11/24/2011 08:51 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Robert Battle, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Artistic Director, Takes The Helm

"The crux of every work is the transition," choreographer Rennie Harris said, reflecting on his new work, "Home," dance in general, and -- almost unwittingly -- hinting at the even bigger changes taking place at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater this season: Robert Battle's November 30 debut as the company's newest artistic director.

It's a transition that the company's experienced only once before in its 53-year history, on December 1, 1989, World AIDS Day, when founder Alvin Ailey succumbed to the disease, leaving his legacy and his artistic vision in the accomplished hands of none other than Judith Jamison.


"It's kind of the same way that Alvin chose me, except it was different circumstances," Jamison says, recalling the change in leadership that took place 22 years ago relative to Battle, a seasoned dancer but relative Ailey newbie, and his taking control as the company's third artistic director.

"You don't get in unless you come from the outside," Battle quipped in response to critics who say Jamison brought in an "outsider" to fill her shoes.

It was actually Sylvia Waters, the artistic director of Ailey's second company, Ailey II, whom Jamison credits for bringing in Battle. Jamison says that Waters introduced her to Battle (as well as other choreographers who weren't on her agenda for AADT) and who played the biggest role in his rise to prominence in her eyes.

Jamison continues, sorting dates and dances aloud: "'Takademe,' the first thing I saw; 'Juba,' the very first work he did for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater..."

And then there was "Love Stories," she says.

The three-part work -- choreographed by herself, hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris and Robert Battle and set to the music of Stevie Wonder -- "was divided into three sections ... past, present and future. I did the past, Rennie did the present and Robert did the future," Jamison says.


Jamison remembers "Love Stories" as "a wonderful, wonderful collaboration," and perhaps it was a harbinger of things to come. Though she says she didn't know she was going to choose Battle back then, "It kind of put him on his way with me," she says.

Battle's incredible range further sealed his fate and Jamison's adoration. "He really touched my heart, and he's so diverse in his movement vocabulary. You can look at one piece and go 'That's Robert ... but that's also Robert,' even though one piece is terribly lyrical and another piece is hard and pulsating," she says. "He has a real cornucopia of movement up his sleeve."

Dance is always about the precipice, Jamison says. "It's always about ... trusting in God and in your God-given talent and expertise. The whole idea is to take chances and to go out on that ledge, and then take the great grand jete."

It's a move she's likely done thousands of times throughout her career. And when Jamison decided to leave the artistic directorship eight years ago, the process of choosing a successor offered the same opportunity.


Though harmonious in many of their philosophies on dance and Ailey and what it takes to perpetuate his original vision, Battle and Jamison view Battle's ascension in pretty stark contrast to one another.

"The decision-making was ongoing, but 'Robert' came out of my mouth. Boom. Just like that," she says.

Battle says, however, that "it was a long time coming. It was a long process of being chosen to take the helm."

Their perspectives are equally accurate, you could say. Like the months of rehearsals leading up to a five-week season at New York's City Center, Battle's move to the top spot was both lengthy and laconic.

For a year he served as the company's artistic director-designate, working alongside Ms. Jamison, dissolving his own company, Battleworks (a decision he speaks of with arrant resolve), and helping to produce new works, including Rennie Harris' story of people living with or affected by HIV, "Home."

The last of these duties, Battle says, is what truly sets his new position apart, providing him the chance to create "happy accidents," as he calls them, the perfect combination of dance and music and talent. "I've never been a curator. I mean, I'm a choreographer, but not bringing in choreography," he says. "To pick someone for a certain project or to say, 'This will go well with my dancers' ... is the most exciting part," he adds.


Alvin Ailey said that one of America's richest treasures was the cultural heritage of the African-American -- "sometimes sorrowful, sometimes jubilant, but always hopeful." This enduring classic is a tribute to that heritage and to Ailey's genius.

So the description reads for Ailey's iconic work "Revelations."

"From the moment I saw 'Revelations' when I was 12 years old, I felt connected to this company," Battle says. "That work reaches out and it embraces you. And so in some way this has been some sort of dream of mine since I was a little boy."

Luckily for Battle, he seems to have consistently found himself in the company of those whose passion is to coax hopes and dreams into being -- from his early instruction in Miami as a child, to his Julliard days with mentor, Carolyn Adams, to sitting at Jamison's right hand.

"I've always called myself a caretaker of the spirit," Jamison says, a quality she sees in Battle and one she feels is critical to carrying on Ailey's legacy for many years to come.

"Alvin Ailey created that artistic embrace ... he engaged not only dancers, but he was a teacher, he was a humanist, he understood people, and Robert has these qualities," Jamison says.

Here, she and Battle see eye-to-eye once again. "There's always [a wall] there," he says, referencing the redefined relationship he's developed with dancers who until now have been his peers. "That's the nature of being the boss," he says. And yet, "I'm really more interested in breaking down some of those walls so that I can really look at the people in front of me and lead [them] from the heart."

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will return to the New York City Center stage from November 30 to January 1 for its 40th consecutive year, following a historic restoration and modernization of the landmark building. A four-day engagement at Atlanta's Fabulous Fox Theatre is scheduled for February 16 through 19.