Liberty City Native Robert Battle Returns for His First Premiere and to Direct Alvin Ailey Dancers

Alvin Ailey American Dance Company returns to the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts under the direction of artistic director Robert Battle. The program features the premiere of Miami native Battle’s Awakening, a new dance work commissioned by the Arsht Center as part of the theater's tenth-anniversary celebration.

Awakening is a work that draws from Battle’s upbringing in the church and his fascination with storytelling. “I come from enough adversity to be able to tell a story that I think can motivate people and inspire people, especially young people,” Battle says. “Through all that — through all the inspiration of the choreography, the works that I choose for the repertory, the dancers that I choose — all of it is coming out of that desire to share my story in any way I can.”

Battle’s path to the head of one of the world’s most famous dance companies began in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood, where, bowlegged and shy, Battle lived with his great-aunt and -uncle. It was his great-aunt whose interest in the arts gave him his first exposure to the power of performance as a way to connect people. She would practice poetry and sing songs of the black experience, Battle remembers. 

“I think early on, starting to hear those things gave me a sense of purpose, because I started to understand where I came from.”

It was that interest in the stories of others that Battle looks for in his dancers. “Do they dance out of ‘have to’ or ‘want to’?” he asks. “A ‘want to’ can be temporary, but a ‘have to’ can be a lifetime of discovery in the studio. Alvin Ailey always said, ‘Use my steps, but show yourself.’ I look for dancers who within the steps they’re given, they tell you something about who they are. Even if you don’t understand it, you just want to know more. That, to me, is extremely important.”
Aware of the grand size of the shoes he had to fill, left by Ailey and Battle's immediate predecessor, Judith Jamison, Battle took his time before choreographing his first piece as the company’s artistic director. He needed to ensure that the work he produced was authentic and meaningful to both the company’s legacy and his own.

“Coming up with something that you hope will... inspire conversation by the audience, that part is very sacred and it doesn’t change regardless of where I am or where I go... I have clung more to the values that were instilled in me with my upbringing in Miami as a young person, and I feel the same way about my creative process.

"That is personal —a personal expression — and I guard that with my life.”

In Awakening, Battle’s story takes on a spiritual focus. “There’s a part in this new work where it’s almost like a baptismal, the whole notion of awakening, and by the end, I think of the dancers as a choir, because the movements they do — where they keep reaching up and out into space in a group setting — it reminds me of the choir and the way the voices counterpoint and go off of one another.”

In addition to presenting Awakening, the company will also put on a number of other works, alternating during the troupe's stint in Miami, and include the signature Ailey dance, Revelations.

— Rebekah Lanea Lengel, artburstmiami.com

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Ziff Ballet Opera House, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $25 to $90.

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