In the final night of shows from NY, Tavis talks with celebrated dancer-choreographer and soon-to-be artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Robert Battle.
Alvin Ailey Artistic Director Robert Battle
Tavis: Couldn’t think of a better way to conclude our week here in New York than by focusing on two of this city’s truly great cultural institutions, beginning with the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
In July, Robert Battle will be taking over from the legendary Judith Jamison. He’s only the third person ever to lead Alvin Ailey. Congratulations, Robert, on some big shoes. I don’t mean to say you got big feet, but you got some big shoes to fill, brother.
Robert Battle: Thank you.
Tavis: I’m glad to have you on.
Battle: Thank you, and I do have big feet [laugh].
Tavis: How does one go about filling or following – I don’t want to say filling because you’re your own person, your own man. So I don’t want to say filling in her shoes, but creating your own footsteps. How do you go about doing that after Judith Jamison?
Battle: And also after Mr. Ailey. I think that one of the things that Miss Jamison said so eloquently when she took the position is that she didn’t feel that she was standing in shoes, but standing on shoulders.
So I think that’s a big part of it, that I’m not alone, that there’s a legacy, that there’s an entire organization of people who loved Mr. Ailey and care about his vision as Miss Jamison does. So I’m surrounded by his spirit and by these remarkable dancers and people who care.
Tavis: The thing that always humbles me and moves me and just causes me to celebrate the company is that – let’s be frank – in our community it’s very difficult to keep something going for a decade, two decades, three decades, four decades. Ailey is now 50 years old as a company and, where the arts are concerned, that’s a tough thing to pull off for 50 years.
Battle: Yes, absolutely. But I think that the vision is very clear and very forward. The fact that, in 1958, Alvin Ailey made a repertory company which made it at once about past, present and future. It wasn’t just his repertory.
See, he understood this idea that it was about a community of people that he was creating, a huge family of people who also choreographed dancers, lighting designers. All of these people found a home with Ailey, so I think that’s the reason why, because it’s about many and not one.
Tavis: How did you first get connected to Ailey?
Battle: I was first connected like a lot of people are, sitting in the audience watching “Revelations” at about 12 or 13 years old.
Tavis: That’ll do it [laugh].
Battle: That’ll do it, you know.
Tavis: You see “Revelations,” it’ll move you, yeah.
Battle: It moved me. At that young age, I mean, having grown up in the church. My mother, Dessie Williams, who played piano for the church and, you know, I did my first speaking in the church, then seeing “Revelations” as a young person, I understood it. You know, I got it. You know, as a young person, that’s so important that you feel you got something.
I feel that that image took me from Miami, Florida to New York City and now to the helm of the company. It was about that image, about the spirit of that piece that we’re celebrating now 50 years of “Revelations,” a true masterpiece.
Tavis: What was your first professional relationship with the company?
Battle: My first professional relationship, I danced with the Parsons Dance Company and David Parsons, my former boss, allowed me to choreograph on the company. I knew Sylvia Waters, who’s been the head of the second company, Ailey II, since its inception. I invited her to see my work and she liked it and she invited me in 1999 to do my first work for our junior company. Miss Jamison saw that and asked me to create for the main company.
But also before that, when I was a student right around here on this block, Lincoln Center Juilliard, there in the summers we didn’t have classes, so I would study at the Ailey School. I mean, I’ve always had this kind of relationship with Ailey.
Tavis: I was reading more about your back story and was amazed to learn that, when you were a kid, you had to wear braces on your legs?
Tavis: How do you go from wearing braces to flying through the air?
Battle: Yeah. Big feet, braces [laugh]. I think that there was something about that. A lot of the reason, I think, why we are creative people is because we have restrictions, you know, something that we have to overcome. Then that creates the idea of possibility.
So I think that it’s a metaphor for what we do as creative people. We make a way out of no way. We have, you know, our few resources and we gather them together and move forward the way Mr. Ailey did. So I think there was something about that that was important. Then once I started moving, I never stopped moving.
Tavis: Yeah. I saw you – we met for the first time just weeks ago in Los Angeles. Of course, I knew you were coming on the show. Ailey was coming through Los Angeles and, as I always do, I go see it on opening night when it comes to Los Angeles where, of course, I live. I was blown away by your piece that I saw for the first time that night, “The Hunt.”
Battle: Thank you.
Tavis: It’s hard to talk about dance on television because you have to see it and feel it and TV doesn’t really do justice to it, but how would you describe – tell me about this piece, “The Hunt,” that I saw for the first time in Los Angeles.
