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How Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater balances history and innovation
Hari Sreenivasan: This month the celebrated modern dance visionary Alvin Ailey would have celebrated his 91st birthday,
He passed away in 1989, but even after more than 30 years, his choreography is as vibrant as ever and the dance company he founded in 1958 - the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre - continues to innovate. This week, PBS aired the American Masters film "Ailey."
In 2011, robert Battle took over as director of the company Alvin Ailey founded and earlier this week NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker spoke with him.
Christopher Booker: Help me understand just what and where Alvin Ailey legacy sits within the dance world.
Robert Battle: You know, Alvin Ailey founded the company in 1958 because he didn't see as many stories being told and certainly the presence of African-Americans in the concert dance space and so he wanted to tell stories of his blood memories, but not only that offer opportunities for specifically at that time for Black dancers. He had equal parts fear and courage, which creates the kind of friction that is needed to press on and then he had all of these stories that he wanted to tell and thank goodness for us that he he told them
Christopher Booker: Coming back to the founding of the dance company in 1958. This is as the civil rights movement is really gaining momentum and I believe, I believe Alvin Ailey said that his protest was the dance. Has that legacy continued?
Robert Battle: I believe so. I mean, I definitely think that we tried to be more proactive, especially with social media, where one looks to make statements or to see statements by organizations that they want to know what the organization stands for. But at the same time, the root I think of the work that we do is most visible in the dances that we dance in the creative work that we do.
All of that, to me, is a part of the statement that we make, but the dance is in and of themselves. I mean, people still see Alvin Ailey masterpiece Revelations that he created in 1960. It is still relevant today. The notion of sorrow, of hope, of faith. All of the things that we experience now are very important.
Christopher Booker: Do you find yourself with a substantially different interpretation of Revelations, particularly now after the last two years?
Robert Battle: I have more respect, if you will, and not that I didn't have respect, but I think there's a deeper meaning. To think of of of where we are and then to think of the cusp of the civil rights movement, to think of all of the headwinds that Alvin Ailey experienced and to be able to make a work that ultimately is about hope.
Within Revelations he deals with the trials and tribulations of African-Americans in this country, but he also leaves us with a message of unity and hope and at a time where it is easy to be cynical, certainly, and is even more easy to access anger and despair, he says. No, there is a future and he talks about it.
Christopher Booker: So how do you, as director, balance the past, present and future, do you find yourself in conflict for lack of a better word with wanting to really push the form against the history of the company?
Robert Battle: Yes and no. Sometimes I am looking at work that I know is outside the box. You know, Alvin Ailey himself never wanted to be sort of put inside a box. You know that just when you think that he's going to make another serious work that delves into civil rights and that delves into then he makes it work like Night Creature, which is, you know, which is all about fun and about flirtation and so many other things of jazz and Duke Ellington and all this and so I think the same way I always say that courage isn't the the lack of fear, it's the present of fear.
But doing it any way because you know that you're afraid to do that and so some of that is the way that I curate the work knowing that we are not in a box. And that's probably why I don't see conflict as conflicted at. And the journey, if you don't like the process, we always say that to dancers because you've spent most of your time not on stage, but in the studio and if you're not somebody who loves the process, get out while you can, right? It's the process of almost getting there.
That is the exciting thing of the task. And we're on that journey still here at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.