IN CONVERSATION WITH…
ROBERT BATTLE, Artistic Director
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
“I am the one who will continue to examine something long after everyone else has gone to sleep and decided that the race is finished.”
Jacksonville, Florida born. Liberty City raised. My approach to life is that I never believe that there is only one way to achieve anything you want.
I never met my birth father. My Great Uncle and Great Aunt adopted me from my birth mother when I was about 3 months and 3 weeks old. My Great Uncle whom everyone called Daddy was in all ways my father so I never knew or felt that thing, that loss or rejection that some people have of not being connected to their biological father. Quite the opposite. I had the best father. My Great Uncle was born in 1903, lived through segregation, and was a Deacon in the church. He was a stand-up and strong person in my life who always said to me, ‘I only want to live long enough to see you make something of yourself.’
My ‘mother,’ Dessie, was actually the daughter of my Uncle and Aunt but she loved on me and took responsibility for teaching and rearing me as a mother does. She was an actress and artist who taught English at Miami Springs Senior High. She played in the church choir so there was a piano in the house, and she had a group called The Afro-Americans. They would do poetry and songs related to the black experience. I remember how they were just so full of pride about who we are as a group of people who. I would watch her instantly go from being ‘mom’ to reciting MARI EVANS
I am a black woman
the music of my song
some sweet arpeggio of tears
is written in a minor key
can be heard humming in the night
Can be heard
in the night…
So it was normal, independent of any environment or condition outside, for performance to be in my DNA. Our home was often filled with creatives. I naturally gravitated towards that. I thought to be a performer was a larger-than-life thing. I saw the arts as being transformative even if I did not know what those words meant.
THE MISCONCEPTION OF UNDERSERVED
As a result of BARRY JENKINS and TARELL MCCRANEY’s film Moonlight more people are familiar with Liberty City, and there is this view of it; this universal idea that comes to mind that people connect to the notion of growing up in an underserved community. Immediate thoughts for those on the outside looking in are of neglect and poverty, limited mindset, and lack of opportunity but that was not my experience. When I was growing up there I didn’t feel any of that. I never thought of myself as poor. I was not comparing it to anything because I had nothing to compare it to. I grew up surrounded by glamour. There was a sense of inevitability and community.
I know a lot of black people will relate to this, another great support system for me was in the church. I never thought of it just in the context of religion. The ‘church’ was like my other parent; The Mother’s, Sisters, and Deacons who all took the responsibility to look us kids over and set us straight. That is where I learned how to speak in front of people because for Easter you had to learn a poem, so the church was Public Speaking 101. There is so much value in being surrounded by that, and even when I think about the quote-unquote negative that to was very important in making me stronger, making me more determined. It was a dose of reality that made me understand that in life not everyone was going to endorse whatever it is that I do or compliment me all the time. Those experiences prepared me to understand that I was going to be challenged in life and had to be strong enough.
When I think about my career now, part of the reason that I can survive the negative that comes with a bad review, the challenges, and doubters is because I have been through that already in my youth and I made the decision that I was going to do it anyway. That decision came out of where I grew up. It is everything that I am and I would not be the man that I am today, decisively determine, if it were not for Liberty City.
DANCE WAS NOT PLANNED
I don’t remember this, but I am told that I was born completely bow-legged and had to have corrective braces on put on my legs, so from the outside looking in, it is fair to say that I probably had some things that statistically would put the odds against me becoming a dancer - let alone lead the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, but again I think because of my environment and determination it is why I am where I am today. I was taking piano lessons, singing in the church choir and as my voice started to change dance seemed to find its way into my world. Everything about the culture at that time was dance it seemed; MICHAEL JACKSON’s Thriller and Billie Jean were everywhere. Also, a friend of mine was studying dance so he whenever he came over to the house, he would teach me the movements to all those French words plié, fondu, and all that (laughter). And because I was also studying martial arts as means of survival more than form and practice I had a certain flexibility and physical orientation that made the movements quite easy for me. Listen, I was picked on because I was in the arts and that is part of growing up anywhere. It has less to do with an underserved community than it does with kids being kids and not having that faculty to process things outside of themselves that seem different.
So when I enrolled in New World School of The Arts for high school I started to take dance with no preconceived thoughts of where it could take me or what worlds existed outside of Liberty City and Miami. I remember people in the neighborhood who would follow me when I started to learn dance. There were many kids, my friends, who when I would come home and we were all together playing-I would teach them what I had learned in class that day. That is something else we don’t speak enough about is our ability and power to influence and inspire one another within our communities - we supported one another.
New World School of The Arts was a high school and a college so I always thought that I would continue my dance training there and maybe New York would come after that. I don’t remember having a sense of what Juilliard was, or even it being on my radar. My senior year, Juilliard came to my school to recruit. The gravity of the opportunity was indeed lost on me. I auditioned on a suggestion to do so and then weeks later I got a phone call to say I was accepted, and then another to say that I had received a scholarship. It was not in my trajectory, but it was!
