Berkeley Talks transcript: Artistic Director Robert Battle on the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Artistic Director Robert Battle in conversation with former executive and artistic director of Cal Performances, Matías Tarnopolsky.

Matías Tarnopolsky: Robert Battle, welcome. Welcome back to Cal Performances, to Zellerbach Hall home of the home of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since its inception. You are the anchor to our season year after year, and it is such a pleasure to welcome you back.

Robert Battle: Thank you.

Tarnopolsky: In our 17, 18 seasons, one specific thread is looking towards fur generations of African American choreographers. But let’s start specifically with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, in the context of our season it’s pointed that the identification American, right, is heralded in the company’s name. So what do you think, Robert, what do you think it meant to have that identification at the time of the company’s conception and reflecting what do you think it means now?

Battle: Yes well I think it’s one, as much as I look at these times, and the contrast couldn’t be greater, fortunately or unfortunately this is where the arts thrive. Some of the greatest works of art, or the lasting works of art have come through a moment where the arts needed to reflect what was going on at the time and also, sort of have an aspirational quality that said that we have hope for the future. And Alvin Ailey himself, through his work, through his masterpiece Revelations, reflected that. But he was ahead of his time in so many ways, and when I think about the fact that it’s the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, when I was little I remember hearing my mother and friend of hers who had a group called the Afro Americans, reciting poetry and song relating to the black experience and one of the poems, the title I remember not the whole poem, by Langston Hughes was, “I too sing America”, and it was a way of sort of claiming the fact that he was an American, that we are as black people, that’s what we were then, were American too, and the context of that was not only not being seen as American and contributing to this country, but not even being seen as human.

So there was a sort of reclaiming there that was very specific and deep, so when I see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, he was making a political statement in a way, it was edged in sort of this nationalism or whatever, this pride thing. But think it was more that it was almost to me, when I think of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Did with the nonviolence as a form of resistance and so that when you see people who are not punching back, being punched it speaks to humanity, and so the notion that we are American too, it was hard because people who hated you loved the fact that they were American, and so once they realized, “Wait a minute, you’re American too?”, it kind of messed with them a little bit, they had to think a little bit about it, and so even if it’s subliminal I think he was sort of making sure that the company lasted, that people understood that the company represented this country and at a time when the optics were very important not only to black folks, but certainly to people in the white house, certainly to people … I could go specific, but I’m going to keep it here.

But certainly they wanted that image of unity, and so when the company first went on those international tours as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, that was huge for this country. So I think he understood that, he understood why he was saying American Dance Theater so that you could not deny us the fact that this is American born and so are we in that sense, so I think it was really quite shrew. But if I hadn’t been brought up that way and understood that poem, “I too sing America.”, I don’t think I would have gotten it right away, but because of that I completely understand it.

Tarnopolsky: And what does it mean to you now?

Battle: Well what it means to me now, you know when you think that we are deemed by congress on a special resolution as cultural ambassadors for this country and to the world, the fact that this company started on the brink of the Civil Rights Movement, and look at this living legacy through Alvin Ailey, and then Judith Jameson after he died, and I’m only the third artistic director. I think it means a great deal now , because in some ways the times in which we live are not so different, the sense of discord and I think that some of that still has to do with not recognizing the humanity in each other, whomever that it, and so for me now more than every it is important that we really use our voices as a weapon for change.

That’s what Alvin Ailey was all about, so for me it means that I’m here on this precipice to say something and that best way I can say it is through the work that I chose, and the work that we choose to do as a company. Not all of it is social justice, but I think it does speak to one’s aspiration, this is where the arts are important because they can break down the proverbial walls that attempt to divide us between class and race and culture. When I think about being here, when I think about the Zellerbach and I think about what Cal Performances allows us to do every year by the way, very rare, is that we bring people together who may not otherwise come together in one edifice to celebrate this company.

