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By Wendy Perron
Robert Battle rehearsing Takademe in the Ailey studios. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy AAADT.
This month at City Center is the first Ailey season with Robert Battle at the helm. He wasted no time in expanding the rep, reaching into the company’s past riches as well as taking on other modern dance giants. The repertoire now includes, for the first time, a work of Paul Taylor’s (Arden Court), revivals of Journey (1958) by Joyce Trisler and Alvin Ailey’s Streams (1970), company premieres of Minus 16 (1999) by Ohad Naharin, and Battle’s own Takademe (1999). Plus, hip hop choreographer Rennie Harris has created a new work inspired by stories of people affected by HIV.
So who is Robert Battle, and where is he leading the company? Raised in Miami by an older cousin (Dessile), he is a product of both the New World School of the Arts and The Juilliard School. After dancing with David Parsons, he started his own company, BattleWorks, in 2001. Then, in 2010 he was designated the successor to Judith Jamison as artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and officially took the reins in July, 2011.
Wendy Perron spoke with him about his childhood, his mentors, and the challenges of stepping into Ms. Jamison’s shoes.
When and where did you start dancing? I started taking classes in Miami, around 12. Before that it was just imitating Michael Jackson, Fred Astaire, and anything my mother liked, even Paula Abdul. We—my friends were introverts like me who liked to play act— were serious about it. My mother did poetry and taught English in the public schools. She had a group called “The Afro Americans,” four of them, they sang and wrote poetry. She knew who Leontyne Price and Sara Vaughan were and she nurtured my curiosity. The first song she taught me was “That’s Entertainment” [hums the tune] and I would be dancing around and singing. The Afro Americans would be on the front porch doing all this serious stuff, about what was happening in civil rights, but also singing spirituals. I used to watch them and I felt this big drama.
Like Alvin Ailey, and like Judith Jamison, you were very involved in church. Tell me about that. My mother, Dessile, played piano for the church. Whether you got the religious message at that young age or not, it’s where you recited your first poem on Easter; if you were learning piano it’s where you played a solo. It was kind of your first introduction to performing.
What branch of Christianity was this? AME, African Methodist Episcopal (Judy went to AME too). I was singing in the church choir. I had a soprano voice. When my voice started to change, I was mortified. I had a niche and all of a sudden it was changing. I stopped. I was already imitating dance. My friend who was taking dance, he would teach me what he was learning. Because I was so shy and had this high-pitched voice, I was always teased, introverted. In my neighborhood, that meant, you know…
A sissy. Yeah, a sissy, or a this or a that. So I took martial arts, and when I went into dance I had a lot of flexibility and physical understanding. It’s very much like Graham—some of the stances and the opposition.
So in high school, I got into the after-school program for dance. That’s where I saw Alvin Ailey. The company performed in Miami Beach. We were bussed in to see a performance.
Do you remember any of the dancers? Yeah, I remembered Dudley [Williams], Renee [Robinson]. We’d already seen videotapes. It was a moment, and they were stars to us.
Who was your first real dance teacher? A lady named Adelaide Munez came to my high school to teach ballet. Julio Bocca was one of her partners in Caracas Ballet. She was pretty tremendous—tiny, feisty. She was very aggressive with me because she thought I had an extra special gift. She would come to my house in her little Toyota, drive me to Ballet Academy of Miami to take after-school classes and on Saturdays. We didn’t have the money for it so she would pay for the classes.
But it was Tony Catanzaro who led the program. He was always yelling at me because I have such big hands. He’d say, “If you stick those fingers up again I’m gonna put a big band aid on it.” I had such an issue with my thumbs. He’d say, “You look like you’re hitching a ride, what’s wrong with you?” I finally learned how to relax them.
Miss Munez felt that I was starting late and when we had days off, she was like, “Oh no, you’re not sitting at home.” She would come pick me up and take me to the studio and give me private classes. She would give me books, the thick ones with all the photos.
Did she bring you Dance Magazine? She would bring me Dance Magazine! I would cut out all the pictures I liked and make a mosaic on a piece of wood.
