Revelations and revolutions: how Robert Battle put Alvin Ailey's dancers to the test

The artistic director of the American dance-theatre company explains why they are taking on Wayne McGregor’s speedy, scribbling moves and Hofesh Shechter’s bleak and brutal Uprising

“I relish the feeling of doubt. I can’t imagine living anywhere other than on the edge – that place where you’re understood and misunderstood with the same amount of passion.” Robert Battle, current artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, is a man of large enthusiasms; he laughs loudly and often, and frequently has to tell himself off for being indiscreet. So I believe him when he says that he’s welcomed most of the criticisms directed at him over the last five years, as he’s tried to bring a fresh new look to the Ailey repertory. Old-school fans might wonder why the company should be performing a work by Royal Ballet choreographer Wayne McGregor, but the 43-year-old Battle registers their disapproval as confirmation that he’s doing something lively and valid.

The courage that it’s taken Battle to ruffle the feathers of the Ailey brand is proportionate to the place the company holds in America’s heart. It was founded in 1958, at a time when the civil rights movement was gaining its first political victories for African Americans, and Ailey saw it not only as a way of getting black performers and black stories on to the mainstream dance stage, but of instigating social change. Over the decades AAADT has expanded to become, in Ailey’s phrase, a “rainbow company” , embracing dance artists from a wider diversity of backgrounds and including classical ballet as well as modern and African dance in its training. Yet a sense of black cultural heritage – of blues, spirituals and jazz – has remained key to its identity; its signature work continues to be Ailey’s own 1960 creation, Revelations, an inspirational suite of religious and celebratory dances whose theatrical power evokes not only the struggle of the individual spirit, but of black nations.

Related: Step-by-step guide to dance: Alvin Ailey

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Source: Guardian Dance News

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