Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater celebrates choreography of Robert Battle

A tribute at Kennedy Center to his tenth anniversary as artistic director of the company and a collection of his dances on a single program.

In the decade that Robert Battle has served as artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater — only its third since the company was founded in 1958 — he has choreographed just one work for the renowned and much-beloved company. Instead, with his eye for choreographic excellence, he has been programming and commissioning excellent works by Rennie Harris, Ronald K. Brown, Jessica Lang, Christopher Wheeldon, Aszure Barton, Kyle Abraham, and dozens of others. Thus, on the company’s annual wintertime visit to the Kennedy Center, an evening of Battle’s works was celebratory on two counts: marking his tenth anniversary with the company and collecting a body of his dances on a single program.

Friday, February 4, 2022, the all–Robert Battle program at the Opera House drew from the artistic director’s pieces dating back to 1999 up to his latest, which premiered in 2021. What we see in this body of work is an artist with a love for movement invention who displays facility in modern, jazz, and a bit of street or vernacular idioms with ease. He is also catholic — small c — in his musical choices, which range from opera arias to contemporary jazz, pop and blues, to Indian ragas. Music, in truth, plays an outsize role in shaping Battle’s choreographic explorations. Unlike some contemporary choreographers’ works that could be re-imagined or re-set to different accompaniment, Battle’s works wed completely movement and music.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in Robert Battle’s ‘Mass.’ Photo by Paul Kolnik.

“Mass,” which Battle originally created for Juilliard students in 2004, draws on spiritual and church images, particularly the union of choir members — as alluded to by Fritz Masten’s robed costumes. Sixteen dancers “play” John Mackey’s percussion score for xylophones and timpanis, as if visualizing the notes — highs and lows, runs and ritards set the dancers in motion, their robes flowing. They gather in groups, clumps, and join together en masse — think of choir practice and the sopranos, altos, and basses singing separate parts but coming together in a harmonized whole. That’s what Battle does with “Mass,” while also playing with the physical notion of mass — bodies in space joining together and breaking away. Sometimes their upright, then treading footsteps rearrange the dancers in space. Sometimes they lie prone, feet flexed as if toppled over. And while “Mass” de- and re-constructs movement across time and space, it also feels meditative and spiritual in its ongoingness, bodies reaching, seeking a higher purpose.

The newest work, “For Four,” from 2021, could be Battle’s “pandemic piece.” For four dancers — Chalvar Monteiro, Solomon Dumas, Belén Indhira Pereyra, Miranda Quinn — and with music by Wynton Marsalis, the jazzy piece is deceptively light, until it isn’t. Men and women in suspenders and dark suits execute Fosse-isms — off-kilter balances, hip switches, and body rolls — with panache. And to cross the stage, no one simply walks — they strut backside swinging, or tip forward chest and derriere thrust out, or sloooooow drag, or subtly sashay. The piece initially feels playful, like Marsalis’s jazzy riffs. Then an American flag — projected on the scrim — slides to the floor; as the lights darken, dancers play on as does the mood. The final image brings reality home: a single dancer with back to the audience lifts one arm, fist clenched in the dap or Black power gesture. Then his clenched fists cross at the wrists. Arms up. The years 2020 and 2021 were not just pandemic years but years that social justice protests of the Black Lives Matter movement dominated. In “For Four,” while far less confrontational than many recent works focusing on racial equity, Battle made his point.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre’s Jeroboam Bozeman in Robert Battle’s ‘InSide.’ Photo by Dario Calmese.

Jeroboam Bozeman lays bare private struggles in “In/Side,” danced to the haunting voice of Nina Simone singing “Wild Is the Wind.” We see Bozeman barechested, clad just in black briefs, the physical evocation of an emotional struggle, stretching and collapsing, dragging himself into a crawl, undulating his shoulders — wild, like the wind. “Unfold” features Bozeman supporting Jacqueline Green in a dramatically lustrous pas de deux to an aria sung by Leontyne Price. Green unfurls in a deep arch; later Bozeman catches her and sweeps her in arcs, in sensuous and soulful abandon. Dancer Kanji Sawa tackles one of Battle’s signature solos, “Takademe,” with playful aplomb. The brief solo matches quirky angular and staccato movements to British-Indian singer Sheila Chandra’s konnakol — or syllabic scat-style of singing. It’s a mini–tour de force of movement and music visualization. 