Battle: “The Hunt” really came out of my martial arts background. I studied martial arts before I studied dance. I studied it because I was a soprano. I sang in the church choir. I was a soprano – I know it’s hard to tell – and I was into the arts.
So in my neighborhood, you know, you had to kind of step up, so I decided to take martial arts as a way of kind of building some self-confidence. But I feel when I got into dance, I brought along those same properties. The intensity of it is very visceral, very immediate.
The percussion, and everybody relates to percussion, so I created this work that had to do with some sense of competition and camaraderie, and I wanted it to be four men and I wanted the skirts that are almost like judo outfits in a way. But I also was saying something about our masculine and feminine side and something about ritual. So it worked that I never expected to endure the way it has, and to watch people jump up and down and scream in the audience ain’t a bad thing.
Tavis: Yeah. When you make reference to as men, our masculine and our feminine side, when you are growing up singing in the church choir, but you’re singing soprano as you did, and you’re dancing, does your manhood get questioned in your neighborhood?
Battle: Yes, it did, many times. In fact [laugh], I thought of this the other day. I had my dance bag and I had in my dance bag my dancing shoes, whatever they happened to be, I had my tights, I had all of that, and I had a hammer [laugh].
Tavis: “If I had a hammer…”
Battle: I was taunted a little bit, so I figured, you know, a hammer’s not for just nails. I never had to use my hammer, I’m glad to report.
Tavis: Thank God.
Battle: In fact, I forgot the hammer was in there. But anyway, I thought why is this bag so heavy? So it was questioned. But I came from a background of people – I was raised by my great-uncle who lived until I was in my second year at Juilliard. He was 87 years old.
I come from strong people who believe in the freedom of expression and, of course, a culture that believes in that. So the idea of overcoming adversity is something that is not unfamiliar. But I was pretty stubborn about what I wanted to do and I did it anyway. That’s kind of how I got here.
Tavis: Even beyond dance – we could start with the dance. We could talk about jazz. I’ve had this conversation with Wynton Marsalis a thousand times. So art, jazz, sculpture, any number of different forms of art or genres of art, I wonder whether or not there are – how do I put this?
Whether or not there are factors that are keeping young Black men and young Black women away from pursuing the arts contemporarily because they’re not sexy, because it doesn’t pay well, because – you tell me whether or not, in your travels and in your work, you feel any sort of pull on young Black folk away from the arts.
Battle: It’s hard to say that when I walk into the Joan Weill Center for Dance, of course, you know, the largest building dedicated to dance, and I see all of these young people engaged in the arts and the art of dance.
When we do our mini performances all over the country and we bus students the way I was bussed in to see a small performance and see “Revelations” and to hear the young people screaming in the audience and excited about it, in some ways, that goes directly against the idea.
But certainly we have to always push against the notion of what celebrity means, this infatuation with material things, so we’re always combating that now with it being so rampant. Also, you know, I was thinking of this the other day. What does it mean to be fortunate? I was thinking I’ve always been fortunate.
We didn’t have a lot of money, but fortune is not just monetary. Fortune has to do with the fact that two people raised me who cared about me, that Dessie Williams played piano for the church choir, that I wanted to be a preacher because I was inspired by my preacher and here I am preaching. So I’ve always been fortunate and I think we have to redefine what fortunate really means.
Tavis: I take that. If I read my notes right, you are going to be in Russia – the company will be Russia – when you officially take over in July. We’re sitting here in April. You officially take over from Miss Jamison in July, so how do you process that, taking over this company while the company is in Russia?
Battle: I know. I have never been in Russia and I’m gonna go and there will be a takeover. How appropriate [laugh]. You know, it’s so exciting and Miss Jamison is just a remarkable lady.
For me to not only be succeeding her, but also to just learn from her and to be able to call her a friend, someone who I looked up to as an image, is now so human to me and a friend and a confidante and somebody who I’m following. It’s awesome, and I keep saying that. I know the young folks say it, but I actually mean it. It is awesome.
Tavis: So what is it that however many years down the road from now when we’re talking about your legacy, your imprint on the company, do you know what you want that to be at this point?
Battle: I think I want to know that I have helped foster in the next generation of choreographers and dancers and the like, and I’ve inspired somebody somewhere to do something great.
Tavis: Well, I appreciate having you on.
Battle: Thank you.
Tavis: Congratulations on your opportunity, and the company’s blessed to have you.
Battle: Thank you very much.
Tavis: Robert Battle, new head of Alvin Ailey.
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