Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Robert Battle & Alicia Graf Mack

Artistic director Battle and dancer Mack discuss their goal to build on the prestigious Company’s triumphs while making sure it stays relevant.

Personally selected by the illustrious Judith Jamison, Robert Battle is only the third person to head the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since its founding in 1958. He's had a long association with the Company, as a choreographer and an artist-in-residence, and given master classes around the globe. Battle hails from the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, FL and attended Juilliard's dance program. After graduation, he joined the Parsons Dance Company, before launching his own Battleworks Dance Company. He was honored by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2005.

Alicia Graf Mack trained at Maryland's Ballet Royale Institute and attended summer intensives at the School of American Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. Prior to dancing with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, she was a principal dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, where she began her professional career, and a member of Complexions Contemporary Ballet. She was a visiting assistant professor of dance at Webster University (St. Louis) and has written dance reviews for national publications. Mack received the Medal of Excellence from her alma mater, Columbia University.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: It’s a tricky balance honoring the triumphs of the past while making sure Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater continues to be relevant and inventive, but that’s exactly what artistic director Robert Battle and dancer Alicia Graf Mack are doing.

Honored as one of this country’s most important dance companies, Alvin Ailey holds a particular place, I think it’s fair to say, in the dance world by combining elements of folk, jazz, and classical ballet. They are now on a 21-city national tour. Let’s take a look at the company’s artistry. Here’s Alicia Graf Mack dancing in – let me try this – “Petit Mort;” translation, little death.

[Clip of Alvin Ailey performance]

Tavis: I leaned in to Alicia during that clip and I asked her is it just me, or are you pretty tall? And you said -

Alicia Graf Mack: I am very tall for a dancer.

Tavis: Yeah, for a dancer, yeah.

Mack: But I’m very lucky, because Alvin Ailey has had a history of very tall women, especially Ms. Judith Jamison herself.

Tavis: Sure, yeah. Then I asked Robert does it matter then who you put her with in terms of the height, because a brother could be intimidated. (Laughter)

Robert Battle: They could be, they could be.

Tavis: Thousands of folk watching -

Battle: Yeah.

Tavis: I ain’t hating on you, but you’re 5’4″ -

Battle: Exactly.

Tavis: – and you’re a dancer. So how do you do that?

Battle: Well, it’s all in the casting.

Tavis: Right.

Battle: We always make sure, and luckily, we have some tall, fabulous men in the company who are able to handle that and not be sort of hidden behind her. But of course, Judith Jamison.

Tavis: Yeah, sure, sure.

Battle: She was a trailblazer for that. Because of her height, a lot of people sort of didn’t sort of look to that, and so Alvin Ailey celebrated it. So here she is, living in that tradition.

Tavis: He was no small guy himself.

Battle: No.

Tavis: He had a body like an – well, he was an athlete, but he had a body like an athlete.

Battle: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Tavis: Yeah.

Battle: That’s how he kind of started out, as an athlete, and then of course here in Los Angeles, in I believe 1949, is where Carmen De Lavallade, the great dancer, introduced him to Lester Horton and his studio, so it started here and then it sort of grew from that to what we have today.

Tavis: Take that, New York. Take that. (Laughter) It started here on the West Coast, in Los Angeles.

This does not surprise me, and if she’s watching, hi, Judith. She knows – I love you. She knows I love her. But it does not surprise me that we’re three minutes into a conversation, I ain’t asked a question about Judith, and her name has come up three times already. It goes to show her the impact that she’s had on this company.

Battle: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: When you and I last saw each other we were in New York City.

Battle: Yes.

Tavis: You had just been named the director of the company. It’s been almost two years now since I saw you last, so I’m going to ask Alicia this question and have you plug your ears in just a second.

Battle: Okay.

Tavis: But you get to go first. How do you think you’re doing?

Battle: I think I’m doing pretty good, (laughter) and more importantly, Judith Jamison thinks I’m going an excellent job. So that alone sort of centers me, but no, I feel that we’ve been having a lot of fun, and I feel audiences and critics have shown up.

We’re coming from our City Center season. It was a record-breaking season. So I think that’s an example of sort of what we’re doing, taking the company into the future while still celebrating the past. So that’s what Judy chose me to do, and that’s what I’m doing.

Tavis: Just between the two of us -

Battle: Yes.