NEW WORLD: NEW YORK
New York was frightening and exciting but I had my cassettes of SARAH VAUGHN from my mother and this wonderful community of students like me experiencing the world. At that time, instead of dorms, Juilliard had partnerships with places like the YMCA (63rd and Broadway) where the students would be living alongside the people who stayed there, so all of the protections and comforts that come with dorm life were non-existent. Restrooms and showers were in the hallway shared by everyone. It was trippy to me so much so that I slept with a chair lodged underneath the doorknob. I had never lived in an apartment building or with people outside of my family before that experience. In the moments that the whole experience would get too surreal for me or I needed to let my imagination flow I also went up. At home there was a massive mango tree in our backyard that I always climbed when I needed a different perspective. In New York it was the rooftop of the Y or Juilliard. Both were restricted but I always found a way to access them.
During the summer just before the start of my second year at Juilliard, Daddy died unexpectedly of cardiac arrest. It was divine intervention that I was with him at the house and therefore the only one with him at the hospital because it happened quite quickly, but not before we said everything we needed to say to make it okay for him to leave this earth. He told me how proud he was of me, and I thanked him for everything that he had been in my life-the values he instilled in me and how he raised me. He told me again what I always remember him saying to me when I was little, “I always want to live long enough to see you make something of yourself.” Within an hour after that he was gone. I knew in that moment that he had given me everything that I need, essential character, to be a man in this world.
When I graduated I started dancing with DAVID PARSONS’ company, and by that time was very much into choreography. David, for the first time in his company’s history, allowed me-a dancer- the opportunity to choreograph a number of pieces. Doing this allowed me to create commissioned works for other companies, including Ailey, and eventually having it seen by JUDITH JAMISON, which at the time I thought was the full circle moment. We had all seen the pictures. We knew the legend and surely had viewed footage on videotapes of her grace. I even remember that as a student, Ailey rehearsed at 61st Street and Juilliard was on 65th Street, so I could go over there take classes and have the occasional ‘Judith Jamison sighting.’ Each time, I would rush to a pay phone and call my mother collect to tell her. I knew she was an icon
ALVIN AILEY ASCENSION
After 7 years, I left David Parsons and started my own company Battle Works in 2001. SYLVIA WATERS ran Ailey II, its junior company, and commissioned me to do a piece titled Mood Indigo for the company which led to Takademe and then The Hunt. That was my first foray into being associated with the Ailey family in some sort of way. I was in the audience when they performed The Hunt, people were screaming. I knew Judy was in the audience and was nervous about it but did not want to overly think about it. During intermission I get up and go to the lobby. Judith Jamison grabs my hand and says, “Did you hear the person screaming the loudest in this theatre? That was me.” I have floated on that compliment for years. Never knowing that it would ultimately lead to Ms. Jamison deciding to retire and selecting me as the one to take over.
When time came that Judith had decided that she would be retiring in a few years, and had let the dancers know, she called me among others as a courtesy before it came out in the NY Times. Although I had worked with the company, I did not feel close enough to her or entitled to be on her call-list for such an announcement. As if I would be hurt that I had to read it in the paper like everyone else (laughter), so I was honored at her thoughtfulness and did find it interesting but dared not think beyond the overture-that is until she invited me to lunch. The year was 2009 and she asked me specifically if I wanted to take it over and become the Artistic Director of The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
From that moment on next the year and a half process of being vetted and meeting with all persons of decision within the organization, and learning everything from infrastructure to budgets and operations began. It’s now 2011, and I remember going in for the very last meeting and Judi [Jamison] being in the room. She was not often in those vetting sessions. As soon as I enter and advance to her for hellos, she stands, grabs my arm and says “Look into my eyes, it’s yours.” Immediately, I was brought back to the days of being that young kid at Juilliard getting a sighting of her and wanting nothing more than to run to a pay phone, call my mom, and tell her.
We learn in the arts -and to a large degree in impoverished areas- how to be flexible. Within that however there are the immovables-the guiding principles of your life, the things that don’t change no matter what, so when I think about my ‘I AM’, the first thing I think is ‘determined.’
Determined. Not that I am the strongest or the fastest or the smartest. I have never put those kinds on airs upon myself and felt that way, but I am the one who will continue to examine something long after everyone else has gone to sleep and decided that the race is finished. I am the one still there, still up saying ‘there has got to be a way to achieve this, too figure it out.’ I share that to say that I know myself to be that way in small and large situations so I don’t think of determination as this superficial word. For people who are successful, that word is everything. Determination for me is a statement for me as much as it is an action. It’s my acknowledgment that I do have weaknesses there is probably someone better at this than I am, but I am in determined, after looking at all the negatives and the positives, to achieve whatever the goal is I have set before me.