That is huge, so sometimes I’m faced with that fact, even my dancers say, “What can we do? We’re looking around, and we’re feeling the heat, and we’re frustrated, and we want to do something.”, only to discover that you are doing something. So maybe to realize what you’re doing can make a difference and probably has already made a difference. I think that’s really, really important and that we sort of inspire one another, to me the arts and dance, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, speaks to our aspirations, that’s so important in times where people want to sort of hold their head down, and I noticed that lately when people come to the theater, it’s like, “I’ve got to get to this theater”, you know?

We have noticed that the people go, “I’ve got to be relieved from the woes of the day, I’ve got to turn off that television and go and be with people and celebrate life”, so to me the notion of American has to do with hope you know? The idea of this melting pot, to me that’s very important but also what I love, when I think about it I see it in the body of Revelations, Alvin Ailey’s masterpiece, a suite of spirituals about the black experience and how we overcame through faith that turned out to be a universal message of hope.

When I hear American, at the heart of it is, the bad, good, the ugly, but always leaning toward hope.

Tarnopolsky: We talk often but more and more now, I’m pointing at the hall, about the democratizing power of sitting together in the performance hall. We are all equal in the face of the work of art, and you’re all equal on the stage as well, you each depend equally on one another. Is that a powerful concept for you?

Battle: Absolutely, and especially dancers get it because it’s usually not a solo endeavor, we all have to work together to create this thing of beauty, you know I have to say when I think about people coming together from different backgrounds or economic backgrounds or what have you, it was the day after the election, knowing the sense of division in our country no matter what side of that you sit on, that much is true. I remember I had to get on a plane to London the next day, which was fun, and because one of the works that I brought into the repertory is called Chroma by a choreographer Wayne McGregor, who of course has his own company Random Dance, but he’s the resident choreographer for the Royal Ballet, and some of what I try to do really represents this notion of American, bringing together choreographers from different backgrounds, different countries, but having it be about the beauty of the work itself.

But it was his tenth anniversary as resident choreographer with the Royal Ballet and they asked him, “What would you like?”, now he created Chroma for the Royal Ballet and then it just sort of took off and everybody was doing it, only ballet companies and I thought, “I want to see my dancers do this because I think they can add a different dimension.”, and he agreed. Okay fast forward, his tenth anniversary, they said to him, “What would be your dream?” And he said, “To have a mixed cast of Chroma with Ailey dancers and Royal Ballet dancers”, so they had already rehearsed, I was going and so was Judith Jameson because I really wanted her to be there to see this because I thought it was one of those moments that’s a footnote in history of these two companies that seemingly are so separate, right?

Here’s another statement, and so there we were sitting at the Royal Opera House and the curtain went up on Chroma with this mixed cast, you know? It had all kinds of contrast right? White, black, classical, modern, all of the things that you can think of and there it was these dancers, all working together beautifully to create this thing of beauty that we all sat there in awe. All of us from different places and I thought if Alvin Ailey, in my opinion, was alive he would be so please you know? Because the statement said something else about coming together that at that point, the loud sound I was hearing was discord but when I saw that it gave me hope for the future, I don’t know how else to say it, I was in tears, I was so moved by that moment.

So when you talk about people coming together in the audience at Zellerbach, people from different background on the stage that are dancers with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, I think it’s so important that we acknowledge that now more than ever. It’s really important that we make sure that people understand that that’s what the arts can do, that’s why I’m in it, you know? When I first saw Revelations, growing up as a child in Miami, Florida, now I have to say, and I’ve been saying this before Moonlight got the Oscar. But I’m from Liberty City where Moonlight was filmed, where Terrell the playwright is from, we’re from the same place. But except I didn’t get any Oscar, but I’m waiting it’ll come.

Tarnopolsky: It’ll come.

Battle: But I remember being bussed to see Revelations and it said something to me about the future, it said something to me about my past, it said something to me about all of us as human beings. I think it’s a statement that Maya Angelou would often quote, the quote is by Terence who was a slave of the Roman Empire, and he was freed by a Roman senator and he became one of the most important playwrights of his time and the statement is, “I am a human being, and nothing human can be alien to me.” That statement liberated me and through what I try to do with the repertory of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. I try to liberate whoever comes to see it.

