Interview: Robert Battle, director of Alvin Ailey Dance Theater

Alvin Ailey Dance Theater has a proud history stretching back to the 1950s, when it's titular founder blazed a trail through the American scene and gave hitherto unheard-of opportunities to black dancers. As the company prepares to visit Edinburgh, current director Robert Battle tells Kelly Apter about the need for the company to champion new work, from hip-hop to ballet, to run alongside its popular repertoire

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims in Alvin Ailey's Revelations. Photo by Andrew Eccles
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims in Alvin Ailey's Revelations. Photo by Andrew Eccles

Dancing shoes come in all shapes and sizes – but few are bigger than the ones Robert Battle stepped into in 2011. As artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the most popular modern dance companies in the world, he is part of a select group of three. Judith Jamieson was at the helm for 22 years – personally chosen by Alvin Ailey himself shortly before he died – and Jamieson then passed the baton to Battle. When I meet him in a London hotel, at the start of the company’s first UK tour since Battle took over, the freshness of his position has yet to wear off.

A “search committee” of six, headed by Jamieson, first approached Battle in March 2008, and after two long years of interviews he finally got a call requesting his presence at “a meeting”.

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“I can still remember everything about that day,” he says. “I walked into the office and everything seemed to be in a state of suspension. And then Judith Jamieson and the search committee all stood up, and I’m searching faces for good or bad news, then she grabbed my arms and said “it’s yours”. I was speechless; no words seemed to meet the moment. And I don’t ever want to lose that sense of gratitude.”

The top job in any big organisation comes with a sense of reverence, but that’s particularly the case at this New York company. Mr Ailey, as all the dancers refer to him, blazed a trail through the American modern dance scene, giving hitherto unseen opportunities to black dancers when he formed the company in 1958.

He also created almost 80 dance works before his untimely death in 1989, aged just 58 – but one in particular has gone on to have the most incredible legacy: Revelations.

If you’ve ever seen Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform, then you’ve seen Revelations. It’s the permanent curtain call which ends any mixed bill the company takes on tour – and if they don’t, there’s trouble.

“People demand it,” says Battle. “And when we don’t do it, we hear about it, and sometimes ticket sales reflect that. It’s like a rite of passage – people bring their friends or children and say you’ve got to see Revelations, and they assume it’s going to be performed.”

Set to a series of African-American spirituals and gospel songs, the piece is both poignant and jubilant, invariably getting the whole crowd on its feet and clapping by the end.

Battle took up his new position armed with ideas for exciting choreographic commissions, for ways to move the company forward. Did it ever cross his mind to drop Revelations to make way for something new?

“No, we need Revelations in the same way that we need to see the Mona Lisa,” he says. “Yes, lots of people have already seen it, but we live in a time where what was new yesterday is ancient the next day, the next hour. But I hope that the arts are held to a different standard. We are blessed to have Revelations, because nobody else does.”

Another reason the company can bring out a 56-year-old work time and again, however, is because the rest of its repertoire is so fresh and innovative. Over two nights in Edinburgh, we’ll see works by four different choreographers (as well as Ailey) – one of whom is hip hop specialist, Rennie Harris.

Watching the Ailey dancers, all of whom built their technique on a foundation of modern dance and classical ballet, deliver hip hop moves is something special. Not only is Harris’ Exodus exhilarating, but because he was influenced by the tragic race-related shootings dominating the news in 2014-15, and the loss of his mother during the rehearsal process, it’s also deeply poetic.

“There are lots of things going on in Rennie’s piece,” says Battle. “But I’m happy that although the subject matter is heavy, people from all backgrounds and persuasions seem to find something in it that’s quite powerful for them.

“As for the movement, most of the dancers, in one way or another, did these steps when they were younger – but then the training takes over. So Rennie is very specific and goes back to the roots of it. And during the early parts of the rehearsal process, the dancers are really taking hip hop class and learning about its history, because Rennie has that knowledge, it’s not just about having fun.”

Another treat in the programme is a tender pas de deux by in-demand choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. Created for New York City Ballet, and recently performed by The Royal Ballet, After the Rain features an intimate duet which the Ailey dancers have made their own. And, since the company attracts audiences who don’t ordinarily go to dance, as well as dance fans, taking a work like After the Rain into the repertoire gives a whole different set of people a chance to see it.

“Sometimes choreographers will say to me ‘why don’t you have this other piece of mine, everybody has already seen that one’ – and I say, no they haven’t,” explains Battle. “And that’s the wonderful thing about it, there will be thousands of people who come to see our company who would otherwise never see these works. So I like those little gems that challenge how the audience views us.”

Defying expectations, and bringing in unexpected choreographers such as Paul Taylor (who is also in the Edinburgh programme) has been a quest for Battle ever since he became artistic director – something he’s clearly enjoying.

“It’s fun,” he says, rubbing his hands gleefully. “I knew I wanted to have surprises, and I was thinking about expectations, because it’s fun to play with those and do the opposite.

“People didn’t think I was going to call Paul Taylor and have him in the programme. I love Paul’s work, I wasn’t doing it just for effect, but I was certainly aware that it would be the last thing people thought I would do.” n

*Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 18 and 19 October,