7:30AM I am not ritualistic by way of morning yoga and meditations. I do have to have my grape flavored Crystal Light. Yes, I said it. I am my most optimistic in the morning. It is when my imagination is most fertile. It is when I see possibilities. I am thinking a lot and I am talking a lot. My assistant gets the barrage of information from me before I set about driving into the city.
10:00AM A quick Wendy Williams Show chuckle because sometimes you need a bit of release and non-attached levity about a world and people you know nothing about.
11:00AM Depart Connecticut and head Manhattan. I enjoy driving and use the time to roll calls.
12:00PM In the office. The day is not always the same. Sometimes I come in earlier because we have an interview or foundation meetings, marketing meetings; there are a lot of operational parts to attend to. Within the main company we have 32 dancers, 100+ staff, Ailey II, Ailey School, Outreach Program, Ailey Extension. It’s huge. I don’t micromanage, but I accept that at the end of the day it is my responsibility.
I don’t choreograph now as much as I did before I became Artistic Director, but each year just as Sylvia identified and brought me in, I bring in new choreographers to work with the dancers. We have an amazing Rehearsing Director, and Associate Artistic Director who oversee the hands-on elements that managerial responsibilities prohibit me from participating in with sustained consistency. The responsibility for me is to keep the lights on, engage with our donors. We are blessed to be a healthy, supported not-for-profit but things can change on a dime so I must be engaged with our donors and making certain that we are aligned.
We are now in our 60th Anniversary year and what is so important to me is to always remember why we exist. Alvin Ailey, when he formed this company knew the importance of the arts and how they inspire. He also knew that our communities were not getting that inspiration to greatness so he crafted a physical narrative in our likeness to inspire our imaginations to soar. I am so proud of our team and our patrons for keeping true to his vision.
6:00PM If there no evening work commitments, I head home. Like a good parent when I walk in my front door my home embraces me independent to the day’s events. I never thought I would be the one at peace among the quiet and tree of suburban life but it has become one of my greatest joys.
I love to cook and take great pride in making well thought out meals. I find that it is my form of meditation. One of the first things I do whenever I arrive home is walk around the yard to my vegetable garden to see what the animals have eaten.
· Southern Style Mac N’ Cheese (Velveeta required)
· Grilling – nice bone in ribeye steak. I grill in the snow
· Oxtails that remind me of home.
· Smothered chicken
I like to stay up and be in the night. It is also around the time where I am the most worried because the day is no longer in front of me by way of things that I can get accomplished. By this time the day is behind me and that makes me feel a bit more pessimistic because there is nothing else that can be done.
The MANTRA (Voice in My Head)
Years ago, during a therapy session, I was wrestling with something. I was feeling badly about something that I did not achieve and I remember my Great Uncle/Daddy’s voice come clearly to me “Do the best you can.” That simple phrase was like him saying if you do the best you can, you can rest easy. That is a mantra for me because I don’t always get it right. I don’t always fulfill everybody’s idea about what I should or should do, but I do the best that I can in the moment.
The other is something that MAYA ANGELOU used to say, but she was quoting this playwright of the Roman Empire, PUBLIUS TERENTIUS AFER better known as TERENCE, who was also a slave who said, “I am a human being and nothing human can be alien to me.” This speaks to my own fragility as a person, my own sense of aspiration as a living being going through this experience of life. We all are have been able to overcome it (whatever ‘it’ may be) because we all possess the same ability because ‘I too am a human being.’ It keeps me centered so that I don’t get too high and mighty but also that I don’t fall too low because the notion is what we celebrate is the common humanity and we are all are part of the greater human experience.
At the core of what the arts do for communities and people is the activation and cultivation of one’s imagination. I believe that your imagination is your passport to the world. It is the kind of thing that if it is not filled with aspiration that in the void it will be filled with negative inspiration and we all see examples on large scales and small scales on what that does to communities and what that does in the world when someone activates that negative imagination. I feel the arts it defines place and time and circumstance. Furthermore, in the arts we find the artifacts of human survival. It is a guiding light for us.
When you hear a great poem by PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR or a beautiful spiritual that speaks to our survival as a people there is something that says that you too can live through this. The ignorance as seeing the arts only as entertainment value is deeply troubling and damaging. Imagine what would happen if kids were encouraged and provided the access and opportunity to channel all of that energy into places of creativity. Just Imagine.
…that I provided an opportunity for others to stand up and tell their truth.
I love poetry by Maya Angelou, NIKKI GIOVANNI, RITA DOVE, and reading quotations. Quotations to me are like a very good appetizer-even though it is bite-sized, it’s a whole meal. One of my favorites is by URSULA K. LE GUIN “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” How great is that!
5 Things I can’t live without
· My Car
· Dutch Oven – reminds me of a feeling of home
· Jazz – SARAH VAUGHN her voice and the memories it conquers humbles me.
· My Dancers – they live their truth on stage and that helps me to be able to do all that I do.