During the past few weeks, I have been examining how arts and cultural organizations are responding to social injustice and today’s political climate, and how they are utilizing their platforms to #RESIST. In an interview published last month in the Washington Post, Robert Battle, the artistic director of The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, was asked how artists should respond in the age of political tumult. He said:
“As an artist, you want to say, ‘What am I doing? How do I respond? What do we as an organization respond to this?’ And you really can’t. The art has to respond. I go home, I close the door and I say all the things I need to say. When you think about the audience, there are people who could be activists themselves. And some say, ‘I just came here to escape.’ We never root for one candidate over the other, but I think it’s clear from our work where we fall. Whatever our audience’s political affiliation is, that’s not our job. I think we have enough of that, quite frankly.”
This week, I explored this issue further with Thomas Cott, Senior Director of Marketing & Creative Content, as the Ailey company prepares for its annual five-week, holiday season at the New York City Center, November 29th through December 31st.
Donna Walker-Kuhne: How does the current social and political climate inform the work of the company?
Thomas Cott: The same way it always has. For nearly six decades, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has dedicated itself to using the beauty and humanity of the African-American heritage and other cultures to unite people of all races, ages and backgrounds. Under the leadership of Mr. Ailey, Judith Jamison, and now our current artistic director, Robert Battle, the Ailey company has never shied away from being topical. You can see it in classic works by Mr. Ailey, such as like Cry or Masekela Language, as well as in newer works in our repertory like Kyle Abraham’s Untitled America or Rennie Harris’Exodus.
DW-K: What are the considerations?
TC: Each season, Mr. Battle chooses repertory that shows off the versatility of our company’s extraordinary dancers and a diversity of choreographic styles and ideas. Sometimes, a choreographer has an idea for a ballet that is a response to current events. This year, we will premiere ballets by longtime Company member Jamar Roberts and the acclaimed Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano. Jamar’s piece, Members Don’t Get Weary, inspires audiences to transcend our current social landscape by dancing away the blues. And Gustavo’s Victoria – the title is Spanish for ‘victory’ – is about good triumphing over evil.
DW-K: Why do you think this is important? Some people think artists should “just do art.”
TC: Art for art’s sake is fine, but Alvin Ailey had a bigger idea. He started this company in 1958 – early on during the civil rights movement, at a time of great tumult in America. “I am trying to show the world that we are all human beings and that color is not important,” he said. “I want to hold up the mirror to my audience that says, ‘this is the way people can be, this is how open people can be.” Nearly 60 years later, the Ailey company continues to embrace his vision, and we are rededicating ourselves this year to bringing people together through the universal language of dance.
DW-K:What do you want your audience to gain from the experience?
TC: We often say that “you don’t just see an Ailey performance; you feel it.” It’s an emotional experience. We hope that audiences will leave the theater feeling moved, energized, even joyful.
DW-K: Revelations remains the Ailey company’s signature piece. How has the meaning evolved over its more than 50+year history?
TC: Revelations has never been more relevant than it is today. Part of the reason it remains so relevant is that everyone can find something in it that relates back to their own lives. Although Mr. Ailey had a very specific reference point when he created it. He was tapping into what he called his “blood memories” of growing up in small-town Texas in the 1930s and 40s. Revelations offers a universal message. Everyone has personal struggles and everyone seeks hope and salvation. I’ve had the privilege of watching audiences around the world respond to Revelations, and it doesn’t matter if I’m in Atlanta or Paris or Johannesburg—audiences always have a deeply personal reaction to it.
DW-K: Through this work, what do you want to show or teach dancers who will comprise the Ailey troupe of the future?
TC: Dance is special in many ways, but one of the ways it is quite different from other art forms is how dance is handed down through the generations; simply by one dancer talking to another dancer. Unlike in theater or music, there is no script or score to give someone to learn a piece. I love watching the Ailey company in rehearsals and seeing a veteran dancer show a newer dancer the meaning behind the movement. In the case of something like Revelations, there is an almost spiritual quality to this transference of knowledge and history. It is a sign that the company’s artistry will continue to inspire for decades to come.
I have been an admirer and lover of The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since the 1970s. In fact, the first professional dancer I ever knew was Thea Nerissa Barnes, a native Chicagoan, who became a company member during that time. Later, while traveling in Europe as a college student, my twin sister and I were able to take master classes with the Ailey company during its tour of Paris, and again in Brazil. It was a marvelous experience!
In 2002, The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater became a client of my company, Walker International Communications Group. For the past 15 years, it has been an extraordinary honor and opportunity to partner with the Ailey company to create audience development initiatives for African-American communities in New York, Atlanta, Chicago and Newark.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to see the Ailey company, I highly encourage you not to miss their annual, holiday season performance at New York City Center. If you have seen them perform, then go again! Full details about the NY City Center repertoire can be found here, and ticket sales begin September 5th.