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Alvin Ailey's dance company marks 65 years

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, few people have had a more improbable career in the arts than Alvin Ailey, a Black boy born into deep poverty in the segregated South at the height of the Great Depression. Yet somehow, he went on to become one of the critical figures in American dance, founding a company dedicated to exploring and celebrating African American culture in all its many colors through dance. Now the company he founded, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, is celebrating its 65th year and is back on tour under the leadership of only its third artistic director, Robert Battle. And at a time when issues of racial injustice and inequality are very much in the news, the company is exploring what some might consider an unlikely theme - love and joy. And Robert Battle is with us now to tell us more from Atlanta, where the company is on tour. Robert Battle, thanks so much for joining us once again.

ROBERT BATTLE: Of course. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Well, first of all, I'm imagining looking forward to the 65th anniversary tour. Did you have something special in mind, both as a way to celebrate, you know, surviving the pandemic when a lot of other companies didn't and also just celebrating this moment? Was there something in particular in your mind as you were putting this tour together?

BATTLE: Well, I mean, you used a great word that I think we're thinking about is surviving, right? And just to that end, I brought back a work that Alvin Ailey created in 1986 as a response to Nelson Mandela being thrown in jail unjustly. And Alvin Ailey wanted to respond to it, and so he created a work called "Survivors." I just thought it had such resonance with where we are as an organization, not only surviving but thriving. Also, thinking about the pandemic and the racial divide and all of the things that we've been grappling with, it was important for me to express the fact that Alvin Ailey was a trailblazer in that sense, that he was the living embodiment of the notion that Black lives matter and Black excellence and creativity.

MARTIN: There's a piece in particular I wanted to highlight called "Are You In Your Feelings?" by choreographer Kyle Abraham. He's a MacArthur Genius Award winner. It is this really joyous performance set against a mixtape of R&B and hip-hop and soul. Let me just play a little bit of that so people can get a little bit of the flavor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSTER")

JAZMINE SULLIVAN: (Singing) Don't catch feelings. And if this sounds appealing, you just got to fall in line. You just got to fall...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: What do you think? Yeah.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit about - for those who haven't yet had a chance to see this - what are some of the things that you will see in this work?

BATTLE: What I love about it is it crosses generations. When he would talk to me about his ideas on the phone, he said, I want to do something for the company. I want to do something very Black. I remember him saying that very, you know, no filter. He just said, very Black. And I said, well, that'll do. And then he said, I really want to do, like, a mixtape. And the songs told the story, and that's what he did.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S HOW YOU FEEL")

DRAKE: (Rapping) I know you like to drink till the sun up, grind till you come up.

BATTLE: You have Drake. You have Erykah Badu. You have Summer Walker.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SESSION 32")

SUMMER WALKER: (Singing) You don't know what love is if you're too good to call a million times.

BATTLE: Gosh. Then you have Shirley Brown and that great song "Woman To Woman."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOMAN TO WOMAN")

SHIRLEY BROWN: (Singing) Woman to woman, if you've ever been in love.

BATTLE: It just runs the gamut. It's a way of - because we often have different generations of audience members at the same performance, and so everybody has something they can connect to.

MARTIN: But you see the thing - the piece itself has so many lovely combinations. Of course, there's, like, the classic, you know, ensemble piece. There's the men doing their thing. There are the classic kind of male-female pairings, but there are also kind of two men dancing together at some point.

BATTLE: Yes.

MARTIN: They're expressing this whole kind of wide range of relationships love, romantic love. And the reason I raise that is that this piece is coming out - there's been so much sadness in the last couple of years, you know, so much about, you know, police violence, about, you know, gun violence, street violence. And I just wanted to ask you, like, why you thought it was so important to highlight something so joyous. Why did you think that was so important? Because you give the piece a lot of time on the program.

BATTLE: Yes, because we have always survived with not just activism but humor, you know, with song, with dance. When you see people dancing together in spite of the weather, that, to me is resistance. That four-letter word, love, is one of the most powerful concepts in the universe, and that's what he reminds us of in this work.

MARTIN: And you have a piece that you directed, a piece for two dancers called "Unfold." The performance I saw was performed by an opera singer singing an aria through - which was also, you know, delightful in itself. Talk a little bit about that.

BATTLE: Yeah, Brandie Sutton, who has such a beautiful voice. For me, this duet "Unfold," it was inspired, actually, by the singing of Leontyne Price. I had never heard a Black woman sing opera, and there was a commercial for the United Negro College Fund.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEONTYNE PRICE: (Singing) Reaching for a dream that spells tomorrow, another generation's coming on.

BATTLE: Leontyne Price sings in the commercial in her operatic voice. And I remember thinking that was something I'd never heard. I was spellbound and I wanted to honor her voice. And so "Unfold," to me, is about being, in a way, in love and watching it, you know, unfold like a flower.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOUISE, ACT III: DEPUIS LE JOUR")

PRICE: (Singing in French).

MARTIN: You think that people have a hunger for - to think about love?

BATTLE: I do. I think people are tired. We need a recharge. We need to feed the soul. We need to remember softness. And so I think, in some ways, yes, it is about romance, but it's also about optimism. It's also about looking forward.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, most performances of the Ailey company, or at least many, end with "Revelations." This is a signature work of Alvin Ailey's. It's so much identified with the company that I think if you saw a picture of one of the opening set pieces that you would immediately know what it was.

BATTLE: Yes.

MARTIN: And people see it and the audiences just go wild, no matter how many times they have seen it. And, in fact, I always hear people whispering, never gets old. It never gets old. For people who haven't seen it, it is a series of pieces for ensemble, (inaudible) individual solos, but all set to traditional hymns that are part of the African American experience and, you know, like "Rock My Soul," "Wade In The Water" and "I Want To Be Ready." I'm just wondering why you think it continues to have such power.

BATTLE: I think that there are moments when the divine, you know, sort of enters the being of someone in such a way in that creative moment that they channel something that just becomes both personal and at once also universal. You know, when you hear that humming, immediately, there's a sense of one's primordial past. Then the curtain rises, and it's that perfect pyramid of dancers with their weight on the ground but with their heads looking toward the sky. It just has this way of defying place and time and circumstance and bringing people together and breaking down that fourth wall. By the end of that work, there is no real tangible separation other than the footlights between the dancers, the dance and the audience.

MARTIN: That is Robert Battle, artistic director at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It's based in New York City, but the company is on tour now, which is where we reached Robert Battle in Atlanta. Robert Battle, thank you so much for being with us once again.

BATTLE: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I BEEN 'BUKED")

ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER: (Singing) I've been 'buked and I've been scorned. Yes, I've been 'buked. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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