The prestigious Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater made a triumphant return to the Adrienne Arsht Center last weekend, performing a riveting collection of signature masterworks and new favorites. The weekend run was also a homecoming for the company’s artistic director, Miami native Robert Battle, who joined Ailey in 2011. Raised in Liberty City, Battle first beheld the company's graceful dancers through a school initiative, a memory that fuels his passion for community outreach and arts education to this day. After attending the New World School of the Arts, Battle moved on to New York’s Juilliard School and Parsons Dance, later founding his own Battleworks Dance Company. We spoke with the accomplished choreographer during a preview presentation in advance of last Thursday’s opening show, where professional dancers performed “Fix Me Jesus” from Revelations, and youngsters from Charles Drew Middle School got a chance to learn from the pros.
What are your most vivid memories of growing up in Miami?
ROBERT BATTLE: My world was Liberty City, Orchid Villa Elementary School. I remember always feeling that sense of community, family, and extended family . . . I remember growing up in the church, singing in the choir, taking piano lessons, watching my mother recite Shakespeare during her 30 years as an English teacher. She had a group called The Afro Americans who did poems and songs related to the black experience. It's no accident that the arts was what I was drawn to.
Give us an example of how Miami has changed since you were coming up?
RB: This area, where the Arsht is, used to be desolate and sometimes dangerous. I remember coming home to visit my mother and watching them start to build the Arsht and the surrounding areas, never thinking that someday I would be with this company and we would be performing here.
You've come full circle.
RB: It's very full circle.
You’re only the third artistic director the company has had in its 50-year history. Do you feel a lot of pressure to continue to build its legacy, and at the same time, to keep it moving forward?
RB: There's pressure, but I think it's hard for people to understand. Young people ask me, ‘What is your day like, to wake up every morning and be the artistic director for Alvin Ailey?’ but there is something seamless about it. There's something about my upbringing that has prepared me for where I am now. In that way it's more of a natural pressure. It's like opening a door that isn't locked. You only need the amount of pressure it takes to open the door and walk through it.
Many of the company's dancers were introduced to Ailey through school initiatives. However, the arts are quickly fading from our schools’ curriculums. What are the consequences of that?
RB: Arts and education are important. I had singing classes, a music teacher, and I learned to write music in school. And to see that disappearing and young people being deprived of it leads to hopelessness. It's not just sentimentality—we know the arts make a difference in young peoples’ lives. The fact that the Ailey programs are able to make a difference in the community is very important to me, and the company. We step off the stage and into the communities we serve. Ailey said very distinctly that dance is for everybody, dance comes from the people and should always be delivered back to the people.