Hoopla

Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre to perform next Tuesday at Hancher

The company performs the #x201c;I Been 'Buked#x201d; portion of the late Alvin Ailey's #x201c;Revelations.#x201d; The su
The company performs the “I Been ‘Buked” portion of the late Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations.” The suite of spirituals expressing the experiences of African Americans in the United States is the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s most sought-after work, according to Artistic Director Robert Battle. (Nan Melville)
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Seeing Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations” was revelatory for young Robert Battle.

He grew up in Miami, singing in the church choir; studying classical piano; hearing his mother’s Afro American group reading poetry and singing songs relating to the black experience; and watching old movies starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly and Sammy Davis Jr. Then Michael Jackson craze took over, with “Thriller” and “Billie Jean” drawing him into dance, becoming his focus after his voice changed in adolescence.

He had seen Ailey’s signature, groundbreaking “Revelations” on video, but seeing it live during a school field trip to Miami was “a whole other matter,” Battle, now 47, said by phone from New York City, where he has served as artistic director for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since 2011.


What "Revelations" Means To Me from Alvin Ailey on Vimeo.

The company is coming to Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City on Tuesday (3/10), bringing three modern dance works to the stage — “BUSK,” “Ode” and “Revelations” — each having distinct, yet overlapping styles.

“The company is highly physical, very tactile,” Battle said. “It’s a level of physicality that’s worth noting.”

He described BUSK,” choreographed by Aszure Barton, as “wonderfully abstract in a lot of ways. It’s layered with some humor and is quite a mysterious and beautiful work.”

“Ode” — choreographed by Jamar Roberts, an Ailey dancer and the company’s first resident choreographer — explores gun violence. It’s “an almost lamentation,” Battle said, with “a funeral-type quality, a sense of mourning and loss, but it’s also very beautiful within that spirit of healing.”

“Revelations,” he said, is “one of the most seen and celebrated dances ever created. It’s a suite of spirituals that expresses the experiences of African Americans in this country, and ultimately, it’s a message of hope and faith.”

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“It takes us on a journey from struggle through surrender to salvation,” dancer Hope Boykin said in a video discussion posted on the company’s website.

The last time local audiences saw this 36-minute piece was 2014, when Hancher, displaced by the Floods of 2008, brought the Alvin Ailey troupe to the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. The Gazette’s review said “the excitement was palpable” that night, “as ripples of applause greeted the evening’s centerpiece.”

That’s the same kind of effect “Revelations” had on Battle.

“I remember thinking, especially seeing the men, because I was picked on a lot, bullied, because of all of the things that I did — singing soprano being one of them — pick one — and certainly dancing,” Battle said. “And to see them dance with such grace, beauty and strength was really important for me, not knowing that someday I would be only the third artistic director in the company’s history.”

That’s an unimaginable dream come true for Battle, and the kind of life-altering experience Ailey, who died in 1981, wanted to bring to audiences, dancers — especially African American dancers — and to young people.

Educational outreach remains a hallmark of the Ailey Arts in Education & Community Programs, which offers Ailey Kids residencies, camps and programs nationally. During their stay in Iowa City, the dancers will perform a school matinee Wednesday morning (3/11) at Hancher.

That philosophy also is an outgrowth of Ailey’s mission beginning in 1958, when his group of young, black, modern-dance storytellers debuted in 1958, then embarked on what Ailey called “the station wagon tours.”

“I am trying to show the world we are all human beings,” Ailey said, “that color is not important, that what is important is the quality of our work, of a culture in which the young are not afraid to take chances and can hold onto their values and self-esteem, especially in the arts and in dance. That’s what it’s all about to me.”

“Revelations” would premiere in 1960, created from Ailey’s “blood memories” of growing up in rural Texas and the Baptist church, and it has been told “continuously” around the world, leaping across racial, religious and national lines.

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“It’s timeless, regardless of what’s happening in the world,” Battle said. “It’s timeless because it’s a masterpiece. Certainly, you can’t avoid noting that there’s a certain amount of discord that’s outrageous and sad, and I think people are really anxiety-ridden right now, with everything that’s happening moment to moment.

“I think it stands now as the best of what we can be, but also, there’s a lesson in there, because Alvin Ailey founded the company in 1958, on the brink of the Civil Rights Movement. So imagine bringing a thing of beauty into the world at a time when the world was, in some ways, everything but beautiful,” Battle said.

“It tells us that creativity, art-making, dance-making, whatever you’re doing, is more important now than ever. The shoulders of people that we stand on, if they were able in a time of discord to bring something beautiful to the world, like a poem or a painting or a dance, that we can at least do that much.

“But it’s also about community. Because people love ‘Revelations’ so much. In a way, it’s about a specific thing, but it’s also about all of us. And so to bring people together under one roof, witnessing this dance that has defied place and time and circumstance, can only make us better.”

Ailey opened the door for black dancers not only in his lifetime, but onward. While his company’s dancers remain predominantly black, and with the soaring pop-culture and classical profile of Misty Copeland rising through American Ballet Theatre, the uphill climb isn’t over.

“There’s still lot of work that needs to be done in that sphere,” Battle said. “It starts with giving opportunity to young people in underserved communities, who may not even get the opportunity. We know how necessary it is to start your training at a young age. That’s why we do so much in communities, and always have, since the beginning of the company. The stuff we do in communities and our Arts in Education program are hugely important.

“It’s going to take seeing more of that all the way around to give young people the opportunity,” he said. “It has to, in some ways, not just be a buzzword to raise funds for arts in education. It has to be mission-driven by the arts organizations, by dance organizations and the like. And that, to me, is hugely important if we’re going to continue to give everybody that wants it, the opportunity.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

Get Out!

• What: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

• Where: Hancher Auditorium, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City

• When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (3/10)

• Tickets: $55 to $75 adults, $10 to $67 college students, $10 to $37 youths; Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1-(800) HANCHER or Hancher.uiowa.edu/2019-20/AlvinAiley

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• Program: “BUSK,” 20 min., “Ode,” 17 min., “Revelations,” 36 min.

• Company’s website: Alvinailey.org

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