By Jordan Levin for Miami Herald
When Robert Battle became artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2011, he was already an experienced choreographer who had made dances for his own company as well as the Ailey troupe and other groups.
But when he began last fall to make Awakening, his first piece since taking over the storied troupe, he found that fully stepping into the artistic shoes of founder Alvin Ailey, who started the company in 1958, was still a daunting experience.
As a young dance student at Miami’s Northwestern Senior High School, Battle, 43, was inspired by seeing the Ailey troupe perform its beloved classic Revelations. And he’s highly conscious of the weight of tradition he carries as the third director of a company that is a powerful expression of African-American culture and achievement, and one of the most influential institutions in the dance world.
“The dance has so much to do with my feelings around a sense of calling, of standing on Alvin’s shoulders,” Battle said during a recent visit to Miami. “Wondering what it was like for him leading what became this huge organization. The responsibility and the glory of it.
“There’s that sense of being lost but found, that constant renewal, that sense of feeling like you’re flying without a net. And sometimes being completely grounded. When I first saw Revelations, it was an awakening. After seeing it you’ll never be the same. It’s always going to be a part of you. That’s what I’m trying to get at.”
That Awakening, which the Ailey troupe will perform when it opens its four-day run at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday, was commissioned for the center’s 10th anniversary adding another layer of meaning to the piece. (It premiered in the Ailey company’s season at New York City Center in December.)
“It was an honor,” Battle says. “This is where I’m from. So I’m very excited that it’ll be here. It’s a full circle moment.”
The Arsht Center has highlighted Miami’s connection with Battle in forging a close relationship with the company. The center hosts Ailey Camp, a summer program for middle school students, and a number of community activities during the company’s regular Miami visits. This year they include residencies at the Lenora B. Smith and Holmes elementary schools; master classes led by Battle and company members; an audition for the Ailey School in New York; and a free performance for Miami-Dade students. On Monday Battle will speak at the Café at Books & Books at the Arsht Center about his Miami roots and a new children’s book about his life, My Story, My Dance; Robert Battle’s Journey to Alvin Ailey.
Arsht Center president John Richard says that sponsoring Awakening was a natural next step.
“We’ve forged a great relationship that’s gone beyond the season … and we wanted to be there with him creating the first new work he would do as artistic director,” Richard says. “To bring a young organization like the Arsht Center into a role to create a new work for a company that is an ambassador for the United States and a hometown hero like Robert was a no-brainer. Now we get to see it as our very own. This feels like family and we treat each other as such.”