Holding Space: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Winning Return
By Lou Fancher
All fingers are crossed and Covid-19 safety protocols firmly anchored to prevent anything from marring the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s triumphant resumption March 29 of its annual residency at Cal Performances. The dance company’s exuberant energy and powerful, visceral presentation of American history and culture are one of the country’s finest examples of the astonishing physical capacity and mental creativity and acuity of the human body and mind.
Returning to the UC Berkeley campus, where it has for over 50 years performed more than in any location outside of the company’s home base in New York City, five ambitious programs include a celebration of artistic director Robert Battle’s 10-year leadership; the West Coast staged premiere of Holding Space by Ailey resident choreographer Jamar Roberts (streamed online in 2021 as part of last year’s Cal Performances at Home series); the return of Rennie Harris’ Lazarus; an All Ailey program celebrating 50 years of Cry, Ailey’s legendary solo dance; a new 2021 production of the Duke Ellington-inspired Pas de Duke; and more.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Berkeley/Oakland AileyCamp, a tuition-free, six-week summer program that has enriched the lives of more than 1,000 young people in the Bay Area. Ailey company alumnus David McCauley directed the camp until his retirement in 2020. Patricia West is the current director, and due to the pandemic, led the first-ever online AileyCamp in 2021. One of nine AileyCamps nationwide, the camp is locally produced and fully funded by Cal Performances. This year, a special fundraising campaign tangential to the performances seeks to continue its success.
In an interview, Battle says AileyCamp is more important now than ever. “Even with the wonderful advent of social media and the positive aspects of digital connectivity, we know of body shaming and the fake-ness of social media—the idea that everything is happy, that you have to have this and that to be proud of who you are. It’s important that Ailey Camp makes kids proud to simply say their names, to know they matter, that what’s in their hearts matters. Each day, they say affirmations, and one of them is, “I will not use can’t to define myself.” Young people, as much as we want to shield them from what’s going on, they feel it. They experience it. It’s important to give them an avenue to express themselves and help them have a positive memory in and about this time.”
Battle knows firsthand what he speaks. Growing up in Liberty City, a neighborhood near Miami, FL, he holds today one vivid memory that in many ways laid the groundwork for In/Sight, one of seven dances on Program A honoring his choreography. The work is set to Nina Simone’s performance of Wild in the Wind.
“I remember when I was very little, riding with my great uncle in his Pinto after the riots and civil unrest in Liberty City. We were passing by a tire company I had seen many times in Miami, and it was burning and there was nobody putting the fire out. As a kid, I always wanted to be a firefighter. The idea that because of civil unrest, no one was putting out the fire—the smell of burning rubber, I can still smell it today. I remember all of the feelings of trauma and the anger.”
Battle says the work is his most personal ballet, and that feeling intensified in 2020. “When all of the tragedies of brutality were happening, my first instinct was to go inside. It’s hard to process and be optimistic and to lead. But I was called on to be present, to be responsive to it, to how I felt about the tragic moments that were hard to enter. The image of the knee on George Floyd’s neck and watching him gasp for air; I felt if I stopped, looked and listened, I might not move again. It was that gripping. When I look at In/Side, I see reflections of that scared little boy who was adopted by my great aunt and uncle and was taken in. Even though I had a wonderful childhood, you always feel in so many ways, do I belong?”
For years, Battle couldn’t watch the piece without squinting, his effort to avoid taking it in emotionally and instead viewing it only as shape and form. Today, he says he has learned—in part by having been in and out of therapy—to channel and own the “wild in the wind” hurricane of emotion experienced during moments of inflection in the world. “Like right now, with Ukraine,” he says. “We’re seeing images and feel helpless to do anything while history repeats itself. I am very porous. It’s why I stopped riding the subway: I feel people’s energy and it pulls and tugs at me. That’s why I go inside.”
Called to prominence by his position as the third director in the company’s long history—and speaking as a Black man in this time—Battle, when asked if the responsibility to weigh in on social justice issues is both a burden and a privilege, says, “I love the way you put that, about the burden part. I generally don’t dwell on that, because it makes it seem like you’re ungrateful for the position you’re in, and it’s not that. But in the responsibility to respond, often, you’re not talking about art for art’s sake. “You’re not talking about the new ballet’s artistic expanse. As a Black man, you’re often talking about the events like the racial reckoning that has occurred. What is your response? How do you feel about it? Sometimes I have to be blunt because there are moments I don’t want to talk about it because it’s too close to home. Because of experiencing civil unrest firsthand as a kid, this is not a new experience for me. So sometimes, I’m like, let’s just talk about the dances. At the same time, there’s opportunity and privilege to center the work we do in the cry for freedom and justice, in making issues of the day visible through dance, through the arts. Whether it be a common hearing in-spite-of, meaning a love duet in the face of ugliness, or a reflection of that ugliness. Whether it’s a rose growing between stones or a garden growing in soil where ugliness is expected to grow. The duality of speaking out is the burden and the privilege.”
