Passing the baton

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returns to cheering crowds at the Tel Aviv Dance festival.

October 22, 2010 16:12
4 minute read.
Passing the Baton

Passing the Baton 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Last year, one of the highlights of the Tel Aviv Dance festival was the performance of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Other American companies had received mixed reviews. However, at the end of almost two hours of dance, the audience looked as if they had just seen The Beatles.

The entire crowd was on their feet, applauding endlessly. This is the magic of AAADT. This month, the company returns to Israel for Tel Aviv Dance 2010 with two new programs and, hopefully, the same pizzazz.

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The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has been around for more than 50 years. The company’s long life has been peppered with ups and downs. Alvin Ailey passed away in 1989; Judith Jamison was appointed artistic director shortly thereafter; and the company relocated to a new facility in 2004 – all of which were defining moments for America’s largest dance troupe. Time will tell, but the company has just come to another pivotal point in its history.

Two years ago Jamison announced her decision to step down as artistic director, a position she had held and thrived in for two decades. Whispers quickly circulated throughout the dance world: Who would replace her? Many suspected that the board of directors, whose main objective has been to preserve Ailey’s legacy, would promote from within. Jamison was a dancer in the company when she was chosen to take the reins.

About a year ago, a short list was assembled. Three prominent choreographers from the New York community had been selected. Of them, one seemed a stretch. His name is Robert Battle.

At first glance, Battle did not seem to be an obvious or even likely choice. He did not attend the Ailey school. He never worked personally with Ailey. Aside from a few pieces he choreographed for the company and a period during which he danced with Ailey II, Battle was not overly associated with the Ailey organization. He received his training at the Julliard School, was a member of Parsons Dance and founded his own company, Battleworks.

Battle’s critics worry because he never worked with Ailey. This is true. When Battle danced for Ailey II, Ailey was no longer living. However, Battle felt as much a part of the Ailey family as anyone else. “Often you know about someone through work and not through a personal relationship. That’s how I felt about Mr. Ailey because of the humanity in his work.”

In 2011, Jamison will officially step down, leaving Battle in charge of arguably the most powerful dance institution in the world. The Ailey organization includes the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ailey II (the second company of 12 dancers), the Ailey School, AileyCamp and the Ailey Extension, which offers hundreds of open classes every month.

Of course, taking on this new role is overwhelming for Battle, he explained from a hotel room in London. “Humbled. I would have to say that was the overwhelming feeling,” he said, referring to the moments after he was informed that he had been selected for the position. “Also excited to think that somebody thought that much of what I did, and if that somebody was Judith Jamison, that’s pretty good.”

Battle is a warm and funny man. Even now, having been given a task that would make most people lose sleep, Battle has a casualness about him that is disarming. He has a deep respect for and knowledge of dance history. In his open classes, which he taught for years at Steps on Broadway and the Peridance Center, he often referred to his predecessors Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Jose Limon and David Parsons. Perhaps this quality is what set him apart from his contenders. “We need to take a cue from music; they do a better job of preservation.

The Ailey Company is about past, present and future,” he said.

As AAADT is a repertory company, it is now Battle’s job to decide whose work will be added to the list of famous choreographers to have stood in Ailey’s studios. “I’m looking at different ways of nurturing young choreographic voices. That’s something that I am passionate about.”

No doubt the coming years will be interesting ones for AAADT. “My aspiration is to keep pushing the envelope. I’m a person who likes surprises. Some people have called me a maverick. By nature, the fact that I’m different will make the company different. I will continue to expand on what’s already there,” he said.

No AAADT show would be complete without Revelations, an American dance classic choreographed by Ailey in 1960. Revelations is the only piece to be presented in both programs. Joining Revelations are Suite Otis by George Faison, Dancing Spirit by Ronald K. Brown and Ferra Barocca by Mauro Bigonzetti. In addition, this tour will feature two pieces by their new director: the solo In/Side and Unfold.

AAADT will perform on October 26 through October 30 at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center. For tickets, call (03) 692-7777 or visit

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