In a sun-soaked studio in New York City, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater prepares for their 21-city North American tour beginning January 30. We caught up with artistic director Robert Battle to discuss his work Mass and how the tradition of modern dance has always been connected to social justice.
What has it been like setting Mass on the company after originally choreographing the work on Juilliard students in 2004?
When I made it, I didn't think about the dance so much as being "for students," I just made a dance. So that was different because a lot of the time you make a dance and think about how it will be tweaked on a more mature group of dancers, but for this piece that wasn't so much the case.
When you're bringing back work from so long ago, do you ever feel an impulse to make tweaks?
Yes, but I learned long ago from one of my comp teachers to be careful messing with choreography. I tweak, but more finite things like a beat that perhaps I didn't initially notice in the music and now feel an impulse towards acknowledging.
What does it mean to you to bring spiritual work like Mass onstage in 2018?
Although there's a spiritual arc to it, it's not blatantly spiritual. The title can be misleading. Mass to me is a group of people. A group of frightened people or charged people. Mass is this leader being born out of that charged group that needs to figure out the way forward. But I do think in times where there's a certain polarization around a mass of people being marginalized, people see that and feel that in the work, and there's this sense of fight.
I love to let audiences know that the tradition of modern dance is not just being seen but being heard. The notion of modern dance having something to do with social justice, it's part of the foundation from Isadora on. That may be difficult for people who aren't natural theater-goers to understand. Here we are in a time when people feel like they should be taking a stand and not realizing that when you take a seat in a theater and see something that speaks to the human spirit, that uplifts, educates and enlightens, that that is a form of taking a stand—supporting those cultural institutions and those works that hold meaning.
To see Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on tour go to alvinailey.org.