Battle of Dance

by Alicia Anstead

Robert Battle knew something was up when the hiring committee for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater -- in search of a new artistic director -- invited him back for the umpteenth interview -- and he was told to go to an offsite location. The legendary Judith Jamison, who was at the time stepping down as director of the company, had texted him earlier. She wrote: "Enjoy your day."

Enjoy your day?

What did that mean? he wondered.

Enjoy your day because it's going to be a bad one? Or enjoy your day because you're going to never forget the moment you learn you've been chosen as the new director -- and only the third in the company's history? When he bumped into a New York Times photographer on the elevator en route to the meeting -- and they both got out on the same floor -- he was only further flummoxed.

What was going on?

"It was easier to understand Toni Morrison's Beloved," Battle told an audience Monday at the Harvard Dance Center, where dance program director Jill Johnson, in conjunction with the Office for the Arts Learning From Performers and Dance programs, conducted a conversation with him.

And yes, on that fateful day, Jamison took Battle's hands in hers and said: "Look into my eyes. What do you think? It's yours."

That is: The job of artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was his.

Battle, now in his first year as director, was visiting Harvard at Johnson's invitation, and together they spoke about the importance of honoring the "giants" of the past while implementing fresh visions for the future of dance. His company is passing through the area via Celebrity Series of Boston which is presenting the troupe April 26-29 at the Citi Wang Center. The company will present five works: Paul Taylor's Arden Court, Ohad Naharin's Minus 16, Rennie Harris' Home and Battle's own Takademe and The Hunt.

Battle's appearance comes at a moment when dance is at the forefront of the arts at Harvard -- both as a discipline and as a highlight of ARTS FIRST, which will present the New England premiere of Slow Dancing, an outdoor multi-screen installation by David Michalek featuring massive hyper-slow-motion-video portraits of dancers and choreographers. Slow Dancing will be on view nightly 7-11 p.m. April 20-29 on the facade of Widener Library. Two additional free events will take place in conjunction with the installation:

  1. The Public Value of the Arts: Who wins, who loses, and who picks up the check? A discussion of the role of art in the public sector. National leaders will discuss the challenges and opportunities inherent in framing the arts as a public good.

    7:30 p.m. April 19, Taubman Rotunda and Weiner Auditorium, Taubman Building, Harvard Kennedy School

  2. A Conversation with David Michalek, with Giuliana Bruno, Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies, Jill Johnson, and President Drew Gilpin Faust.

    3 p.m. April 20, Fong Auditorium, Boylston Hall.

"Dance comes from the people and should always be delivered back to the people," Battle said -- quoting Ailey (and dovetailing with the approach Johnson has embraced in her own first year at Harvard). Battle's artistic choices are not so much about choreographers, he said, but about what and how the audience will see dance and the ways in which dance can engage new thinking.

[Caption: Robert Battle PHOTOS: Alicia Anstead/Harvard Office for the Arts]

[Caption: Scaffolding for "Slow Dancing" flanks the columns of Widener Library.]