“Ella” takes a page from “Takademe,” this time a four-minute mile to the great Ella Fitzgerald’s scatting “Air Mail Special.” Rubbery walks and juicy jumps, quirky twists, a high-five or two, and plenty of kicks and hip switches leave both dancers and audiences breathless with the quick-footed audacity. An excerpt from “loves Stories,” featuring dancers costumed in yellow and orange jumpsuits, is another bright, jazzy crowd-pleaser that ends in a “get down” moment, the ten dancers each doing their own thing to Stevie Wonder accompaniment.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in Robert Battle’s ‘Mass.’ Photo by Paul Kolnik.

And, of course, no Ailey program is complete without “Revelations.” The classic work traces African American history through gospel songs and equally expressive movement drawing from earth-centered Africanist roots embodied in shuffling footwork, grounded walks, bent knees, undulating and articulated torsos, and, above all, an indomitable spirit. I’m sure I’ve said it before but people attend an Ailey program like they attend church, to be moved, and “Revelations” has been moving and inspiring folks since its premiere in 1958. In fact, Battle himself once shared with me how, when he was a boy growing up in Florida, one of his early introductions to dance was seeing the Ailey company during a school program. Today he leads that very same company. That is inspirational.

Running Time: About two hours and 15 minutes, with two intermissions. 

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performed February 1 to 6, 2022, at The John F. Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. F Additional programs during the engagement are listed below.

50 Years of Cry + New Works
Tuesday, February 1 Evening
Saturday, February 5 Evening
JAMAR ROBERTS: Holding Space
ALVIN AILEY: Revelations

 Classic & Contemporary
Wednesday, February 2 Evening
ALVIN AILE: Blues Suite
ROBERT BATTLE: Love Stories finale
ALVIN AILEY: Revelations

Ailey & Ellington
Thursday, February 3 Evening
Saturday, February 5 Matinee
ALVIN AILEY: Blues Suite
ALVIN AILEY: Reflections in D*
ALVIN AILEY: Pas de Duke excerpt*
ALVIN AILEY: The River excerpt*
ALVIN AILEY: Revelations
*New Production

Battle 10th Anniversary
Friday, February 4 Evening
Sunday, February 6 Matinee
ROBERT BATTLE: Love Stories finale
ALVIN AILEY: Revelations
*New Production

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Lisa Traiger
An arts journalist since 1985, Lisa Traiger writes frequently on the performing arts for Washington Jewish Week and other local and national publications, including Dance, Pointe, and Dance Teacher. She also edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online eJournal. She was a freelance dance critic for The Washington Post Style section from 1997-2006. As arts correspondent, her pieces on the cultural and performing arts appear regularly in the Washington Jewish Week where she has reported on Jewish drum circles, Israeli folk dance, Holocaust survivors, Jewish Freedom Riders, and Jewish American artists from Ben Shahn to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim to Y Love, Anna Sokolow to Liz Lerman. Her dance writing can also be read on She has written for Washingtonian, The Forward, Moment, Dance Studio Life, Stagebill, Sondheim Review, Asian Week, New Jersey Jewish News, Atlanta Jewish Times, and Washington Review. She received two Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Arts Criticism from the American Jewish Press Association; a 2009 shared Rockower for reporting; and in 2007 first-place recognition from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. In 2003, Traiger was a New York Times Fellow in the Institute for Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C. She holds an M.F.A. in choreography from the University of Maryland, College Park, and has taught dance appreciation at the University of Maryland and Montgomery College, Rockville, Md. Traiger served on the Dance Critics Association Board of Directors from 1991-93, returned to the board in 2005, and served as co-president in 2006-2007. She was a member of the advisory board of the Dance Notation Bureau from 2008-2009.


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