In The Studio: Robert Battle on What It Means to Take a Stand
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.
"Mass" was originally set in 2004 on a group of undergraduate students at Julliard.
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.
AAADT artistic director Robert Battle and associate artistic director Masazumi Chaya with the company in rehearsal.
To see Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on tour go to alvinailey.org.
You know compelling musicality when you see it. But how do you cultivate it? It's not as elusive as it might seem. Musicality, like any facet of dance, can be developed and honed over time—with dedicated, detailed practice. At its most fundamental, it's "respect for the music, that this is your partner," says Kate Linsley, academy principal of the School of Nashville Ballet.
Notable dancer and beloved teacher, Ross Parkes, 79, passed away on August 5, 2019 in New York City. He was a founding faculty member at Taipei National University of the Arts in Taiwan, where he taught from 1984 to 2006. Lin Hwai-min, artistic director of Cloud Gate Dance Theater, said: "He nurtured two generations of dancers in Taiwan, and his legacy will continue."
About his dancing, Tonia Shimin, professor emerita at UC Santa Barbara and producer of Mary Anthony: A Life in Modern Dance, said this: "He was an exquisite, eloquent dancer who inhabited his roles completely."
Just four years ago, the University of Southern California's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance welcomed its first class of BFA students. The program—which boasts world-class faculty and a revolutionary approach to training focused on collaboration and hybridity—immediately established itself as one of the country's most prestigious and most innovative.
Now, the first graduating class is entering the dance field. Here, six of the 33 graduates share what they're doing post-grad, what made their experience at USC Kaufman so meaningful and how it prepared them for their next steps:
More than once, when I'm sporting my faded, well-loved ballet hoodie, some slight variation of this conversation ensues:
"Is your daughter the dancer?"
"Actually," I say, "I am."
"Wow!" they enthuse. "Who do you dance with? Or have you retired...?"
"I don't dance with a company. I'm not a professional. I just take classes."
Insert mic drop/record scratch/quizzical looks.