Back in the first week of March, in Houston, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater did something it had never done before: Its dancers performed "Arden Court," a work by modernist choreographer Paul Taylor.
This Friday in Tucson, at UA Centennial Hall, the company will try on two Robert Battle works for size.
Something is different with the 54-year-old company, and that something is the troupe's brand-new artistic director, Robert Battle himself. Battle took over the legendary company last July 1, becoming only the third director in its existence.
"It's an honor," Battle, 39, said by phone last week from California, where the company was performing on a 27-stop, four-month North American tour. "Alvin Ailey is one of the most-important institutions in the world, in terms of what we're doing onstage, offstage, in the community, in the Ailey school and in camps. We're cultural ambassadors for the United States."
As an African-American dancer and choreographer, Battle is acutely aware of the Ailey tradition—he created six dances for the company before joining—but he also believes it's time to mix it up.
"Audiences should be expecting the unexpected, limited only by our imagination," he said. "We'll be doing traditional (Ailey) works and works by established choreographers and new choreographers. And, yes, I'll be fully engaged as a choreographer."
The Tucson show offers a glimpse of the company's fresh vision. It will include two Ailey pieces: the beloved "Revelations," a company staple from 1960, and 1979's "Memoria." But it will also feature two dances by Battle: "Takademe," a 1999 solo that's making its Ailey debut, and "The Hunt," a 2001 work for six men that made its way into the Ailey repertory last year.
Originally from Miami, Battle studied voice and martial arts before turning to dance at the age of 10 or 11. He trained first at the New World School of the Arts and then moved on to the Juilliard School. He danced for seven years in the 1990s with the modern Parsons Dance Company, and started choreographing even then, as a young dancer. In 2002, he set out on his own, creating Battleworks Dance Company and composing works for Ailey and a variety of other companies. Battleworks is now dissolved, he said.
Judith Jamison, who succeeded Ailey as artistic director after his death in 1989, chose Battle as her successor. Before his official appointment in July, Battle was "artistic director designate" for a year, he said. During that time, he started making artistic decisions, including announcing Ailey's New Directions Choreography Lab. The new project will award fellowships to four new and midcareer choreographers each year, with an eye toward helping them develop their art—and allowing them to set work on the acclaimed Ailey dancers.
The large troupe of 30 dancers has undergone a significant shift in recent years; 20 were hired just since 2008. Battle himself had the "opportunity to select nine new dancers" last summer, he said. Arizona native Clifton Brown, who mesmerized Tucson audiences the last time Ailey hit town, is no longer with the company full-time, Battle said, though he occasionally steps in as a guest artist.
Despite the changes, Battle is committed to the work of Alvin Ailey. Battle intends to continue the tradition of presenting "Revelations" at nearly every concert. Inspired by what Ailey called his "blood memories" of his Depression-era childhood in Texas, "Revelations" is danced to stirring gospel anthems.
Named the top modern piece of the 20th century by Dance Magazine, "Revelations" is a "national treasure, a historic work," Battle said. To get to the "bare bones" of its meaning, it has to be danced, and danced again.
And there's a practical reason to keep performing the cherished piece: "When we don't put the work on the program, we see it at the box office," he said.
But "Revelations" isn't the sum total of Ailey's aesthetic, Battle said. "He also did 'Blues Suite' and 'Night Creature.' He could be humorous and sexy. I want to continue all aspects of his work."
Ailey's 1979 "Memoria," a work for 21 dancers on the Centennial Hall program, was composed as a memorial to Joyce Trisler, a "beautiful dancer, a colleague and friend" to Ailey, Battle said. Danced to jazz from Keith Jarrett, the piece is a "masterful ballet, a hauntingly beautiful work that has both mystery and a certain sense of groundedness."
Battle's dances on the program show his own range.
"Takademe" is a solo, just three minutes and 20 seconds long, to be danced by Demetia Hopkins. The music is a jazz score by Sheila Chandra, but the piece is a riff on Kathak, Indian classical dance. When Battle was a student at Juilliard, he used to peek in at the Kathak dance classes, though he never joined in. He was attracted not only by the distinctive movements, but also by the singing.
"I started out as a singer, and I love extreme voice, from operatic voice to Indian Kathak," Battle said. "I also love jazz, and Kathak singing reminded me of scatting, syllables and rhythms."
When he was a young dancer, he choreographed "Takademe" in a living room in Queens, and he used to dance it himself at Parsons. "Now I'm here at this magnificent company, and this piece reminds me of that time."
Though "Takademe" has been performed by Ailey II, this is the first time it has made its way into the repertory of the main company.
Ailey II has danced Battle's "The Hunt" for some time, and the main company started performing it last year. Set to music by Les Tambours du Bronx, "it's a dance for six men, percussive-driven, aggressive and ritualistic. It's extremely immediate and very gripping. I started martial arts before I did dance, and in this dance, I'm reminded of karate."
Battle faced the tough New York critics when he presented his first Big Apple season as artistic director this winter. Several writers seemed wary of the Ailey troupe's accessibility and celebratory appeal. A review by The New York Times' Alistair Macaulay was headlined "Trying Always to Please, Rarely to Challenge."
But the new artistic director said he didn't pay much attention.
"I was too busy celebrating," he said. "There's so much to celebrate: what is wonderful about the company and what we do. People leave the theater feeling uplifted. It's an important aspect of what we do. There's so much cynicism in the world. People can come here and feel connected."
Sometimes audiences are so excited by "Revelations," the usual concert finale, that the dancers double back and dance the last section again. When asked whether Tucson will merit the longer version, Battle laughed.
"No guarantees," he said. "It's like an encore. It depends on the audience."