Tavis: Just not the millions watching, just you and me, has it been intimidating at any point from the time that it was announced up until now, trying to come behind Judith Jamison?

Battle: I wouldn’t have said it last year because I was trying to be cool, but I have to say yes, of course. Judith Jamison is Judith Jamison, and Alvin Ailey, icon, legacy. So yes, but I knew I would be okay, because we come from that tradition.

When the elders say you’re going to be all right, I know that I’m standing on shoulders. So I sort of center myself with faith in that and faith in the people who have gone before, and so here I am.

Tavis: Yeah. All right, plug your ears now.

Battle: Okay.

Tavis: All right, so Alicia, here we go. (Laughter) With a slightly different twist on that, I’ve said many times on this program and beyond that change – this is true, I think, of life across the board – that change is inevitable, but growth is optional.

Change, inevitable, but growth is optional. So talk to me about the change that the company has undergone under Mr. Battle’s leadership, and about the growth that you’re experiencing under his leadership.

Mack: Well, I think definitely there has been some change, because of course Robert has his own unique vision of where he’d like to see the company. But yet it still feels like we are pushing into the future using Alvin Ailey’s vision as the foundation. So I think that’s most important.

But actually, just like the ballet that we saw, “Petit Mort,” he has chosen some excellent ballets for us to do and has pushed me personally as a dancer to test my boundaries, to see what I’m capable of doing. In just this one season we’ve done very contemporary ballet, we’ve done some hip-hop; we’ve done Garth Fagan’s work, which is more based in African dancing.

So for me, that’s just been incredible, and he’s also chosen some really amazing dancers to be part of our team, and so they push me as well.

Tavis: Why is that important to you, to be so eclectic in what you are asking the company to do?

Battle: Well, I think the notion of – I love what Maya Angelou said: “Everything in the universe has rhythm, everything dances.” I think this company reflects the universality of every person, that being an American dance company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, to me, that notion is that anything is possible. We are only limited by our imagination.

We have people like Leontyne Price, we have people like Jessye Norman, we have Alvin Ailey, we have Arthur Mitchell. We have so many people who have exemplified that universality, so I think that should be reflected on the stage.

Tavis: Yeah. I guess I’ve known this for quite some time, but for some reason it kind of hit me a little bit differently today, and that is this notion that Alvin Ailey has what you call lead dancers.

Battle: Yeah.

Tavis: You don’t have what other companies call principals.

Is there a difference? Does the language – words obviously have meaning. Is that deliberate on Ailey’s part? Is there a difference in that, or is it not -

Battle: It’s not really applicable.

Tavis: Right.

Battle: We try not to have that structure of principal, soloist, and all of that, that every dancer, it’s an equal opportunity thing. Some dancers fit better into other roles, but as a modern dance company, we don’t really use that kind of structure for the dancers, so the notion is that we all have an equal opportunity to do well, and they all do, all 30 of them.

Tavis: Yeah. Alicia, when you walked in I was telling you how much I enjoyed Bill Rhoden, good friend of mine at “The New York Times,” I love Bill and his work, and I saw a piece on the Internet, a wonderful five, six minute piece. Not a long piece, but a beautiful piece that I thought Bill did with you about the athletic nature of what it takes to be a dancer.

Bill, of course, being a sports columnist, was really trying to get at the similarities and the differences between a dancer and an athlete, which I thought was a wonderful way to get into the conversation.

But in the course of that I came to discover that you have come back, what, two or three times now -

Mack: Yes.

Tavis: – from injuries that would have sidelined your career. So Kobe, take note. (Laughter) There is hope.

Mack: There is hope.

Tavis: There is hope. (Laughter) Alicia did it three times. You can come back once, Kobe.

Mack: Yes.

Tavis: So talk to me about what you had to endure, and the love that – apparently; I assume it was the love that kept bringing you back.

Mack: Of course, yes. I’ve definitely suffered from some devastating injuries; mainly cartilage tears, and the discovery that I have an autoimmune disorder that makes inflammation in my body.

So for a dancer, that can be very difficult. So the first time I left I was 21 years old. I was at the peak of, getting to the peak of my career, then at Dance Theater of Harlem, and when I was injured and not able to come back, I was completely devastated.

I ended up studying at Columbia University, trying to make a career transition, trying to make a life for myself, trying to figure out what I was good at, and I realized that really, I’m a dancer, and that’s what I want to do, and that’s what I’ve been brought here on this Earth to do.

