Legendary Dance Theater Taps New Leader

They have performed in 48 states and 71 countries, for more than 20 million people. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater started as a small group of black dancers and today is an internationally renowned powerhouse of talent. In July, a new artistic director will lead the New York-based company, succeeding dance legend Judith Jamison. As part of a special Tell Me More broadcast from the Big Apple, host Michel Martin speaks with choreographer and artist-in-residence, Robert Battle, about his new role and vision for the company.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We are still in a New York state of mind broadcasting from New York today - my hometown. And of course the arts are central to the life of New York City. And so today we visit with the incoming leader of one of the most powerful and respected performing arts companies in the country. Of course we're talking about the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Its performances have been viewed by more than 20 million people around the world. It may be the premiere institution for spreading the beauty of American dance. It is certainly one of the most loved.

But since it was founded in 1958, it has been led by only two people: Alvin Ailey himself and the iconic dancer Judith Jamison, a former dancer in the company. But now Jamison has decided to step aside from her role as artistic director and the board has decided that she will be succeeded by Robert Battle.

With just a couple of months before the official beginning of his new appointment, we wanted to check in to ask him how things are going. And we actually caught up with him not in New York, but in Georgia at member station Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. ROBERT BATTLE (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater): Thank you. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Isn't it intimidating, forgive me for asking this question...

Mr. BATTLE: Oh. No.

MARTIN: ...but is it intimidating to step into the shoes of someone who really is an icon? I mean, certainly you are very accomplished in your own right. You know, you're a graduate of Juilliard, you've founded your own company, you've, you know, choreographed many works. But Judith Jamison is a person who's known outside of the world of dance. Is that intimidating?

Mr. BATTLE: Not at all, because, you know, we become known. We don't arrive that way. I trust that the work I do is the work that I'm supposed to be doing. And I trust in the fact that that person who is known outside of the realm of dance, Judith Jamison, chose me. That alone gives me a sense of courage and confidence to be doing what it is that I'm doing.

MARTIN: In fact, in 2008, I had the opportunity to speak to the diva herself and I asked her about her retirement. Apparently she was thinking about it then. And this is what she had to say. Here it is.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Ms. JUDITH JAMISON (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater): I know that I have been here long enough to become, quote, "an icon," but then icons have people who admire them and people who maybe want to emulate them and people who want to be uniquely themselves. And that's the point I've been trying to make in choosing someone who understands their uniqueness and understands the integrity of Mr. Ailey's vision and understands the magic that I've created along with a lot of help from my friends to sustain it another 50 years.

MARTIN: So, tall order there: understands their uniqueness, understands the integrity of the vision and the magic. Of those three, the uniqueness, integrity and the magic, which do you think was the draw for you in drawing Ms. Jamison and the board to you?

Mr. BATTLE: I think all three if I may be so bold as to toot my own horn. I think all three. I've always been a person that has been very much interested, even as I began to study dance. I was always interested in how this began. Where did it come from? I'm interested in the history of what I'm doing and understanding that I'm standing on the shoulders of many who've come before. That gives me a certain sense of power, in a way, to understand your history.

That's what we do as performers on that stage. That's what 31 dancers, marvelous dancers with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater do. At any moment on the stage, we are reaching back because movement didn't start with us, right? And then we're in the present because there's the audience looking at us and we've having this exchange. But we're also saying something about the future because we're using our bodies as a form of expression. What could be more profound than that?

So I think it's been something that I've always understood. It's been a part of my upbringing to understand that. Growing up in the church in Liberty City, Miami, knowing something about our roots as a people, for me to have this opportunity to express that is remarkable, but I think it's been a journey that I've been on since birth.

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

I'm speaking with Robert Battle. He is the incoming artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the country's premier cultural institutions. You know, speaking of from birth, do I have this right, that you were actually born bowlegged and needed leg braces when you were little?

Mr. BATTLE: Yes.

MARTIN: Is that true?

Mr. BATTLE: That is absolutely true, which made it interesting that dance became my home in a way.