With his words, as with his choreography, Battle reminds himself to apply lessons learned from his great uncle. “He had that old style wisdom. He’d say to me, ‘Now boy, you can tell people some of what you know, but not all of what you know.’ He was already teaching me to edit.”
Signaling an astute and natural leader, but also due to a personal habit of shifting the spotlight off himself and onto others, Battle temporarily pulls the conversation to Roberts’ Holding Space. The large ensemble work addresses healing and nurturance found in times of turbulence and distress. “I love how Jamar solves problems. He’s never obvious. With social distancing at that time, we had to stay in separate boxes. The structure of the dance helped deal with those problems. Yet he made something abstract, beautiful. I told him one day, I couldn’t tell if it was beautiful because of its simplicity or because it’s so complex. (During a showing), I thought, what goes on in his head? That’s the best compliment I can give a choreographer: when I want to know more. He has a sense of form and shape that keeps it on the edge of emotional explosion, but he contains it. He doesn’t allow it to blast off. It just hovers in a beautiful way.”
Cajoled—redirected—to speak about Mass, another of his works on Program A, Battle frames remounting it as a landmark in his journey as a director. “I find setting it easier, now that I know they like the work. When you think of who I’m following, Alvin Ailey and Judith Jamison and a company that’s 61 years old. When you bring in amazing choreographers and know this dancer always wanted to do the work of Jyri Kilian, this one the work of Kyle Abraham, I thought maybe they don’t need to do my work. Then I watched them learn Mass, get excited and perform it with authority. I realized they’re proud of it. I’m the artistic director and they are the conduit: I’m more confident in that now.”
Battle’s new work, For Four, was created during the pandemic. The work made with four dancers takes into account social distancing by consisting mostly of solos and surprised him by feeling essential, revelatory. “In the context of the pandemic, it was like, we get to be in the studio and make a dance? How fortunate are we when thousands of people are succumbing to this virus or losing their homes? We get to crank Wynton Marsalis and just dance it out? I thought it would never see the light of day in terms of the stage. I didn’t feel the pressure of “world premiere.” It made me have a bit of fun, something I don’t often do.”
Even so, while allowing himself to “play,” Battle somewhere in the creative process contemplated a dancer who had just fallen to the floor. An image of his body, buried in an American flag as if it were a bed sheet, flashed into his mind. “I had been seeing so many images of the flag used as a cudgel, as a symbol of ‘you don’t belong.’ When I would see it on the back of pickup trucks, it was bumper sticker politics. It was meant almost to say, ‘Damn you for voting who you’re voting for.’ There was always a negative connotation. As a kid who grew up a Boy Scout, and symbolism meant so many things, we pledged allegiance in front of the flag. Suddenly, it’s the kind of nationalism that’s dangerous. I wanted that image of the flag on a Black body to be specific and (be seen) only for a moment; then the dance would go on and never reference it again. I didn’t want to hammer it over the head. The truth of it is, no matter what—we go on. Not everybody gets it. They think, the flag! Fourth of July! But I’m making a statement about the cultural contributions of Black people to this country, a country built on the backs of slaves. About jazz coming out of Black culture and even this company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—or Langston Hughes’ poem, I Too, Am America. We’ve always had to reclaim our own sense of nationalism and pride and forge the way.”
Forging the way as he contemplates the company’s future, Battle hopes there are certain hang-ons from the pandemic. He says a wonderful thing he has noticed is that sometimes when people ask how you are, they actually want to know the answer. There is raised consciousness that people need wellness beyond the physical. “We’ve all been trained that the show must go on. To leave it at the door; you can’t bring your whole self to work. Holding space for one another is an important component that has come out of necessity,” he suggests.
The company will continue online programming that allowed them to “travel” to over 46 million people in 121 different countries, but also will think more expansively about in-person performance spaces that in the past year included dancing near and in the fountain at Lincoln Center. “That breeds another type of creativity that I hope we’ll hold onto. Things I’m worried about? Dance and the multi-dimensional way you experience it live. With the camera, you have closeups and you don’t see the whole picture. It keeps it exciting, but because we’re in a sense training our audiences (to watch dance), I hope people can sit back and take in the whole picture when it is live.”