Defining movement with the legendary Alvin Ailey Dance Theater

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Founded in 1958, the historic Alvin Ailey Dance Theater returns to Boston with their inimitable African-American cultural expression. The group has been brought to the city by the Celebrity Series of Boston since 1968. The performance this year features Lawrence, Mass. native Belen Pereyra, and will include several premieres in addition to classic repertoire productions. Artistic Director Robert Battle has been at the helm of the organization since 2011, and shared his professional insights and vision for the renowned dance company.

Ailey II's Elizabeth Washington, Fana Tesfagiorgis and Solomon Dumas in Alvin Ailey's Revelations. (Photo by Eduardo Patino)

Ailey II’s Elizabeth Washington, Fana Tesfagiorgis and Solomon Dumas in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. (Photo by Eduardo Patino)

After a lengthy association with the organization as a choreographer and artist-in-residence, Battle became only the third person to head the Company since it was founded by Alvin Ailey. Battle’s introduction to modern dance began in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, Florida. He studied dance at a high school arts magnet program before attending Miami’s New World School of the Arts. As a student at The Juilliard School, he met his mentor, Carolyn Adams.

Battle also performed and choreographed for The Parsons Dance Company between 1994 and 2001. He was honored as one of the “Masters of African-American Choreography” by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2005, and received the prestigious Statue Award from the Princess Grace Foundation-USA in 2007.

For this year’s Boston performances, Battle compiled a program that includes the regional premieres of the Cuba-influenced Open Door (choreography by Ronald K. Brown, 2015), Exodus (Rennie Harris, 2015), and Battle’s own Awakening (2015).  The first Boston performance of Battle’s No Longer Silent (2007) will also be featured along with the company’s premiere of Piazzolla Caldera (Paul Taylor, 1997) and new productions of Toccata (Talley Beatty, 1960), the classic Alvin Ailey works Cry (1971) and Love Songs (1972), as well as the perennial audience-favorite, Revelations (1960).

“(Alvin Ailey’s) story is so representative of the American dream. He took some of the atrocities of bigotry and hate, and used those feelings to express something quite powerful. He turned it into something universal and positive…”

Celebrating Black History Month, Battle described the historic legacy of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and its founder: “When you think about Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater you have to think about the legacy of Alvin Ailey himself. He was a visionary. Mr. Ailey was a black man born in Rogers, Texas in 1931, and raised by a single mother. Yet, he found his way to New York City, and in 1958 created the cultural phenomenon that is Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. That story is so representative of the American dream. He took some of the atrocities of bigotry and hate, and used those feelings to express something quite powerful. He turned it into something universal and positive when he created Revelations, the company’s signature work. It’s the masterpiece that he created in 1960, which celebrates the experience of African-Americans in this country. It is a dance, set to a suite of spirituals, that expresses our hopes and aspirations.”

Artistic Director Robert Battle. (Photo by Andrew Eccles)

Artistic Director Robert Battle. (Photo by Andrew Eccles)

Battle emphasized that the company’s influence extends well beyond the United States, and feels it represents the best of what the country has to offer culturally. “It’s not just a dance company, it’s a movement. As the third Artistic Director, after Alvin Ailey and then Judith Jamison (who led the company for 21 years), I have the opportunity to experience the impact of this Company all over the world. I get to see how people react, and how much the company is loved.”

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has been seen by an estimated 25 million people, in 71 countries, on 6 continents. As a result, Battle suggests, they are “cultural ambassadors to the world.” He also added emphatically, “If that’s not something that needs to be celebrated during Black History Month (which I celebrate all year), then I don’t know what is.”

“Dancers are what Martha Graham called ‘athletes of God.’ And they are athletes. Their training is quite intensive, and always ongoing. It takes a lot of work to make one graceful gesture on the stage, and they make thousands of gestures on the stage.”

The widespread appeal of the company is exemplified in Revelations’ unique combination of artistic and individual expression. Battle explained the number’s enduring attraction: “Revelations is an audience favorite because it’s a masterpiece. It begins as a personal expression, yet it connects to the universal landscape. It defies place, and time, and circumstance. People understand Revelations, whether they are across the street or across the ocean. People can lay their own burden down into that work, and be uplifted by it. No matter what your personal story is, you can find something of yourself reflected in Revelations. That is why it is so beloved all over the world.”

When Battle traveled abroad with the company, he saw firsthand how the classic production profoundly affected people, regardless of language and national barriers. “When I first took over the Company,” he said, “we happened to be in Russia. I’d never felt so far away from home. But when Revelations started, there was no sense that I was far away. It felt like we were all one. The audience was moving to and fro, clapping, and dancing in the aisles. There was no sense that we didn’t all speak the same language. Revelations speaks to all of us, and that’s why people love it so much.”

Audiences around the world are continually impressed by the fitness and agility of the company’s dancers. Battle identified their rigorous training as a key component of their success. “Dancers are what Martha Graham called ‘athletes of God.’ And they are athletes. Their training is quite intensive, and always ongoing. It takes a lot of work to make one graceful gesture on the stage, and they make thousands of gestures on the stage.”

“People understand Revelations, whether they are across the street or across the ocean. People can lay their own burden down into that work, and be uplifted by it. No matter what your personal story is, you can find something of yourself reflected in Revelations. That is why it is so beloved all over the world.”

Like the finest musicians, writers, and actors, the dancers have to work long and hard to make their performance look flawless and effortless. Battle elaborated on their laborious routine: “That sense of making something look easy, as these dancers do, requires a great deal of training. Maya Angelou often references Nathaniel Hawthorne’s quote: ‘Easy reading is damn hard writing.’ These dancers exemplify that idea. They train for hours and hours every day. When you see them in a performance, they’ve probably had several hours of rehearsal beforehand.”

The most telling evidence of Battle’s effective approach is the intangible mystery of the dancers’ personal expression emanating from the exacting group unison.  Battle’s explanation of his selection process revealed how he is able to fuse the seemingly divergent approaches: “(B)eyond the physical prowess, which is of course important, I look for a dancer who has to dance. Not who wants to dance, but has to dance. I look for dancers who can only define the world around them through movement. When audiences come and see the dancers, they feel that they know something about each individual dancer. That essence is what I look for in an audition.”

Like great opera singers, the company’s renowned dancers combine rigorous grounding in classical technique with profound individual expression, moving audiences with their deeply compelling narratives. Battle ascribed the successful formula to the company’s founder: “As Alvin Ailey said, ‘Use my steps, but show yourself.’ That is the cornerstone of an Ailey dancer. You don’t just see them, but you feel them.”

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Ronald K. Brown's Open Door. (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Ronald K. Brown’s Open Door. (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is part of the Celebrity Series of Boston, and will be at the Citi Performing Arts Center Wang Theatre from March 17-20, 2016. The theater is located on 270 Tremont Street in Boston. Tickets are available online at www.celebrityseries.org, by calling Citi Charge at 800-982-2787, or at the Citi Wang Theatre box office.

Contact Mary McCleary at [email protected].

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