One time I asked her an innocent question. I said, “Do you think I could be the first black Baryshnikov?” She said, “Of course. You can be whatever you want to be.” We had this bond, but after New World School of the Arts started in Miami, she said, “Do you want to audition for New World and try to go there?” I said, “No I think I’m gonna stay here with you.” It seemed that it was settled and I went into my dressing room to change. She opened the door and said, “You’re going to go, you’re going to that audition and you’re going to New World School of the Arts and I don’t want to talk about it.” So I auditioned and I got in and went to New World. I met some important people… Gerri Houlihan. There was something about her class. I took one class and it all clicked: This is what I want to do.
What was it about her approach that attracted you? It was her positive attitude. I flourish more in a positive approach. I was so shy. When I started piano classes, I cried the first three lessons because Juanita Hurd was more intense. But Gerri was so warm and also had a spiritual [aspect]. The movement felt organic to me because it was slow and I was so long. It fit and so I took it incessantly. My American history teacher, Mr. Suarez, would let me skip his class [mimics an eye exchange with Mr. Suarez]. “Get outta here, I know you don’t care about this stuff!”
Did you do college at New World too? No. Juilliard came recruiting. I had no notion of going to Juilliard. Someone said I should go to the audition. I went, I got in, and they sent what would be the bill and I said, No way. And then Muriel Topaz offered me a scholarship. I’d never been away from home so my cousin/mother and great uncle came to New World to talk with Danny Lewis and Gerri Houlihan. And Danny said, “He should come here, we’ll give you a great scholarship, we’ll help you out.” Gerri, who I was closest to, said, “Juilliard is a once in a lifetime opportunity, you might wanna take it.” My mother says that was the turning point for her.
At Juilliard, who was influential to you there? Carolyn Adams was hugely influential. (In fact she just taught her first class here to the students!) I loved her teaching. You could really just go for it. I loved the class, but I really loved what she had to say and the way she said it—how her mind worked. If she was talking about port de bras, she’d say, “Let it be connected to everything in the universe when you stretch your arm into space.” Not, “Stretch your arm! Put your shoulder down!” I would just listen and absorb, so we became close over time. When I made my first work, she was very encouraging. My comp teachers…. Bessie Schöenberg, Elizabeth Keen, were too. I wasn’t good at making studies. There were people who were so much more clever. “And I felt nothing!” [singing, laughter]. But I would watch the way others were critiqued. I learned so much from those teachers. So I am happy to have a platform now; I can make sure that others have the opportunity of gaining that wisdom. And they’ll be mentored the way I was mentored. The thread through all of this is mentorship, is finding people who not only will teach you steps.
Did anyone mentor you as a choreographer at Juilliard? Ben Harkarvy was very mentoring that way. He has such a great eye. Liz Keen can be very pointed. I learned a lot by watching the old work. I would go to the Performing Arts Library—it was right there—and I would watch old Graham stuff—Cave of the Heart, Primitive Mysteries, The Heretic—also Ted Shawn. Those early works that only have three steps that are repeated—very clear language. And sometimes it’s innocence. Granted I don’t make dances like that: I do a lot of steps. But looking at the courage of these people doing this wild and crazy stuff at that time and being so committed to it was fascinating. I found that I looked back more than looked at what was happening. Where did this stuff start?
Maybe Miss Munez gave me that feeling. I hated wearing tights and dance belts, so I would never wear it. To get me to wear tights she brought in a photo of Arthur Mitchell in his Balanchine [costume]. She said, “This is how I want you to dress.” And that was it! I dressed like that—white shirt and black tights. Looking back kind of helped with that.
But Harkarvy was a great mentor. We didn’t always understand him, he was very demanding. He would say things like, “There’s too many steps; it looks like choreographic diarrhea.” I mean he was just very blunt—but he cared a lot. [laughter]
But that one statement makes you alert to the necessity of editing. Mm-hmm. Until the day he died he was somewhat of a mentor. The last concert he put together was the 50th anniversary of the Juilliard dance division and he called me to do a work. They did an Ohad work, a Lar Lubovitch work, and I did a new thing. We worked on it together. And that’s around the time his heart took a turn. Many times we’d be up late talking and he’d be a little out of breath, but he’d watch rehearsal and give me ideas.
