When Robert Battle took over the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in 2011, he promised that he'd keep the company contemporary while continuing to honor its late, great founder.
The program for this Sunday's concert at Tucson's Centennial proves he's doing exactly that.
Yes, Ailey's signature piece, the brilliant "Revelations" from 1960 closes the concert. But it opens with "Lift," a 2013 commissioned work by the rising Canadian choreographer Aszure Barton. And it showcases "Minus 16," a much-admired 1999 dance by Ohad Najarin, the artistic director of the groundbreaking Batsheva Dance Company of Israel.
"The dancers are taking on this challenge," Battle said by phone last week from New York, the company's home base. "I'm realizing my own vision to share new stuff as well as the classic Ailey works."
Barton, a 40-something choreographer who works out of New York, has created dances for Mikhail Baryshnikov, American Ballet Theatre, Nederlands Dans Theater, National Ballet of Canada and a host of others. She and Battle have been friends for years.
"I've known her since she was 16," Battle said. "I danced with her sister at Juilliard and at Parsons Dance Company. Aszure and I became great friends. We did a lot of dreaming together about our careers about our ideas for dances."
When he commissioned Barton, now a sought-after choreographer, to set a piece on Ailey in 2013, "it was a full-circle thing."
Barton, who brought her own troupe to Centennial Hall in 2012, didn't compose "Lift" in advance. She created the work right in the studio with the dancers, improvising the piece as she learned more about what they could do. Her style, Battle said, is "about what happens in the studio and her feelings about the dancers."
Fully 19 of the troupe's 31 dancers are in "Lift," which is set to original music by Curtis Macdonald. The percussive score is paired with African-inspired movement, with the dancers flying across stage in earth-toned costumes and making bird-like gestures with their arms. The piece, Barton's first for Ailey, has taken some hits from the New York critics, but Battle deems the athletic dance a "marvelous work."
Israeli choreographer Naharin has a special relationship with Ailey: his late wife, Mari Kajiwara, was an Ailey dancer from 1970 to 1984. For "Minus 16," a work in her honor, he assembled excerpts from five earlier pieces, including a duet that he originally created for Kajiwara.
Nederlands Dans Theater premiered the new work in 1999, and it's since won critical acclaim and entered the repertory of a number of troupes. But it wasn't acquired by Ailey until 2011, the year Battle became artistic director.
"Ohad Najarin is someone whose work I've followed for a long time," Battle said. "He's very much connected to Ailey. I had seen 'Minus 16' and I bought that in my first season."
The dance for 20 is best known for a sequence in which the dancers, dressed in business suits, cavort on a semicircle of chairs, and gradually take off their business attire, piece by piece. Wildly athletic, performed to a mix of haunting Israeli music and "Over the Rainbow," among other disparate tunes, the piece first came to Tucson back in April 2003, when Nederlands Dans gave it an exhilarating performance on the Centennial Hall stage.
Now it's Ailey's turn.
"It's spectacular," Battle said.
"Revelations," named by critics back in 2000 as the best modern dance work of the 20th century, ends nearly every Ailey concert. Danced by the whole company to a series of 11 African-American spirituals and blues songs, it conjures up the sweep of black history and culture in America. Alvin Ailey himself once said it's based on his "blood memories" of growing up in the black church in hardscrabble southeast Texas.
Battle first saw it as a child, when his class was bused to an Ailey concert.
"I was in middle school in Miami," he said. "I saw 'Revelations.' Now I'm living it. I was so moved. I grew up going to church and knowing about African-American history—my mother made sure of that."
Even now, after countless performances, "people still relish seeing it," Battle said. "It's less about seeing dance and more about celebrating the tenacity of the human spirit."