Precision technique, athleticism and poignant storytelling are synonymous with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater -- a powerhouse company that has kept the torch of African-American life, history and dance aflame on stage since 1958.
Led now by artistic director and Miami native Robert Battle, Ailey is making its yearly return to the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts Thursday, Feb. 20. The company's five shows will feature a mix of new works, such as "Lift," "Chroma" and "D-Man in the Waters," alongside classics including "Revelations."
The company selects new pieces each year, but this year's additions, like the company's mission, goes well beyond dance.
"D-Man in the Waters" was created in 1989 by innovator Bill T. Jones in response to the AIDS epidemic. It was a time when so many dancers were lost to the disease, including the company's founder Alvin Ailey.
"The work really speaks to the tenacity of the human spirit," Battle said, noting that "it's not so much a sad dance as it is about transcendence." This year also marks the 25th anniversary of Ailey's passing.
"Chroma," by award-winning British choreographer Wayne McGregor, shows off the dancers' classical training, which Battle says often goes unnoticed. It features astonishing lifts and layered technique. The massive set requires dancers to move within a large white box.
"I think audiences will appreciate it as they have at City Center [in New York City] where we premiered it," Battle said.
A favorite stop on Ailey's 23-city U.S. tour, Miami represents a homecoming for Battle and principal dancers Kelly Robotham and Jamar Roberts -- all graduates of the New World School of the Arts in Miami who were inspired to pursue dance after seeing the company perform as teens.
"To understand the significance of a young boy growing up in Liberty City, a tough neighborhood, for me, it's more of a testimony to people who really cared about me and made sure that I was in church on Sundays, who nurtured my talent and who thought I had the ability to do something," Battle said. Of course, that boy grew up to be hand-picked as company leader in 2011 by former artistic director Judith Jamison. "When you think of Alvin Ailey's masterpiece 'Revelations,' he created it in 1960. Well, for me, my life is a revelation, and part of that is because I saw the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater."
Performing in Miami is also celebratory for 25-year-old Ailey dancer Robotham of South Miami.
"Coming home to dance is probably one of the best times of the year for me," she said. Like Battle, Robotham and Roberts (who won't be dancing in Miami due to an injury), are greeted at the Arsht Center by an audience full of family, friends and former teachers when they return.
Robotham and Roberts both got their early start at Dance Empire of Miami. Robotham said her parents took her to see an Ailey show for inspiration when she was about 12.
"Dancing with Alvin Ailey, I'm giving back to so many children and people," Robotham said. "It keeps people reminded to celebrate, and it shows what it's like to be a part of African-American culture."
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The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Thursday, Feb. 20, through Sunday, Feb. 23, at 8 p.m. with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Individual programs rotate, although all performances include "Revelations;" at the Arsht Center's Sanford and Dolores Ziff Ballet Opera House, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; tickets range from $20 to $120, arshtcenter.org; 305-949-6722.
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