By Greg Carannante
City & Shore PRIME Magazine
When Artistic Director Robert Battle brings his Alvin Ailey Dance Theater to Miami this month, it won’t be just any stop on the celebrated company’s 21-city North American tour. For him it will be a homecoming victory.
Battle grew up in Liberty City before making his grand jeté from Miami’s New World School of the Arts to New York’s Juilliard School at age 17. And as Ailey celebrates a decade of appearances in Miami, another native of the city will also find the spotlight. Dancer Jamar Roberts will turn choreographer with the debut of his first world premiere, Members Don’t Get Weary.
Upon leaving Miami in 1990, Battle joined Parsons Dance Company, founded his own Battleworks Dance Company and was honored as a Master of African American Choreography by the Kennedy Center in 2005. He set a number of his works on the Ailey company before taking the helm in 2011.
Of the many memorable performances he’s overseen here, the one that holds the most meaning was the first time returning as Ailey’s artistic director to the theater so close to where he grew up.
“My mom, my whole family was in the audience,” says Battle, 45. “It was, hometown boy does well. I came out to the hundreds of people in the audience and I said, ‘Liberty City in the house.’ That was a good moment. It makes me proud of my city anytime I’m in that wonderful theater.”
His success is only sweetened by the memory of his childhood challenges, especially the irony of having worn leg braces to correct his bow-leggedness.
“I was picked on for many things,” Battle says, “certainly for being a dancer. That was tough as a child dealing with that. So anytime I have had some success, I have learned to appreciate in a very strange way those people who picked on me and told me that I couldn’t, because, without knowing, they gave me something to resist. Therefore I built the muscle that is my integrity, my work habit, my ambition.”
Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, Feb. 22-25, Adrienne Arsht Center, Miami. For tickets, visit arshtcenter.org
Aside from the weather, what do you enjoy most about South Florida?
Simply the diversity. It prepared me for what would be my life. I lived near Little Haiti. If you open your mind, there is a lot that is rich in this melting pot.
Aside from the weather, what do you dislike most about living in South Florida?
Probably the same thing. Oftentimes, the thing that is not appreciated even by some of the hometown folks is the diversity, that we have so much to learn from one another culturally. People can tend to stay in their own place and not exploit that rich tapestry.
Are you a beach person or a pool person?
When in your life have you been the happiest?
Probably when Judith Jamison chose me to be her successor. When she said to me, ‘Look into my eyes — it’s yours,’ in regards to the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. Happy, because I know where I come from, and the odds are sometimes stacked against that young boy who grew up there. And there I was in that moment that said to hell with those notions, looking into the eyes of a legend, and in fact connecting to me to the legend of Alvin Ailey.
What music are you listening to now?
A lot of jazz. Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan.
Are you a fan, and if so, of what?
Who is your real-life hero or heroine?
My mother, Dessie Williams, who still lives in Liberty City, who is really my cousin, who took me in — but for more than that. A church pianist who recites poetry, she was the first to give me this notion that art can be elevating and could transform people.
If you had to choose: Rocky or Raging Bull?
I was just at a function sitting next to De Niro, so I’m gonna play it safe and say Raging Bull [laughs]. No, I would definitely say Rocky. I think most of us have some memory of first seeing it, and how it was so much about — in some ways, my own story — being the underdog. We all sort of rise with him.
What car are you driving now?
Jeep Cherokee, Camaro Convertible. I think it’s reflective of my personalities — one has to do with practicality and the other has a youthful spirit that likes to go fast.
What do you like most about yourself?
What I like most is that through any situation, any obstacle, any nervousness about premiering a dance — I keep my sense of humor. I can always find something ironic that will make me laugh. I get that from my folks. I think this is very much a strength, because if you can take the situation seriously, and not yourself, sometimes you are much better off in the long run.
What places are you sure to visit when you’re in South Florida?
People’s Bar-B-Que in Overtown. When I go back home I want some short ends. They know how to do them there.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I wish I was a bit more confrontational.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Never forgetting the people who helped me — teachers, family, friends, fans — anybody who said a kind word, an encouraging word or even sometimes a critical word. I never forget the people and the things they’ve said or done that have been a light in my life in a moment of darkness.