Robert Battle was only about 13 years old. But the first time he saw Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater left impressions that, after three decades, are still with him:
The hunger and tenacity he saw in the dancers. The hope embodied in the company’s most famous piece, “Revelations.” The feeling that the dancing was not effortless “but effort ful – and that was part of the beauty of it,” he says.
As he grew into a professional dancer and then a choreographer, Battle let those memories drive him.
“I think that’s why this is even more meaningful – where I am today,” he says.
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Today, Battle leads the company that so moved him when he was young.
As he nears the end of his first season in charge, the company arrives at the Knight Theater on Tuesday for a six-day run. It moves on to Charleston May 25-27, the opening weekend of Spoleto Festival USA.
Battle is the first head of the company never to have met its namesake, who died when Battle was a teenager in Miami. So Battle’s recollections of those long-ago performances are one of his main links to the company’s founding spirit.
Battle grew up in Miami’s Liberty City area. When he was 8, it was ground zero for riots that put Miami in an unwanted spotlight.
But Battle sees Liberty City in a different light. Despite its perils of poverty and crime, he says, “it was also where I grew up.
“So it was family. It was where I walked to elementary school. It was where my great-uncle, who raised me, taught me to ride the bicycle.”
Before the young Battle got involved with dance, he took piano lessons and sang in his church choir. He got teased about it, he says. So he studied karate with his best friend’s father.
“To be blunt about it, I wanted to learn to fight if I needed to,” Battle says.
Karate taught him other lessons instead. Battle learned about “the spiritual and mental discipline of martial arts,” he recalls. He gained confidence about using his body.
“I think it prepared me for dancing,” Battle says.
Imitating Michael Jackson was another of Battle’s pastimes. So, as he hit adolescence – which threw off his singing voice – he auditioned for a dance program.
“And dance took ahold,” Battle says.
Some of his first efforts at choreography – though he just called it “making up some movement,” he says – came as he made dance videos with friends. After graduating in 1990 from a Miami arts-magnet school, Battle entered the Juilliard School in New York. That’s where he got more serious about choreography.
“It didn’t really take hold until I lost my great-uncle,” Battle says. “He was the one I knew as my father. When he passed away, I remember making a solo. That was the cathartic moment where I thought I really could choreograph. When I had to dig down and make something that was personal, it opened another door for me.”
Though he started his career as a dancer, Battle found ways to keep creating. He attracted some of his first notice when the company he performed in, David Parsons Dance, included his work on its programs. The Ailey company, by enlisting him repeatedly as a guest, gave him more boosts. Though he went on to launch his own company, Battleworks, he shut it down to take over Ailey.
Two of Battle’s creations will figure into the Charlotte performances. “Takademe” is based on music from India: The vocal syllables that Indian musicians use to help them learn, Battle says, remind him of the virtuosic scat singing of American jazz musicians. The other work, “The Hunt,” harks back to Battle’s martial-arts background.
“It has a competitiveness to it,” he says. “It has a ritual and primal feel, with an urban edge.”
Battle isn’t hogging the limelight. The choreographers included in the company’s three programs range from Ailey to Paul Taylor – another modern-dance pioneer – to present-day Israeli Ohad Naharin.
Naharin’s “Minus 16” includes a section in which dancers are seated in a circle, but repeatedly jump up from their chairs.
“Every time the dancers stand up,” Battle says, “it’s in a way reflective of Mr. Ailey taking a stand and creating a company that expressed the African-American experience. ... It reflects the impetus of this company in the first place.”