Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre returns to Toronto

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Toronto Star

By Michael Crabb

Sizzling physicality and technical prowess have always been attractive hallmarks of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, but when the New York-based company returns Thursday to the Sony Centre you may be surprised by what’s changed since its last visit in 2008.

There’s a host of new faces, 21 in all. Nine of those, almost a third of the company, were hired by 39-year-old Robert Battle, who last summer succeeded long-serving Judith Jamison as artistic director.

Battle is too diplomatic to suggest the Ailey troupe needs significant retuning, but he’s certainly aware of recurrent criticisms that it’s traded too long on what The New York Times’ Claudia La Rocco recently described as clichéd ideas “of heroic strength and we-shall-overcome uplift.”

Battle’s repertoire choices for his inaugural season suggest a determination to dispel such accusations. “Expect the unexpected,” says the personable and articulate Battle. “I’m the kind of guy who likes to keep you on the edge of your seat.”

Audience favourite Revelations, founder Alvin Ailey’s iconic 1960 ode to his black southern roots, closes both programs alternating during the four-show Toronto run, but the remainder suggests a major esthetic realignment.

For the first time in its 54-year history, the Ailey company is dancing a work by American master choreographer Paul Taylor, Arden Court. Battle is also reviving Journey, an early solo by American modern dance legend Joyce Trisler, and Ailey’s Streams, a plotless 1970 work to Miloslav Kabelac music.

The rest includes more contemporary fare. Battle has programmed three of his own works including The Hunt, a viscerally thrilling dance for six men propelled by the music of Les Tambours du Bronx. Perhaps Battle’s most interesting commission is Home, by hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris. It’s inspired by the stories of people affected by HIV. Following its December premiere, New York critics lauded Home’s urban edginess and welcome lack of maudlin sentimentality.

Battle’s accession to leadership of the world-travelled Ailey troupe surprised many observers. Unlike Jamison, previously one of Ailey’s star dancers, Battle came to the troupe from the outside, as a choreographer. He’s what he calls “an extended family member.” Yet, that measure of distance is perhaps Battle’s strongest suit.

Battle grew up in the predominantly black Miami neighbourhood of Liberty City. His birth mother was, as he puts it, “not in a position” to care for him. He never met his father and was brought up by relatives.

As a kid, he wanted to sing and play piano, loved martial arts and started dance classes. Then, in Grade 9, he saw Revelations. “It was a huge moment for me. I’d started taking dance but didn’t really know what I was doing until witnessing Revelations and seeing myself reflected in it.”

It pointed Battle down a road that led to New York’s Juilliard School. Its four-year dance degree program is regarded as one of the best in the world.

Former longtime Paul Taylor Dance Company member Carolyn Adams was one of Battle’s most influential Juilliard teachers. On graduating, he joined the company of another illustrious Taylor alumnus, David Parsons, and began to choreograph. Takademe, one of Battle’s earliest works, an experimental 1999 solo deconstruction of Indian Kathak dance, is on the bill for Toronto.

In 2001, Battle formed his own Battleworks Dance Company but had already begun his “extended family” relationship with Ailey. Despite that close relationship and his affinity for the Ailey company’s Afro-American roots, he was “totally taken aback” when Jamison asked if he’d be interested in taking over.

Battle’s affirmative answer didn’t make him a shoo-in. The Ailey board had to feel comfortable with Jamison’s preferred candidate — she describes him as “the creative force of the future” — and as he went through the lengthy selection process Battle never assumed the job was his. “I think I really went into shock,” says Battle, remembering the moment in April 2010 when he learned the news.

Heading such a storied company with an almost possessively loyal audience is not a job for the faint-hearted. As Battle sees it, “The challenge is to find the right balance. It’s certainly not all about new work. I’m embracing the past and using it as springboard,” he explains. “I’m going to be looking at both ends of the spectrum and in between.”

And he constantly remembers Jamison’s reassuring words: “Remember, you’re not filling shoes, but you are standing on shoulders.”