Tarnopolsky: That’s beautiful Robert, thank you. The quote is very powerful, and it speaks to the truth, right? That we are all equal, that every human is equal and experiences the same things in the same way, perhaps in different intensities, are we yet at a time where an organization like Cal Performances does not need to be celebrating four generations of African American choreographers?

Battle: Yes I mean certainly when I think of that question, I think about the notion of black history month because I’m asked about this all the time and sometimes I just bypass the question.

Tarnopolsky: Right yeah.

Battle: You know, that’s a complicated thing right? Because on the one hand you are overjoyed that we celebrate to contributions of African Americans in this country, on the other hand the fact that it’s reduced to one month it makes you remember why, you know? But I also say, it’s to me sometimes when people say, “Oh, I’m color blind, I don’t see color, we’re all the same”, and that’s really what they’re trying to say, but I think something in that is not realistic, right? And then it keeps up really not seeing each other, yes we are different colors and different shades, and so see it and celebrate it because sometimes when we say, “That doesn’t exist.” Or the need to celebrate four generations of African American choreographers I think it shows that Cal Performances is seeing what is there as opposed to what isn’t there, and that is so important because once you see it and acknowledge it, it inspires other people to see it too.

But to see it as something to celebrate, not just as something the divides us so I think it’s what your intent is, and I think that by acknowledging that, we can move forward. I think so much of what we deal with, and you learn that in therapy, is when we try to get around it and then it keeps meeting us down the street, and meeting us the next year. As a country and certainly the world, we have to see these things in order to deal with them and so, sometimes people say, “Oh do you feel it necessary to sort of hammer over the head.”, with works like Kyle Abraham who made a work for us called Untitled America, about mass incarceration. Hope Boykin, longtime company member who made work called r-Evolution Dream inspired by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” do you think it’s still important to do those works?

Absolutely. Absolutely, because those words become artifacts of our survival like spirituals or anything like that, so it’s a way of recording time but also hopefully someday we won’t even need to do that because we’ll be so far ahead. But until then, we have to do the work.

Tarnopolsky: You’ve spoken beautifully about the role of artists, and I feel I hope equally, powerful role as arts organizations is also helping be the conveners of these ideas, always with these beautiful works on the stage and with artist, it doesn’t matter who they are, black or white.

Battle: Right, right.

Tarnopolsky: Who make very powerful statement, imbued by their experience.

Battle: Yes, you know we were, where were we, the Kennedy center? Anyway we were celebrating the centennial of President Kennedy and so I was reading some of his quotes because he was a great believer in the arts and the paraphrase one that said, “The arts are not about propaganda, that it is a form a truth, and so that the artist must be set free to tell that truth.” That’s what Alvin Ailey did in 1960, told that truth that continues to inspire us all. So that to me is what I live by, it really is, it’s so important to me because it’s what inspired me to be in the performing arts in the first place and certainly what inspired me about modern dance and Alvin Ailey.

Tarnopolsky: The issues of today have deeply impacted how we are structuring next season, how are your choices for the company, for programming the company and your own artists choreographic choices, how are you using those choices to reflect the time?

Battle: Well it certainly is interesting because I mentioned two works, Untitled America and r-Evolution Dream, now those were all chosen before all of the sort of discord had really come to the top, right? As my grandfather used to say, so in some ways there are moments where I’m responding to the moment or the times and others where I’m deliberately not. Where we have a work that I did call Ella, that’s a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, it’s about a four minute work that is her scatting and the dancers doing a physical version of Ella Fitzgerald scatting. It’s funny, it’s no real deep message there, it’s just a time for us to laugh together you know? Comedy is important, it can be a great way of bringing people together, dealing with really intense issues, because that again, when you hear people in the theater laugh from a small child to a senior citizen which I’m sure they hate being called that.

