Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is back at Lincoln Center from June 15–19, after completing the first national tour since the start of the pandemic. Culminating Artistic Director Robert Battle’s 10th anniversary season, the engagement includes a program on Saturday featuring his signature choreography and a special gala on Thursday bringing together all parts of the organization to celebrate his innovative leadership, which has artfully advanced the Ailey legacy over the past decade.
Battle received a 2021 Dance Magazine Award, an honor given to living legends in the field. While he resists the idea of thinking of himself in such terms, this award and his myriad other achievements make it clear that he’s in the midst of creating an enviable legacy.
In fact, one of Mr. Ailey’s most noted adages has held particular strength for Battle this season: the idea that “dance came from the people and that it should always be delivered back to the people.” The challenges and uncertainty of the pandemic—a devastating period for a Company accustomed to performing for audiences around the world—made these words “a driving force of the organization,” says Battle.
A major challenge involved determining how to continue bringing dance to the people when performing in person wasn’t possible. Ailey All Access—an online initiative offering free full-length performances—was born of this need. Since March of 2020, viewers have been able to access the rotating selection of ballets from home (the current broadcasts will be available through June 20).
“We have such an impact, even when we’re offstage and on the digital platform,” says Battle, who emphasizes the tireless work of everyone within the organization. “We still have that sense of bringing people together.”
Digitally delivering dance to the people also brought Ailey Extension’s “real classes for real people” virtually across the world from Ailey’s beautiful studios—The Joan Weill Center for Dance. And, importantly, the recent release of the critically-acclaimed documentary AILEY (now streaming on Hulu) provides a rare opportunity for audiences to see the lasting impact of the organization alongside the life of its namesake—complete with extraordinary archival footage and commentary told in Mr. Ailey’s rich, baritone voice. In the film, Mr. Ailey asserts that despite pre-conceived notions about the Company, he never wanted to be pinned down or put inside a box.
“There is still ignorance around what people think we’re capable of,” says Battle, who believes in the infinite possibilities of the Company and the dancers. He creates space for that limitlessness in many ways, including through the repertory.
Ailey Executive Director Bennett Rink applauds Battle for the work he’s done to expand the repertory. “Robert has brought in new choreographic voices like Azsure Barton and Jamar Roberts, and seminal choreographers like Paul Taylor,” says Rink, mentioning three choreographers whose ballets will be seen at Lincoln Center. “These works even further show the range of the dancers and the Company, and they engage our audiences in a new way.”
In addition to Barton, Roberts, and Taylor, the Lincoln Center engagement wouldn’t be complete without works by Mr. Ailey and Battle himself. Even within his own 10th Anniversary program, the breadth is undeniable, covering more than two decades and a range of styles and musical choices. His swirling duet Unfold (2007) features a Gustave Charpentier aria sung by opera legend Leontyne Price. Ella (2008) is a tour-de-force duet set to Ella Fitzgerald. Mass (2004) is a ritualistic ensemble work played against a contemporary classical score by John Mackey. In/Side (2008) is a gripping solo set to Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind.” The celebratory Love Stories (2004) finale is set to Stevie Wonder’s jubilant “Fingertips.” Takademe (1999) is a thrilling solo that interplays with the stunning vocal rhythms of Sheila Chandra. For Four (2021) is a striking commentary on America’s twin pandemics laid over a jazz score by Wynton Marsalis.
For Four, created for video during the pandemic, is a prime example of how Battle is thinking about ways in which technology can help to amplify the Company. It also achieves another aim of Battle’s: to “highlight that Alvin Ailey was the living embodiment of the idea that Black Lives Matter.”
Mr. Ailey chose dance as his means of protest, and Battle’s leadership has expanded on that tradition.
“[Battle] has further advanced the role of the Company in using dance to shine a light on important issues related to social and racial justice,” says Rink, citing recently commissioned works by Roberts, Rennie Harris, Donald Byrd, and Kyle Abraham that have addressed violence against Black Americans in the past and present.
Battle is committed to deepening the diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts that are intrinsic to the Ailey mission so that the work is “not only challenging the audience but challenging ourselves in everything that we do so that we continue to get better and more impactful.”
Battle’s leadership has undoubtedly extended the organization’s impact. He has expanded opportunities for the next generation, appointing Francesca Harper as Ailey II Artistic Director and launching initiatives like the New Directions Choreography Lab, a residency program that gifts rising choreographers space, time, and the opportunity to work with dancers at The Ailey School. He also appointed Roberts as the Company’s first resident choreographer in 2019, a move that Battle and Rink both see as a major step in nurturing the artistry within the Company.
And four years into his tenure, a book inspired by his life, My Story, My Dance, was released by Simon & Schuster, inspiring an even younger generation to pursue their dreams no matter what obstacles they face, much like AileyCamp and other educational programs. While he and Mr. Ailey were born more than 40 years and 1,300 miles apart, they were both the poor sons of single mothers and faced significant challenges early on (for Battle, leg braces and bullying). These early hardships only amplify the brilliance of what they ultimately built.
“Nothing can stop us,” Battle says. He’s talking about the organization overall, particularly the strength it has shown amidst recent challenges, but it’s hard not to think these words apply to Battle himself. If the past 10 years are any indication, the organization will only grow stronger under Battle’s enterprising leadership, allowing the Ailey legacy to extend endlessly in all directions.
The Ailey engagement at Lincoln Center runs June 15–19. For more information, visit alvinailey.org.
Lauren Morrow, formerly Associate Director of Public Relations for the Ailey organization, is a fiction writer. She is an Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow and is currently at work on a novel.