When Alvin Ailey founded Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958, there weren’t many opportunities for black dancers. "Alvin Ailey wanted to change that so he started the company. It represents a kind of movement not just in terms of dance, but in terms of transforming the country," says artistic director Robert Battle.
Just in time for Black History Month, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater comes to Philadelphia’s Merriam Theater on Feb. 3 and 4 to perform inspiring pieces that reflect on the past and look forward to the future. Battle chats with us about the MLK-inspired “Revolution Dream,” the dance performance that “awakened” him on his creative path and why the arts matter now more than ever.
There are different programs being performed each day. How does that work?
There are so many different works in the repertoire that you can’t do them all in one night in one week. So we try to give a variety of options for people. If you can, I think it’s wise to attend both programs because you get to see the versatility of the dancers.
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Which are you most excited about?
One I’m very excited about is called “Revolution Dream.” It was inspired by the words of Martin Luther King Jr., which I think is very timely, certainly looking at Black History Month and where we are now in this country. We need to look at the lessons of the civil rights movement and draw from that inspiration. So “Revolution Dream” is really, I think, a timely and beautiful work by a long time company member, Hope Boykin.
One of your pieces is being performed as well: “Awakening.” Want to tell us about that?
Sure. “Awakening” is the first work I’ve made for the company since I took over as artistic director. And it has to do with that moment when we’re inspired by something we see or hear that creates a kind of awakening in us — that we’re never the same after we see it. For me, it was seeing “Revelations” when I was growing up in Miami. We were bussed to see a student performance of it.
That certainly changed the trajectory of your life — seeing that Alvin Ailey performance as a kid and now you’re the artistic director of the company. How would you describe “Revelations” to someone who isn’t familiar with it?
Alvin Ailey created “Revelations” in 1960. It’s a sweep of spirituals that celebrates the experiences of African-Americans in this country and how we overcame the atrocities of hate through faith in God. No matter what your religious relief or background or where you’re from, audiences receive this universal message of hope. It really influenced the trajectory of modern dance. We close most programs with that because it’s the most requested work.
With the volatility in our country right now, why are the arts important?
You can learn more about your history and the survival of a people through the arts than you would in a textbook. This is especially true for dance. It has a way of being ambiguous. Often where words falter — because words can be so polarizing — dance has a way of being just abstract enough so that a person can receive the message without feeling like you’re attacking their way of life or what they think.
If you go:
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Feb. 3 and 4
250 S. Broad St.