I believe that it’s my calling, in a way, and actually, kind of similar to the story where Carmen De Lavallade saw Alvin Ailey and pulled him into the world of dance, I actually, she saw me during a rehearsal, and she said, “You know what? You can be a banker, you can do anything later, but look at the talent that you have. You should be dancing now. Your time is never promised.”

I took those words to heart and I actually auditioned for Alvin Ailey and got in, and that’s how my career at Alvin Ailey started.

Tavis: Tell me about the tour schedule. Does your tour schedule change yearly? Obviously it changes, but are you doing the same number of dates, do you take time off? How does the tour schedule typically work?

Battle: It does. A lot stays the same, but some cities, of course, we go every two years or every other, that kind of thing, so it changes in that way. But we’re on the road quite a bit, quite a bit, and so. You can speak to that as well.

Mack: Yes, I definitely live out of a suitcase. I have one huge duffel bag, rolling duffle bag. My life is in that suitcase. But it’s really wonderful, because we touch peoples’ lives when we perform, and it’s tangible when you’re out there. I think that’s why, for me, why I am motivated to do it every day, despite the body aches and being away from home and everything. But our audiences are incredible.

Tavis: I know here in L.A. we look forward to this visit every year.

Battle: Yeah.

Tavis: It’s like people are waiting. They got the dates circled on their calendar in red; “Ailey’s coming back,” so people just wait in line to come see you guys here.

Battle: We love it. We love the audience here. They always give us the love that we give to our craft, and they let us know that they appreciate it. So we appreciate them, yeah.

Tavis: Talk to me about the difficulty, if there has been, or the not-so-difficult time you’ve had financing the company in what has been a very tight economy. Oftentimes in moments like these the first things that get cut, as we know, are the arts.

When major corporations have to cut back on their giving, it’s the arts oftentimes that they support that – first of all, you’ve got to fight to get it in the first place, as you well know, and those are the first things that get cut.

So I’m not asking you to give me numbers, but give me some sense of how the company has been doing in what has been three, four, five years now a really, really tight economy.

Battle: I have to say the partner with the artistic director, the executive director, and the executive director, who just stepped down, Sharon Gersten Luckman, was tremendous. She was there for over 20 years, and always said that she wanted the administrative side to be as talented and inventive and creative as the artistic side, and made sure that she was always a step ahead.

So we have a tradition of that, and now Bennett Rink, who is the new executive director, is carrying that forward. I have to also acknowledge our board of directors. We have a very strong board of directors. The chairman is Joan Weill, who makes sure that we stay where we need to be.

So I have to say that’s a part of it, making sure that we’re always sort of thinking ahead of the game, and we have stayed financially solvent and strong in the face of some of the economic turmoil, I have to say.

Tavis: Yeah. What do you make of the fact that here is a company that features African American dancers, started by an African American man, run for years by an African American woman, now run by another African American man, has made inroads where there are people of all races and all cultures and all creeds who support the work that you do with a white woman chairing your board on this.

Battle: Well, I think that the notion is that – I love this other quote, too: “I am a human being; nothing human can be alien to me.” That when you look at “Revelations,” created by Mr. Ailey in 1960, it didn’t just appeal to people who perhaps experienced the Black church, but to people all over the world who have never even met someone who happens to be of color.

So that the universal language of the work reflects the universal language of the company and all of the people who sort of make sure this company stays aloft. So I think that is the strength of the company, and why we still, after over 50 years are still relevant.

Tavis: Yeah. This other question I want to ask about money, Alicia, is specifically for you because – and again, I’m not asking – my mother would slap me if I asked you, “How much money you make?” (Laughter) So we’re not going to do that.

But you’ve come back repeatedly for the love, and you fought through those injuries for the love, and anybody who dances, you can see it. When you go see Ailey, you see the love for the craft put on display every night you are performed.

But does one make a living doing this? Does one make a decent living doing this? How does that work, because to your point earlier, you could have been a banker, you could have been at JP Morgan or someplace else.

Mack: Yes.

Tavis: But talk to me about the living that you make, and whether or not it justifies the sacrifices you have to make.

Mack: Well, the dancers at Alvin Ailey, we are actually protected by a union.

Tavis: Okay.

