When the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre returns to the Arsht Center this month, Miami will welcome home the company’s Artistic Director Robert Battle. “It’s wonderful,” says Battle. “Home represents something very special.” The company will perform at the Arsht Center from Feb. 21 to 24, as part of its 21-city U.S. tour. The diverse company is a favorite for this town, beloved for its dynamic, soul-stirring choreographies.
But for Battle, heading the company that first inspired him to dance is just one twist of irony in his rise to the top.
Battle’s childhood home in Liberty City is located just a stone’s throw from the Arsht Center. The house was an incubator for Battle’s artistic dreams. A focused teenager, he practiced dance moves on furniture and used the decorative wrought-iron gate as ballet bars. From very early, Battle knew that he wanted to “be famous” and longed to perform. “I was always around the arts,” he says, describing moments when his family would gather to sing as his mother, a teacher, played the piano. “They saw me from the beginning to where I am now, so it’s a wonderful feeling for me,” he says.
On tour stops in Miami, Battle comes on stage to personally greet the audience and give a shout out to the hometown. He is a living testimony of where passion and determination takes you. It was a ninth grade school trip to the Jackie Gleason Theater where Battle first saw the renowned dance troupe perform. From that moment on, he was committed to the craft, studying dance at the New World School of the Arts for his 11th and 12th grade years. “Seeing Alvin Ailey perform was one of my profound moments that really set my career in motion,” he says. “Dance was a natural progression,” he says, given his early fondness for artistic expression.
Battle had long paid his dues in the dance world by the time Judith Jamison handpicked him for the Ailey job in 2010. He left Miami for New York to attend the Julliard School, then immediately joined the Parsons Dance Company where he stayed from 1994 to 2001. Though he served as artist-in-residence at Ailey, Battle had no formal affiliation with the company, prior to assuming the director’s role. However, his high-energy, complex choreographies, such as “Juba” and “In/Side” were featured by the company for 10 seasons, according to a 2010 New York Times article.
He began the role officially in 2011 when Jamison retired, making him only the third person to serve as artistic director, succeeding Jamison and founder Ailey. “That just goes to show you that there is a lot of good talent out of Miami,” says the pleasant 40-year-old.
Reflecting on how Miami has evolved, the most notable change, he says, is the development of the performing arts district along Biscayne Boulevard where the Arsht center is located. The expansive complex reflects the city’s renewed dedication to the arts. After nearly two decades, Battle is comfortably a New Yorker, but “when I’m in Miami, I’m a Miamian.” The two cities, he says, have similar artistic veins. “There’s a similarity in its vibrancy and appreciation of the arts. There’s a vitality that is palpable. That’s why the audience loves the company so much.”
Battle describes his work with the company as a “continuum” to what the late founder and Jamison have built. “Alvin Ailey and Judith Jamison are icons in the world of dance,” he says. He often thinks of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision for humanity. “’I have a Dream’ spoke to me as a young person and it was something that Alvin Ailey achieved through dance,” he says.
“At a time when we were as African-American dancers denied basic human rights, he had the audacity to speak of inclusiveness,” says Battle. “Alvin Ailey said that dance was inclusive and represented all people.”
The company’s works tell stories of humanity from the African-American experience. This is a sacred legacy that Battle upholds, while weaving in fresh, energetic choreographies. His works challenge dancers and audiences alike.
“People leave the theater feeling like they’ve made a connection,” he says, a true testimony that “people’s souls need to be fed as much as their mouths.”
His style he says is “unpredictable but rooted.” It’s about continuing to honor the past, celebrating the present and the hope of where you can possibly go. “We’re only limited by our own imagination,” he says.
Admittedly, his works are physically demanding, says Battle. But he’s doing something right. The company started with a record breaking season at its New York City base, City Center. “People came to see performances 9 and 10 times because they are excited about what we are doing,” he says.
At the upcoming Arsht center showing, the company will feature “Petite Mort,” “Grace,” “In/Side” and Ailey’s classic must-see “Revelations.”
“This is a very powerful season,” he says. “The repertoire is so diverse.”
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre comes to the Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Arsht Center,1300 Biscayne Blvd., from Feb. 21 to 24. Tickets range from $25 to $120, with matinee and evening shows; go to www.arshtcenter.org.
This feature also appears in the Miami New Times.
Photo: Yannick Lebrun, Kirven James Boyd and Antonio Douthit in Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort. Photo by Paul Kolnik