In 1958, Alvin Ailey and a group of fellow black modern dancers staged what was supposed to be a one-time performance. Instead, it led to the birth to the critically acclaimed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Ailey, the company’s founder, drew from the rich tradition of black music — blues and gospel — to shape his choreography. The company has performed in 71 countries for an estimated 25 million people and is celebrating 60 years. They’re bringing new works to stages across the country and are performing at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago through March 10.
Artistic director Robert Battle joins Morning Shift to talk about the company’s history and future as they celebrate their 60th anniversary.
How did the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater start?
Robert Battle: It was started by a courageous black man Alvin Ailey, who was born in 1931 in Rogers, Texas — and we know all that history in terms of being a African American in this country and what he must have faced. But he had the courage in 1958 to stick his neck out and start this dance company because he didn’t see the images that he wanted to see in the stories being told about his people on the concert stage. And in fact, for a black dancer to find work was very difficult in that field.
And so, in some ways, the company that was founded on the brink of the civil rights movement in 1958 is in a way a movement in of itself, which I think is the reason why 60 years later we’re still dancing.
On the evolution of the dance company
Jenn White: It started as a black dance company, but that evolved over time. Talk about that evolution.
Battle: He had a definite mission to open the door for black dancers. But he also said, ‘If you can do my steps, you can dance for my company.’ When I think about the perfect example of that, that opens this, is our associate art director Masazumi Chaya, from Fukuoka, Japan, who’s been part of the company for over 40 years. So he was very much open. He understood that we all needed each other.
On becoming the company’s third artistic director
Battle: I was surrounded by understanding something about our past through the arts. I played piano, sang soprano — not now — and eventually I started dancing. And they would show videotape at my school of Alvin Ailey, of Revelations, of Cry danced by Judith Jamison … and then they came to town, much like we’re here on tour, when I was 12 or 13 and we got bussed in to see a mini performance of the company.
And all I could think of was those people look like me, not knowing that someday I’d have a full scholarship to Julliard and ultimately be asked by Judith Jamison to succeed her. Amazing.
White: And you’re only the third artistic director in this company’s history. Talk about what it felt like stepping into that role.
Battle: I felt just a sense of gratitude. This little boy — this little big-headed boy who was born completely bowlegged, who had to have braces put on my legs to straighten them out — here I was, who always wanted to be a preacher, and here I was given this amazing pulpit, which is the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
On the company’s different approach to dance and movement
Battle: Some of our audience who may not go to see another dance company or a performance love this company because of the accessibility. Alvin Ailey was into theaters, he did plays. And so, he incorporates all that sense of theatricality into the modern dance form.
It’s extremely physical, very versatile repertoire — you see everything from classical to jazz and hip hop and all of the like. The dancers can do pretty much everything. And it’s that accessibility that you don’t just see in an Ailey performance but that you feel it and take it with you.
On celebrating the company’s 60th anniversary and the Chicago performance
Battle: We are 60 years old as a company but it feels like we’re just getting started.
What we wanted to do with the 60th anniversary is really remember Alvin Ailey and bring his voice to the foreground in as many ways as possible. So I asked the wonderful hip hop choreographer Rennie Harris. He uses street dance as a way to express himself and he created this work inspired by the work of Alvin Ailey’s and it’s called Lazarus … and it’s our first-ever two-act ballet.
But it’s wonderfully relevant, because it looks at the Civil Rights movement, things that Alvin Ailey might’ve experienced either himself or known about … and then the second half, you get into resistance and the tenacity of the human spirit and the fact that he lives and resides in all of us.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity by Stephanie Kim. Click “play” to hear the full conversation.
GUEST: Robert Battle, artistic director for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater
LEARN MORE: The Passionate Humility of Solomon Dumas (The New York Times 12/27/18)