Mack: So we have a very full life and make enough to live our lives. We have all the benefits that most professionals who have risen in level in their craft have the opportunity to have. So I have never wanted for anything. I definitely have had enough money to do the things that I’ve wanted to do.

So it really has never been an issue for me, and definitely not at Alvin Ailey, where we do have a strong board and we have such wonderful people who support us and support the company. I’ve never really had to think about money, to be honest.

Tavis: Yeah. Give me some sense, Robert, of what you think – you’re only two years in – what you think you want your legacy to be with regard to the kinds of stuff you’re introducing the company to.

Battle: I think that for me, it is very simple. Dance for me has given my life such meaning, from the moment I saw the company in Miami, saw a student performance, a performance for students, and look at what happened to me.

I know the quotient is that it was about inspiration. Alvin Ailey, the company, inspired me, and with that inspiration there’s nothing I can’t do. What I would hope is that when it’s all said and done, that somebody says the same thing – something that I did chose, said, inspired them to live a fuller life. If I can have that, then I’ll be just fine.

Tavis: When Alicia says that you’re pushing the company with the kinds of stuff you’re introducing, can you speak to that more expressly, the kinds of stuff that you are putting on the docket that is pushing the company?

Battle: Yeah. I just go by what I like, but I also – my last name is Battle, so already you know I’m already ready to push folks, right? (Laughter) So – to be honest. But I also like the element of surprise. That, to me, is the fun of it, but also the thrill of it, is that we see works that one would not expect to see the company do, and within that element of surprise, really, to me it’s about past, present, and future, always having those three things represented and finding work that I feel represents that.

Also, the real inspiration – yes, I can sit and sort of dream up ideas, but when I have dancers of this quality, of the 30 dancers that I have who all contribute something unique and special about themselves, as all Ailey dancers do, that’s the inspiration for how I’m going to move into the future.

So I don’t know what the future holds, but as long as I have this kind of talent to work with, I know that we’re going to be just fine, yeah.

Tavis: Don’t tell Mr. Battle I said this, Alicia, but just because he likes it don’t mean it’s good. (Laughter) Just because he likes it doesn’t mean the entire company’s going to like it. So I wonder what does happen when the artistic director or whoever it might be introduces something and some folk in the company are like not really sure this – how does that work?

Because again, I’m sure there’s a collaborative process to figure this out, but just because the director wants the company to do something doesn’t mean everybody buys into it.

Battle: It doesn’t have to (unintelligible).

Mack: No, (unintelligible) love it. (Laughter)

Tavis: This is a hard conversation to have with Robert sitting next to you.

Mack: (Unintelligible) fight with my boss. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah, but I’ll give Robert a chance to respond, but has that happened? We’ll take Robert out – has it happened in your career where the artistic director of whatever company you’re dancing with gives you something you’re like, you know what, this is really not working for me.

Mack: Sure. In every job or position that you have you have to do some things that don’t sit comfortably with you or you don’t particularly like, but part of my job of being a dancer and being an artist is to make it ring true for the audience.

So it’s my job to make it look like I’m enjoying every minute (laughter) of this horrible work. Really, that’s what I’m asked to do. But actually, my work at Alvin Ailey has been a pleasure. I really haven’t been asked to do anything that I don’t enjoy.

Tavis: Another way to ask that question, Robert, is how do you get the buying-in of the company when you’re introducing something that is out of the box?

Battle: It has to do with the choice. It’s not something that I pick – and I know I say I pick things that I like, but some things I like I don’t think at this time would fit nicely into the company’s repertory. Maybe in the future, maybe it’s something that I have to build up to.

So for me, it’s that kind of choreography of the choices that I know just what will sort of push buttons, but not push people out of the seat and out into the lobby and home before the performance ends.

So it’s knowing that balance. It’s all about balance for dancers, of course, but knowing just what to choose that would kind of sound the alarm of this is something different. But when you really peel it away, movement is movement, do you know what I mean? So where people think it’s different, I see the way it connects to the past.

I see that choreographer’s influence and how they got to where they are. That nothing happens in a vacuum. So I try to choose work that I feel is reflective of the past, and so that’s the trick.

Tavis: When I come see Ailey, which I do annually, the production always seems seamless. That is to say I can tell, while I’m not thinking about it in the moment, when I leave it occurs to me that somebody took the time to sequence this thing just right.