Before our first showing, that’s when I went away to Dance Salad in Houston. My piece Strange Humors was on it, so I went to see it. That night I was imitating him, and some of us were sitting around my hotel room. He fidgeted a lot [imitates him writhing and fidgeting—hilariously]. “I like your movement very much; I don’t like your choreography.” He would say things like that. “When you move, I feel alarmed.” I would be up imitating him, and they asked if I’d ever done it for him, and I said, “No, maybe someday.” Boom, next day, flight back to New York, get off the plane and I’ve got all these voicemails. “I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Ben Harkarvy died last night.”
What made you feel the need for the “New Directions” choreography lab? You matched up four choreographers with four mentors. Are you hoping that’s a way to build the rep? Yes, I’m hoping it’s another way of finding rep and building relationships with choreographers. For me, coming off the street as it were, into such a wonderful institution and building and space, I’m going, What would I have loved to have more of? Time and space of course but also eyes and conversations.
Once I did a piece called Rush Hour and Gerri Houlihan said, “At the end, what do you want to leave us with?” I thought it was a fabulous ending: the dancer jumps in the air and the lights go out. But she made me think: What do I want to do at the end? I’m just trying to finish this sucker.
[Setting up the choreo lab in my first year—] it’s like moving into a new place and going, What are the things I would love to have around me that make me feel like home? Walking around, looking in the studios and seeing Carmen deLavallade talking to Camille Brown, seeing Joanna Kotze with Gus Solomons—to see these people having conversations, would inspire me.
So you’re doing a Paul Taylor piece, Arden Court. Up until that moment Ailey and Taylor have been very separate modern dance institutions: one mostly black and the other mostly white. So by bringing in a Taylor piece, was this an attempt to unify? What’s going on in your mind? It’s a lot of my background. At Juilliard, Linda Kent, who danced in both companies, was my teacher. Paul Taylor’s work was influential for me; I danced Esplanade at Juilliard. I got to do the fun, off-balance part, which I loved. Seeing Company B was my first understanding of dark/light ’cause it was so clear: “Oh wow,” and then the scene in the back with soldiers going to war against the music of the Andrews Sisters. That was a light bulb moment!
So I’ve always been attracted to his work, and then I’m looking at the rep and going, Who can I bring in that hasn’t been brought in? Some of it is because of my relationship to Carolyn and Linda and my personal feelings about the work. I’m also trying to express the versatility of the dancers and give them food for thought. It would be another layer, another way for them to tackle it. During the process of learning the work, we’re going to have Carolyn teaching a couple of company classes, and Cathy McCann. I keep saying to the dancers, “I want you to not just try something on, but I want you to buy something too.” For Ohad’s piece, we’re gonna do some gaga classes and try to really immerse ourselves in it.
Minus 16 is a fabulous work. When I saw it I thought, “That’s something I haven’t seen before." Juilliard did it at its 50th anniversary and that’s when I got more familiar with it.
In Judith Jamison’s autobiography when Alvin was dying and wanting to give the company over to him, he said something like, “Remember these are your dancers now.” So I want to ask you, Do you feel like these are your dancers now? Yes.
How did that happen? It’s a big tribute to her and the way she’s handled the transition. When I ask questions, she says, “This was my experience; your experience will be completely different. You’re a different person.” That really helped me. So she has always been, in my work and in my ideas, extremely supportive. She’s been like that from the get-go.
But in the beginning it didn’t necessarily feel that way. I still was feeling like a visitor. When it really changed was when I brought in new dancers, some from the second company. I think that the moment when you say, “Welcome into the company,” you know that they’re there because of you. By the time July 1, 2011 happened, we were in Moscow and I spoke to the whole company. That was the moment when they gave me that look like, “OK, here we go.”
