from who I call my mother who is really my cousin because she played piano for the church we went to.

You know she had a group called The Afro- Americans.

It was a group of her friends who did poetry and song relating to the black experience so I was already sort of hearing all of that stuff.

All of those poems, all of those stories, was a part of my growing up, you know?

That was your norm.

That was my - my norm in a way so I didn't understand you know this whole thing about performing arts.

It was just what we did.

It was part.

And so when I first saw Revelations growing up there in Liberty City, a tough town, in fact I studied martial arts 'cause I had a soprano singing voice and I played classical music, you know so - Those are combinations for being bullied.

Oh yeah.

Oh yeah.

I - I had it all.

I had [a] t-shirt, 'bully me.'

You know and so to protect myself I studied martial arts with a friend's father who was a retired third degree black belt.

And so, here comes the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, coming to perform in Miami as they do as we tour as you know.

And, we were bused in as young people from different schools to see a mini performance which is you know a performance just for young people.

And seeing Revelations, hearing those spirituals that I heard you know as a kid, seeing people who look like me on the stage, the effect that that had on me - the curtain when down but I when up, you know?

And I remember thinking I want to be like that.

I didn't think someday I'd in New York City, the third director of that company [LAUGH] but it happened.

And so I think that for young people I always say start where you are.

That your imagination holds the keys to your success.

And nobody can take that away from you and you don't have to pay for it.

And so seeing Revelations reminded me of that, and here I am today.

So you're in a neighborhood where you've got security bars on the window.

Mm-hm.

And you're using those as your what, ballet bars?

Yeah.

Who did you have on your walls growing up?

Gosh you know I had this wonderful piece of wood you know that the termites got to umm [LAUGH] eventually, but I used to uhh in Dance Magazine I would just sort of cut out pictures, Judith Jamison, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Alvin Ailey, Arthur Mitchell, whatever it was I would cut it out and I would sort of paste it on that board.

And then at night I'd take a - a flashlight and I'd just look like I was watching a moving you know, movie or something.

But those images were important you know because eventually you walk into those images.

So yeah, it was - it was wonderful to have that to look to.

How much of that factored into when you would actually get on stage, do you remember?

Is there a performance whether it's in high school or when you started to realize like, I - I like to choreograph things?

I like to put things in perspective as well?

Well, you know, [LAUGH] what I do remember is that I liked to tell people what to do [LAUGH]. That, my mother had to tell me you know your friends are not you know your sort of servants and they're not your subjects and you know.

She told me, she's like listen, they don't like this.

But uhh you know this sort of notion though of - of wanting to lead, wanting to be in front, wanting to inspire.

I wanted to be a preacher when I was a kid because the preacher so moved the crowd.

I wanted to move the crowd.

So all of that has always been in my DNA.

And you still want to move the crowd.

I still wanna move the crowd and I still in my own way am preaching the gospel.

It's just a larger, a different type of church.

Yes.

Different audience.

It's a different church.

And gospel is dance that can move people, and that can change people's hearts.

Help me understand dance because uhh I haven't been exposed to it and perhaps there's other members of our audience too.

So how does a dancer use their entire body as an instrument?

Mm-hm.

How - how do you learn to do that?

Yeah.

Part of that really I mean is the training.

Yeah.

You know it's the training.

I mean, and the Ailey School, I mean, we - we're - we're one of the best schools in terms of - of that hardcore training that you need to be able to articulate all of those parts of your body to make a statement.

Often though for me I think about the audition process.

I think of my 32 fabulous dancers.

I mean, let me geek out for a minute umm and say how wonderful they are because they're able to communicate all kinds of feelings through movement.

Whether it be anger, whether it be fear, whether it be joy or whatever it is.

And I heard Maya Angelou say something one time uhh to think of your whole body as an ear.

As an ear?

Yeah.

So that sense of receiving and then being able to sort of speak it as you hear it.

I think you find those dancers who are able to communicate in that way, who are able to go beyond the steps, beyond the movement, and touch your heart.

I mean and that is unique, and you can't really teach that.

Robert Battle thanks so much for your time.

Thank you.

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