Battle: Yeah.

Tavis: Kind of like a good record. Artists spend time, a lot of time, figuring out what order, what sequence the songs are going to appear on their record. Give me some sense of when we come see an Ailey show, how much time and energy – what’s the process for figuring out how to sequence the show.

Battle: I think part of that is of course the associate artistic director, who’s Masazumi Chaya, who was Mr. Ailey’s right hand and Judith Jamison’s, and now me. So he does a lot of that sort of underpinning.

Sometimes I say, “Here, this is what I’d like to do. Now help me make it make sense.” But some of it really is the thought of what you’re hearing, seeing, where we will start with a large group work and then pare it down to a solo, and then work back up to “Revelations” at the end.

So a lot of it has to do with that kind of choreography, but there is a thought process of how the entire evening, the arc of the evening.

Tavis: Yes. Alicia, to Robert’s point, no matter how many pieces you all do in a particular evening, everybody’s waiting on you-know-what. (Laughter) On the stage, can you all feel that? When you go into the very beginning of you know what I’m talking about, can you feel the energy in the audience?

Mack: Oh, definitely. Most of the time as soon as the music starts, the curtain hasn’t even risen yet, people will start clapping. The first moment they hear the first hum of “I’ve Been ‘Buked,” which is the first section of “Revelations,” people are already clapping.

So all you can do is give yourself up to the audience and make sure that you give them a good show.

Tavis: Yeah. I’ve asked this of artists before, whether or not there is ever a time in the career when you get tired of playing the same song, because when your fans come to hear you, they want to hear – no matter what else you want to give them, no matter what else Mr. Battle has put on the docket for that night, on the sequence, they want to hear this, they want to see this.

Does “Revelations” ever feel old to you?

Mack: No.

Tavis: Yeah.

Mack: No. “Revelations” for me is the piece that drew me to want to dance for Alvin Ailey when I was a kid, and I think most of the dancers would say the same thing, that they saw that image and wanted to work for Alvin Ailey at some point.

But also for me it’s like – it’s more than a dance. It’s kind of a prayer or a meditation, and it’s always new or fresh every time that we can be able to perform it.

I don’t always have the same part in “Revelations.” Sometimes I hold the umbrella, sometimes I do the “Fix Me, Jesus” duet, and sometimes I do the core role. So every night can be different, and the energy is always different, too.

Tavis: Yeah. I got a minute to go here, Robert. This may or may not be a fair question; let me ask anyway. Does it matter to you, when your days at the company are through many, many years from now, whenever that time comes, will it matter to you whether or not there is a signature piece like “Revelations” that this company does for the next 50 years that you brought to them?

Battle: It won’t, as long as the company is still where it ought to be and doing well and thriving. This, of course, for me is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, so I don’t know what that will be, but I’m not worried about it.

I think about “Revelations” and think about – I have another take on it. Really, this is the generation of what was new about two hours ago is old now, so when we think about “Revelations” in 1960, but think about it sort of when we think of Beethoven or something like that, you know what I mean, you have to kind of measure it that way.

So it’s not really that old. It’s like when people say, “Oh, the civil rights movement, that was so long ago.” I’m like, “It wasn’t that long ago.”

Tavis: Not really, yeah. (Laughter)

Battle: Exactly. So I think that that work represents a part of our American history, that yes, it’s the same song, but we know if we forget that song we will go back to it in a way that’s not good, so that it’s a way to remind us of our history, so we don’t repeat it.

Tavis: It never gets old for me and for all the fans, so I’m glad that you’re in L.A. They come this way, it seems like at least once a year.

Battle: Yes.

Tavis: We always are waiting for their arrival, and I keep praying that one of my – we’re in the 10th season of doing this show, almost at 2,000 shows now, and one of my dreams is one day to have a stage big enough where I can do an interview with you and the entire company dancing throughout the show. That’s like a dream I have all the time. (Laughter)

This place isn’t quite big enough, but one day – I’m going to work on that in the next 10 years. Robert, good to have you here.

Battle: Thank you.

Tavis: Alicia, good to see you.

Mack: Thank you.

Tavis: Have a great show here in L.A. and for the rest of the tour.

Battle: Thank you.

Tavis: Alvin Ailey, I love them. Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next time on PBS. Until then, good night, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

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Last modified: April 18, 2013 at 7:03 pm