Robert Battle, who was appointed artistic director designate of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in April, said he was nearly speechless when he learned he would take the reins of one of the most successful and influential modern dance companies in the world. “It was a myriad of feelings,” he said in a recent interview with The Journal, noting that he was “fully aware of the lineage of the legacy of Alvin Ailey himself, the man and the genius, and the gravity of the institution and the effect it’s had on millions who have seen the company—myself included.” Battle (B.F.A. ’94, dance), who grew up in Miami, was a member of the Parsons Dance Company from 1994 to 2001 and then went on to found his own company, Battleworks. That ensemble will disband in the months to come and in July 2011 Battle will succeed Ailey’s longtime artistic director, Judith Jamison. In a conversation with Sarah Kricheff, Battle, 38, spoke about his new job and his expectations for the future.
You recently told The New York Times that Alvin Ailey has always been about inclusiveness, and that you intend to open the arms even wider than they are now. Do you have specific ideas on how you might do that?
Well, I think that I’ll follow the roadmap. Ms. Jamison always talks about the fact that Mr. Ailey left us such a clear roadmap in the sense that he was one of the first modern dance repertory companies, that yes, the company is his namesake, but the work and the ballets in the company, almost from the beginning, were other choreographers, other lighting designers, other influences. The idea of having a school is extremely important, so that it wasn’t just a dance company but it was also reaching into the future in a very specific way. ... This company has always been about outreach before it was a buzzword to raise funds—but really about reaching out—and that’s something that’s important to me, because as a young boy from Miami, Fla., I saw the company because we were bused there from our school as a form of outreach, and that did something for me that is very tangible and very obvious. And so I really see the importance in continuing that.
I understand that you were raised by your great-uncle and your cousin. In what ways have your personal and family background prepared you for this role?
I think the sense of family in general has always been about an extended thing. Certainly it taught me that family was the place where you are loved and everybody took care of each other. I think that the one wonderful thing about the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is that it is a big huge extended family, and I feel that it is treated as such from the administration to the artistic director to people who have danced with the company and no longer dance with the company, who still come and teach in the building. There’s a sense that everyone takes care of one another and treats them as family. And so I think that’s been part of the success, and certainly I resonate with that because of my upbringing.
I imagine that in some ways it must be difficult or bittersweet for you to disband Battleworks and move to Ailey. What difficulties—personally or professionally—do you think you might encounter in this transition?
Yes, it’s always difficult for something to end. But what I keep saying and what really I think we’ve come to realize [is that] we’re used to—as artists, as dancers, as choreographers, as creative people—being of the moment, and being live performers it is about the moment, and so some moments last forever and some only a brief time, but the impact is infinite…. What [the Battleworks dancers and I] have done for each other is inspired each other. I’ve always said that inspiration never dies, it grows into something else. So I think we’re realizing that in a very good way, that we have really set each other on fire. And now we can take it and do something else with it.
Any thoughts you can share with me on new choreographers you might bring in?
There are none that I can really share right at this moment, for obvious reasons. But certainly I’m looking far and wide. I’m constantly looking to see what’s new. I’m looking at works that not only challenge the audience but challenge the dancers in new ways. I think that that’s important, too. I have my own tastes and my own likes, and so it will inevitably be different in some ways. But I think I [will] follow the roadmap of past, present, and future. And I think any great work of art and any longstanding institution addresses all three things, otherwise it dies. And so we will be reaching back and also reaching forward.
How is the professional dance world different now for students just graduating from Juilliard than it was when you graduated?
It’s hard to say. In some ways I don’t know if it’s totally different. The challenges remain the same—finding a job, trying to pay health insurance. A lot of the companies are finding it increasingly difficult to survive; support for the arts has dwindled. There are some real challenges. But I think that what I see, and what I remember hearing my teacher [former Juilliard Dance faculty member] Carolyn Adams say, is that it is about the ability to see what is there as opposed to what is not there. I think any time we come to a deficit, certainly as artists, as creative people, as people who are empowered by the fact that we can use our imagination, this offers an opportunity to look at this in a new way—to look at our old models of how we do things, of how we thrive as artists, and maybe change them and tweak them, and constantly be looking at how we meet these new challenges. And sometimes that brings out new innovative ideas. So I think that this is an exciting time because it is a time that we as creative people thrive, that we start to really use our imagination in how to keep this thing going. And I think that’s always been true.