Don’t Get Weary – Alvin Ailey’s leader on Dancing in Troubled Times

(Photo – AAADT in Robert Battle’s Mass. Photo by Paul Kolnik.)

In what has become a beloved Miami tradition, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returns to the Adrienne Arsht Center today through Sunday, marking a full decade of regular seasons here. This year the highlight is work from the company’s two Miami-bred members, artistic director Robert Battle and dancer and budding choreographer Jamar Roberts.

Miami will finally get to see Roberts’ choreographic debut for the troupe, Members Don’t Get Weary, a response to our fraught times set to music by John Coltrane which got a rare rave review from the New York Times at its December premiere. (You can hear a wonderful interview with Roberts and WLRN’s Alicia Zuckerman here.) From Battle we’ll see Mass, an Ailey company premiere, and his duet Ella, set to Ella Fitzgerald’s scat pyrotechnics, and The Hunt, a heart-pounding, ritualistic work for men.

Artistic Director Robert Battle. Photo by Andrew Eccles-4
Alvin Ailey Artistic Director Robert Battle. Photo by Andrew Eccles.

Both Battle and Roberts have reinforced their Miami connections on this trip and in recent months. Roberts, who graduated from New World School of the Arts but was discovered and mentored by Angel Fraser-Logan at her Empire Dance studio, taught workshops at New World and Coral Reef Senior High School this week. In January he and Logan, whose moving story I wrote about for the Times, presented The House of the Most Loved, an evening-length piece Roberts choreographed for Empire students. Also in January, Battle spoke for the first time at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center in Liberty City, the neighborhood where he grew up, in a lively and inspiring discussion.

I spoke to Battle in Atlanta just two days after the horrifying shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas about that tragedy, how art can help us deal with difficult times, fostering Roberts as a choreographer, and more.

  • It’s been an overwhelming week here. Can you say anything about the shooting?

RB – I mentioned in my curtain speech last night that it’s personal for me because it’s Florida. But 17 people lost their lives, children lost their lives. It’s hard to process, hard to fathom. I went to school in a tough neighborhood, but we didn’t have a shooting drill. When there’s a tragedy on that scale the numbers are kind of abstract. But then you start to think about not just the person who was murdered, but also the family that took the bullet. All those little details when it’s your child, how you’re planning, what might be good next Christmas, what about tomorrow. Then you’re driving to what you think is the safest place, school – and the next day thinking where will we bury them. It’s important to just stop and absorb that. We have to understand this could happen to any of us, any of those close to us. We hear so much news it’s easy to lose that human connection – that’s somebody’s daughter, sister, best friend. Imagine the terror. Even if they weren’t killed, their innocence has been murdered.

I keep wondering when the thoughts are going to become some kind of action. In moments like this, I have to be honest, I feel kind of hopeless. We get so caught up in the politics and not the humanity, and that frightens me as someone who leads a company that does work that celebrates our common humanity. I think of [Revelations] as a prayer and message of hope. We can give people some sense of hope through dance, some sense of relief, be inspired to do something.

AAADTs Jacquelin Harris in Jawole Willa Jo Zollars Shelter Photo by Paul Kolnik.
AAADTs Jacquelin Harris in Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Shelter. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

– Is your programming for Ailey a response to what’s going on?

RB – I think so. One thing I always felt about the arts is that they give you a sense you’re not alone. If I’m feeling a certain way, I can listen to a song that can either match what I’m feeling or make me feel differently. I think dance has that effect. A work like [Urban Bush Women director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s] Shelter, that has to do with something as serious as homelessness – it’s inspiring to see a work that puts a face on a subject like that and that there are other people who care. Jawole was very insistent about adding new text at the end, about [hurricanes] Irma and Harvey, where she goes beyond homelessness being not just about poverty but about global warming. She ties it together. In the text she says ‘what are we all gonna do? where are we all gonna go?’ So this is about all of humanity. You feel the audience collectively inspired by seeing something that speaks the truth to power. I think there’s definitely a hunger to hear a message like that, to hear something that takes a stand.

  • why did you decide to commission a work from Jamar?

RB – He’s a restless creature. I think he has a lot in his arsenal which is always spinning in his head. I remember seeing something he did [online] and I thought, wow that’s really compelling. It was a very unique language. He took a break from the company right before I started, and I was really disappointed. Then he came back, which I was thrilled about. I started to recognize the restlessness in him, which I had in myself – that dancing alone wasn’t enough for me, I had to make stuff wherever I could. So I was watching [Jamar] from the sidelines, waiting for the moment that seemed right. And I felt that in his spirit and wherever he was personally it seemed like the right time, and I said I’d love for you to make a work for the company.

AAADT in Jamar Roberts' Members Don't Get Weary Photo by Paul Kolnik
AAADT in Jamar Roberts’ Members Don’t Get Weary. Photo by Paul Kolnik.
  • And how do you feel about Members Don’t Get Weary?

RB – It is more than I had hoped for. I used to tap dance, and sometimes I would improvise with a friend at Juilliard, we’d use John Coltrane. That music is really hard to dance to, you’re going ‘where’s the beat?’ because it shifted and sub-divided, it was hard to stay in pocket. Jamar is using Coltrane, so when I would walk in the studio and see how he’s picking up all that nuance physically, I had an appreciation for his musicality. And then his sense of theatricality was not forced, very introspective while being very revealing. He really opened his heart, his guts. Jamar tends to be very soft-spoken, not extroverted. But he was pouring it all into this work. For him this was a huge step, to let all of that out into that work. It’s phenomenal.

  • Tell me about Mass

RB – Mass came about after [jazz musician and former Battle roommate] Rachel Farrow’s mom invited me to see her in the choir in Verdi’s Requiem at Carnegie Hall [in the early 2000’s]. I had never been to Carnegie Hall and I had never seen a choir that large, which was amazing. But of course as a choreographer and dancer I was watching the parade of choir members coming out, the pageantry. Because some of them were older there was a sense of carefulness in how they moved. They’re on those risers and it’s like they’re stuck there in the middle of a crowd. [But] their voices are free, their voices travel throughout hall, their voices are a metaphor for flight. I was asked to make a work for Juilliard and dec to make a work inspired by that. Mass is about a mass of people moving through space. And out of that mass this leader is born [who] pushes them forward and they go flying out of the wings.

This leader theme comes up a lot for me. I think it’s something I struggle with. It is not always easy to lead, or as glamorous as people think. One has to be a bit porous, meaning you absorb everything, you absorb all kinds of worries. That’s what makes it necessary for you to see beyond the moment.

If you go: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Thursday through Sunday at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Tickets $29 -$99 at arshtcenter.org or 305-949-6722.

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