By Ciara LaVelle
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Dance is a fragile art form, as fleeting as life itself. Merce Cunningham's company disbanded at the end of 2011, a year and a half after his death. And Pina, Wim Wenders's Oscar-nominated documentary about famed German choreographer Pina Bausch, is a memorial to the recent passing of a powerful force in contemporary performance. The alchemy of dance is so delicate that even the change of one key performer can make a distinct impact. That is why the international creative community is so eagerly watching the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's third iteration.
Founded in 1958 by Ailey, an African-American choreographer, the company has become a standard-bearer of modern dance technique and a monument to black history. Before he died in 1989, Ailey passed his company to one of his star dancers, Judith Jamison. For 21 years, Jamison did the Ailey name proud. Under her leadership, the organization grew to include the main company, a junior company, a professional-level dance school, and a community education program.
Jamison continued to build the repertory with new commissions by some of the world's most accomplished choreographers. She also kept Ailey's work alive, staging classics including the 1960 Revelations, which has become part of the contemporary dance lexicon across the world.
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Enter Miami native and former New World student Robert Battle, age 39. In 2011, Jamison chose him to become the company's new artistic director. This assignment of a lifetime is all the more impressive considering Battle's background.
From an early age, he was raised by his great-aunt and great-uncle, whom he sometimes refers to as his mother and father. When he was 5, the family moved from Jacksonville to Miami's Liberty City neighborhood. His other mother figure, cousin Dessie Horne, was a major influence in his new neighborhood and on Battle. "She was important in the community because she was a teacher of English for many years in the public school system" and was also a cultural leader, Battle says. "She had a group called the Afro-Americans that performed in schools and churches and theaters. They performed poetry and song dealing with the black experience. I was surrounded by the arts."
Battle attended Orchard Villa Elementary School, Allapattah Junior High, and then Miami Northwestern. He had miraculously overcome bowlegs and leg braces to become an exceptional ballet dancer. His talents were refined at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center on NW 22nd Avenue, where his teachers encouraged him to take his studies seriously. He eventually landed at New World School of the Arts. "A lot of the reason, I think, why we are creative people is because we have restrictions, you know, something that we have to overcome," he recently told PBS's Tavis Smiley. "Then that creates the idea of possibility... We make a way out of no way."
Gerri Houlihan, dance professor at Florida State University, renowned choreographer, and co-dean of the American Dance Festival, was on New World's original dance faculty. She vividly recalls the young Battle. "When a teacher has a student like that, who is so dedicated and so talented and so creative, it feeds both the teacher and the student." Battle and Houlihan spent many hours after school rehearsing passages of movement well after everyone else had gone home. "I started making combinations to teach in class for Robert," she says, "because I wanted to see what they were going to look like. And I knew I could see him do it and know what worked and what didn't and how it should be phrased." Battle was also beginning to develop his own choreographic voice. With Houlihan's encouragement, he left for New York's Juilliard School in 1990, and his career soon took off.
Houlihan has remained a mentor. She witnessed the arduous selection for the artistic director position, which she describes as "a long process, many interviews... He started as part of a fairly large pool of candidates which got smaller and smaller." When Battle finally received the good news, it spread quickly through the Miami dance community. Now the dance world waits to see what will happen. What will he do with the alchemy?
Battle is an innovator but not a reckless renegade — he clearly has reverence for the Ailey legacy. "What's important to me," he says, "is to honor tradition but to move briskly into the future." Already, Battle has broken new ground by putting hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris's Home and Israeli-American Ohad Naharin's Minus 16 in the repertoire of his inaugural season.
Houlihan stood backstage with Battle for the New York premieres of both pieces. She describes a definite shift. "I honestly feel that the company looks like they're dancing differently. I sense an openness and a freedom in their dancing that just seems a little different from what had been before."
Jamison has absolute faith in her successor, who spent months with her while he learned the ropes. "The most important information that Judith Jamison passed on to me is the encouragement to be myself," Battle explains. "I think you actually hear that a lot from people, if they've reached any form of success, that the best advice they received was to trust their gut and their instinct, and their individuality."