But a more seasoned person, laughing at the same thing, there’s something about that, that really celebrates our common humanity. So I try to look at ways in from many different paths, not just one of something strident, but something funny, and then you might have a beautiful love duet, like the excerpt from After The Rain by Christopher Wheeldon and you hear everybody sort of go, “Ahh”, you know? They sigh because they remember or they are sort of queuing into that. That I can say is deliberate, that is, things that I feel that we all experience as a way of making sure people remember what the experience was in seeing the company because you not only see it but you feel it and you take it home with you and then it makes you want to sort of go back and get some more.

So those are the things I’m thinking about more than anything.

Tarnopolsky: I also think that the times make us see works differently.

Battle: Yes.

Tarnopolsky: Right? And that’s something that you can’t really prepare for unless the work is magical anyway right?

Battle: Right, right.

Tarnopolsky: When it can …

Battle: That so true, even I mean when I’m looking at Untitled America, even if you don’t see the dance you hear the title, and you go, “Oh well that must be, oh let me …,” you know, because even sometimes when I’m saying it from the stage, and I say what you’re going to see, “Untitled America,” could feel people go, “Ohh,” now it wasn’t about that specific thing that they may be thinking but it’s true, and even I have to be careful of what I say because it can be so misinterpreted because of how people are seeing things. That maybe two years ago they weren’t thinking about, but I love that about work, I love that about dance, that it had the luxury of ambiguity in a way. So that then, each person sitting in that audience can have a different experience of how they’re seeing it based on what they’re perceiving or what’s happening just outside of the walls of that theater.

But that’s what they should be able to lay their burden down in the work, that to me is critical, that’s what it’s all about so there are no wrong answers you know? There’s only the fact that it made you think, it made you feel, it made you remember, it made you hope, it made you laugh. Whatever it did, the more we can remind each other of our own common humanity, however we can do that, it’s like Maya Angelou’s, one of her poems, as you know I quote her a lot because she’s one of my favorites. The refrain is, “We are more alike than we are unalike.” I feel that the arts really speak to that, and I feel that the work, and I’m not just saying this because I’m here in front of you, that Cal Performances does, reminds us of that. That’s why it is so critical and so important, and so when people saying “What can you do?” Darn it, you’re doing it, you really are.

Tarnopolsky: Thank you, that was wonderful. So one last question. For me one of the really greatest pleasures of having the privilege of doing this job, is you know, when I met you and we started working together, we’ve become friends, it’s something I really treasure and I treasure the work you do with the company and it’s been profoundly moving to see the phenomenal impact, Robert that you’ve had on this company, I mean it’s beautiful.

Battle: Thank you.

Tarnopolsky: Every year we watch this growth and evolution, and I know that you acknowledge that you’re standing on the shoulders of Judith Jameson and Alvin Ailey, put yourself in the position of your successor sitting here with my successor maybe, maybe. You know we could be, long, you call them old people, distinguished.

Battle: Yes, distinguished.

Tarnopolsky: By then, when they start calling you a distinguished choreographer, you know it’s time. But put yourself in the position of my successor and your successor having this conversation and reflecting on what Robert Battle’s impact on the company would be then, so what legacy do you think you’ll be leaving after you’ve done this kind of work over many years with the company?

Battle: Gosh, I hope that someone says, my successor, first of all I hope we like each other or something, it’s not an overthrow.

Tarnopolsky: Yeah.

Battle: But I hope they say that he had the courage to stick his neck out and expand what is already there, and that that’s in some ways in indication of where that person can go, that you’re only limited by your imagination. That’s really the best that you can hope for, is that one feels that I sort of stretched things a little bit, that I deconstructed what it means to be the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, either from the audience’s perspective, the dancer’s perspective, administratively, marketing, PR, that hopefully it says, “Boy, you really had a hard time keeping up with him.”, “He kept us on our proverbial toes.” If you will, that’s what I hope.

Tarnopolsky: Wonderful, Robert Battle. Thank you so much.

Battle: Thank you.