Several of your pieces are in the rep now including In/Side, The Hunt, and Takademe. Are you going to make a new piece on the company at some point? Are you here are a choreographer? I’m here incognito as a choreographer. You can imagine the pressure of that notion: the sense of positive anticipation that some may have, and the sense of—no matter what I do—it’s not Revelations.
The Hunt is pretty spectacular! I think that doing the curating now, and the fundraising and everything that comes with the job, keeps me so busy that I can’t think about making a dance. Although on this last 10-week tour in Europe, I took one dancer aside during our little time off. I started making phrases, and I was going, “Oh yeah, I love doing this.” But I always like doing it like that [moves his hand as though brushing something aside). Takademe I made in someone’s living room; Strange Humors, I started that in a hotel room in Switzerland; In/Side, that solo for Sam, we didn’t plan that. I had canceled a rehearsal and called Sam and said, “What are you doing? I have space here at Juilliard.” He came over and we made the solo in three, four hours. I tend to like to work where it’s a little bit spontaneous. So I told them, “Just ignore me when I look like I’m sneaking around in the building or I’m working down in the basement.”
What’s the hardest thing about filling Ms. Jamison’s shoes? I can’t think of a specific thing because she’s sort of standing with me. She’s got her shoes and I’ve got my shoes. There’s a spirit around it. Alvin’s spirit is still here. Revelations is so much about the identity of the company. Yes, this [indicating the whole building] is a beautiful edifice, but there’s something about it that still has that sense of person-to-person, overcoming adversity, staying centered in your own spirit, standing on shoulders—a lot of things that we learned growing up as African Americans in a country that hasn’t always been kind. Mr. Ailey passed that spirit on to her and she’s passing it on to me.
The hardest thing would be my own personal accountability—looking in the mirror and going, “Am I doing the best job that I can possibly do?” But I do feel every day I’m where I’m supposed to be.
What do you look for in a dancer? It’s almost like looking for a mentor. What is the dancer saying that is unique in how they put it together? Mr. Ailey used to say the same thing: What is unique and strange about that individual? I look for people who have their own strange way of putting together what it is you give them, who can express something unique about themselves in movement—something in their eyes, something in their approach, something in their tenacity. Maybe they’re short so they’ve always had to fight to be seen. Or they’re tall so they’ve always felt like they're in the way, so that they have a certain way of maneuvering because of that. Those are things that are interesting because they make for a richer palette.
From top: Robert Battle congratulates Judith Jamison at an event honoring her last January. Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy AAADT; Battle in Alvin Ailey’s Lark Ascending at Juilliard in 1993. Photo by Martha Swope Associates/Carol Rosegg, Courtesy Juilliard; Linda Celeste Sims and Antonio Douthit in Paul Taylor’s Arden Court. Photo by Andrew Eccles, Courtesy AAADT; Kirven James Boyd and Glenn Allen Sims in Robert Battle’s The Hunt. Photo by Andrew Eccles, Courtesy AAADT; Robert Battle. Photo by Andrew Eccles, Courtesy AAADT.
The Naharin–Ailey Connection
Ohad Naharin dedicates the Ailey production of Minus 16 to the memory of his late wife, Mari Kajiwara, who died in 2002. An unforgettably beautiful dancer trained at the LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts, she joined the Ailey company in 1970, married Naharin in 1978, and continued with the company until 1984. She assisted Alvin Ailey and staged his works in many countries. In 1990, when Naharin was invited to lead the Batsheva Dance Company, she accompanied her husband to Tel Aviv. She joined Batsheva as both dancer and rehearsal director, and staged Naharin’s works at other companies just as she had done for Ailey.
Known for the emotional depth she gave every role, Kajiwara performed Joyce Trisler’s Journey while still a member of Ailey. Anna Kisselgoff, writing in The New York Times, called her “spellbinding” in this solo. As luck (or planning) would have it, Journey also appears in the Ailey repertoire of this season. —W. P.
Mari Kajiwara in Trisler’s Journey. Photo by William Burd, Courtesy AAADT.