A New Era For Ailey

Classic Arts Features   A New Era For Ailey
Change has been in the air at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since May 2010, when Robert Battle was named to succeed Judith Jamison as Artistic Director, the position she held with such eloquent and visionary grace for 22 years.


Battle served as Artistic Director Designate for the past year: observing and learning, giving input on decisions, planning this season's repertory: but this New York City Center season (November 30 _ January 1) marks the first time the company performs for its home audience under his guidance. It also marks the first year of a 10-year agreement with New York City Center that names Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater its principal dance company and provides annual support for a new commission. Ailey's year-end performances at City Center have been a holiday tradition for 40 years, and the new non-exclusive agreement ensures that tradition will continue for years to come. This season, familiar and beloved repertory perennials such as Revelations and Cry can be found on the programs: along with works choreographed by Jamison and Battle himself: but the new director also has made some intriguing new choices for the company's repertory that are certain to stretch the dancers and engage audiences.

The season's world premiere, Home, brings Rennie Harris, the acclaimed Philadelphia- based hip-hop choreographer, back to Ailey. In 2004, he collaborated with Jamison and Battle on Love Stories, an expansive work set to Stevie Wonder's music that has remained in the repertory, and will be performed this season. "I loved watching him work," Battle recalled of their collaboration. "He's so conceptual and has such a unique way of looking at things." Harris is known for pushing the boundaries of hip hop: his 2000 Rome & Jewels was a distinctive take on Shakespeare's doomed lovers.

For Home, Harris drew on stories of people living with, or affected by, HIV. Set to gospel house music, the work is inspired by photo essays submitted by the winners of Bristol-Myers Squibb's "Fight HIV Your Way" contest. "I've seen a lot of beautiful modern dance works that have to do with this subject," Battle said in his office, a week before Harris began rehearsals. "But when we think of hip hop, we don't necessarily think of tackling that subject matter. I thought he would have something unique to say about it." The premiere of Home will be on December 1, which is World AIDS Day.

This season, Paul Taylor's 1981 Arden Court will become the first work by the venerable American choreographer to enter the Ailey repertory. Battle, a graduate of the Juilliard Dance Division, cites Taylor as an important influence on his own choreographic development. "I knew from [Associate Artistic Director Masazumi] Chaya that Mr. Ailey was fond of Taylor's work. They started companies around the same time." After meeting with Taylor, Battle chose Arden Court, with its emphasis on male virtuosity as well as introspection, "because I thought it would be a great entry point and explore the physicality of the dancers in a different way."

Ohad Naharin, longtime director of Tel Aviv's Batsheva Dance Company, is not a newcomer to Ailey; the company has performed his Black Milk, a sensual and ritualistic dance for four men. Now Battle has selected Minus 16, a more sprawling 1999 work that involves elements of improvisation and even audience participation.

Battle met with Naharin when the Ailey company performed in Tel Aviv, and they discussed what might be an interesting addition to the repertory. "I had seen Minus 16 danced by Juilliard and always enjoyed it," he said. "I thought it would be great: not only for the audience, but for the dancers."

Naharin is dedicating the Ailey premiere of Minus 16 to the memory of his wife, Mari Kajiwara, an eloquent Ailey dancer who died of cancer 10 years ago.

Ailey himself created Memoria in tribute to Joyce Trisler (1934 _1979), who danced alongside Ailey in Lester Horton's company and became a significant choreographer in her own right. This alternately ruminative and celebratory work has rarely left the repertory, and will be performed this season. In addition, Trisler's brief 1957 solo Journey will be revived. "I think it's such a profound solo: so haunting and poetic and beautiful," Battle said.

A very different solo entering the repertory is Battle's own Takedeme, created in 1999. It may last just over three minutes, but it makes a powerful impact, in part due to the unusual music: rapid-fire rhythmic syllables drawn from the Kathak tradition by South Indian vocalist Sheila Chandra. (The music will be performed live at four performances by Naren Budhakar.) "When somebody handed me that music I thought, how can I create to this? There are no counts, just syllables, and I don't know Indian dance," Battle recalled. But he found his own personal way into the score and created a demanding solo that will be performed by both men and women this season.

Battle's The Hunt, a dynamic male sextet set to pounding percussive score, electrified audiences last season and on tour, and will be seen again this season. Streams, a 1970 Alvin Ailey work set to a score by Czech composer Miloslav Kabelac, returns to the repertory after a long absence.

And so the Battle era has begun. "I think the change will be organic," the new director notes. "I'm not interested in change for change's sake. This is a magnificent company with a very loyal following. It belongs to the people, and in that way I want them to always recognize it. Yes, I will make changes and additions along the way, continuing to break boundaries, but always maintaining the richness of what is already there. I think that it's risky business when any institution loses its identity. And that won't happen under my watch."


Susan Reiter covers dance for New York Press and contributes articles on the performing arts to the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

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