MARTIN: How did it happen for you? And I do want to mention that you didn't start studying, if I also have this part right, that you didn't start studying dance until high school which...

Mr. BATTLE: Yes.

MARTIN: ...you know, for girl would be impossible to fathom that you would come to this stage, and for a boy, even, improbable.

Mr. BATTLE: Yes.

MARTIN: So how did you come to start studying dance?

Mr. BATTLE: Well, I grew up in a household that the arts were all around, except we didn't think of it as the arts. I mean my mother played piano for the church, she also taught English, so literature was all around me growing up. And she had a group called the Afro-Americans, and they did poetry and song coming from our black past, celebrating our culture. And they would always rehearse at home, so I heard all of this poetry and all of this, so I was interested in the arts at an early age. The first song she taught me was "That's Entertainment," and here I am.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BATTLE: So be careful what you teach your children. Anyway...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I'll remember that.

Mr. BATTLE: And so, I was around that right. And so, it was a journey that led me to dance. And also, that was the era of imitating Michael Jackson; "Billie Jean" had just come out, "Thriller," all of that. So I was doing that stuff and it just seemed to segue into dance. And then I saw "Revelations" and we're celebrating 50 years of "Revelations."

MARTIN: The Ailey company's signature work.

Mr. BATTLE: Right. I saw that in Miami, Florida. We were bused there like the young people were bused today in Atlanta, the Fox Theater. And I saw it and it was everything that I grew up understanding and I got it. And it took hold of me and I believe that it's what took me from Liberty City, Miami, to New York City, and now to the head of the company.

MARTIN: Well, it is quite powerful. You know, I do have ask about "Revelations," since you, you know, this is the pain part of our conversation. There are those who on the one hand Ailey is a beloved cultural institution. And it's not just performance; it is really part of the life of a community, and particularly in New York.

Mr. BATTLE: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

MARTIN: But there are those who will argue that it's really gotten stuck in the same way that they argue, some critics say, you know what, "The Nutcracker" has swallowed American ballet and it's become all about "The Nutcracker," and that's all that people know.

Mr. BATTLE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And some will say that as much as people appreciate "Revelations," and "Revelations" is the door into dance for some people, they'll say the company's got to move beyond "Revelations." What would you say to that?

Mr. BATTLE: Well, it's hard to say that when we keep filling houses, so somewhere along the way I question that criticism. It's like a great work of art. It's like I always think of the "Mona Lisa," we would never think of taking it down because so many people have seen it, so we're not going to take "Revelations" off the stage because I believe that it has become tradition. I believe that it is just as important as knowing who Martin Luther King was. To me it's important to see "Revelations" because of what it did for me and I know that it's done that for millions of other young people.

I mean, of course, I've heard those kinds of mutterings. But I always remember, you know, I think about poetry. My mother used to recite this poem when she'd perform, and I remember the first lines of it. It's called "People Will Talk." And it started: You may get through the world, but it will be very slow if you listen to all that is said as you go. You'll be worried and fretted and kept in a stew for meddlesome tongues will have something to do. For people will talk.

But as people talk, we keep dancing "Revelations" and people keep coming to see it, and it's a way to get people into the theater and then we can show them whatever we want. But they have to come inside first and "Revelations" is that wonderful door, as you said, into what we do.

MARTIN: What's next for you? Surely, you will want to put your stamp on the company in some way. And perhaps this is premature, but give us a hint.

Mr. BATTLE: Absolutely. I always have this image of Mr. Ailey and Ms. Jamison when I think of my upbringing in the church. As a young person, of course, we were always restless, crawling under the pews, you know, doing what young people do. There was a wonderful moment in the church where the preacher would come down from the pulpit and stand in front and open his arms wide and say, the doors of the church are open. And that's the image I have of this company, of Mr. Ailey and Ms. Jamison, is that notion that Mr. Ailey said, which is dance comes from the people and should be delivered back to the people. And my job is to open the doors even wider.

MARTIN: Robert Battle is the incoming artistic director of the Ailey American Dance Theater.

Robert Battle, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. BATTLE: Oh, thank you. This is wonderful. Thanks for the opportunity.

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