“I always say that pessimism and anger is a place that I visit, but my permanent address is optimism and hope,” said Robert Battle, the artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. And this year he’s done plenty of traveling back and forth.
Since the pandemic lockdown in March, Battle has been consumed with keeping the company in shape until its dancers can safely return to the stage. From Aug. 6-12, a collaboration among Battle, his predecessor, Judith Jamison, and the choreographer Rennie Harris will stream on Ailey All Access.
Battle has recently been considering the organization’s role in the Black Lives Matter movement. “I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of, before it was a hashtag or a movement, that the Ailey company was demonstrating that Black lives matter in all of the work that we do,” he said. “But it’s almost not enough to live it. You have to say it expressly, that this is what we do and we are in solidarity. It’s not that we need to reinvent the wheel, but we need to roll it.”
These days Battle is hunkered down in Connecticut, tending his vegetable garden alongside his dog, North, with the occasional jaunt into the city to, say, drop off produce for Jamison. “I might open a stand if things don’t return to normal,” he said, laughing, before elaborating on the 10 people and pastimes that have kept his mood aloft.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
1. Sarah Vaughan’s “Sassy Swings the Tivoli” (1963)
My mother and a friend of hers, they would listen to Billy Eckstine and Ella Fitzgerald, but mostly Sarah Vaughan. When I was a kid, they would sit on the front porch, have a glass of wine, and that was their way of winding down. And as somebody who was interested in music, I always wanted to know, who was Sarah Vaughan? They would explain to me how she was one of the greatest singers in the world. My mom’s friend bought me a cassette tape of her singing, and I played it until it snapped.
That passion for Sarah Vaughan has never left me, and eventually, when I was a student at Juilliard, I got this double CD from Tower Records. It was live at the Tivoli and it was recorded on the outside stage. I listened to it a lot — to how beautiful her voice was, to that rhythmic clapping that audiences do if they really love it. Years and years later, I’m the third artistic director of the company. And there we are at the Tivoli, and I was staying in the hotel and I could see out of my window that particular stage where she had sung. And there was something full circle about that moment that meant so much to me.
Nothing pumps me up like the sound of Sarah Vaughan’s voice. I’m listening to “Misty” while I’m running on the treadmill.
2. His Piano
My mother played piano for the church that I grew up going to, and there was a Kimball piano at home. They discovered that I had an ear for music and so they got me piano lessons. I studied until I got involved in dance, at about 11 or 12, and then it kind of disappeared on me. But I’ve always needed to have a piano around, even if I just play the same songs that I already know.
My piano teacher would come to my house, and when I went to Juilliard, I would see her when I came home. This particular time she was dying of cancer, but she wanted me to take her to a store like J.C. Penney. She had me try on five suits, even in her sickness, and she bought all five suits. And when I went home, my mother called her and said, “This is so generous, but why did you buy him all of these suits?” And she said to my mom, “You know, he’s going to be meeting kings and queens and presidents, and he’s going to need a suit.” Well, many years later the first Black president, President Obama, posthumously gives the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Alvin Ailey, and they called me to come and receive it on his behalf. And all I could think of was that piano teacher saying, “He’s going to be meeting presidents, and he’s going to need a suit.”
3. Cherished Family Photos
My grandfather raised me since I was three weeks old, and I think that’s where my sense of strength and duty and perseverance comes from. He only made it to the third grade because his parents died and he had to raise his siblings. My mother inspires me because of her artistic inclinations. She nurtured that performer in me. And although I was being bullied in my neighborhood, Liberty City [in Miami], I had a whole different message at home — that being an artist was almost kind of normal. And of course Alvin Ailey, so that I’m always reminded of the shoulders on which I stand.
4. Tabitha Brown’s Videos
Tabitha Brown I found because she was going on this journey of becoming a vegan. It started because she had a meatless version of a B.L.T. that she’d gotten from Whole Foods, and she sat in her car and was having a spiritual moment, and I thought it was hilarious. Coming from where I come from, I didn’t know a lot of African-American people that were vegetarian or vegan. Sometimes the way she talks about it, I’m that close to trying. And then the meat part of me gets the best of me. Because I love ribs and steak and it’s just — I’m sorry. I can’t.
5. Maya Angelou
I hardly get through a speech or an interview without saying some quote that I’ve gotten from Maya Angelou. She is in some ways a spiritual walker. Her life, you know from “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” it’s really a life well lived and it wasn’t perfect. And she wasn’t afraid to express those things that were difficult for her. So I connected with the poetry. She did, for me, act as a kind of guide without her even knowing it.
I went to a book signing for “Even the Stars Look Lonesome,” and I waited three hours. I had all of these plans that when I got there, I was going to say a quote from her inaugural poem for President Clinton. I had this arsenal of stuff. But by the time she looked up at my face, I had nothing. I was in such awe. I sort of sheepishly bowed my head and handed her the book, and she signed it and said, “Thank you.” And then I moved on.
6. Trying New Recipes
Cooking, to me, it’s almost like making a dance, except nobody complains when you say, “Slam yourself to the floor.” The notion of starting with these few ingredients, or sometimes a lot of ingredients, and slowly developing the flavor — there’s just something about the practice that really excites me and relaxes me and gives me some sense of control. I can’t change the pandemic, but I can certainly make a mean fried chicken with almond flour.
7. Dancers Connecting
When this whole thing went down and we came off the road, Miranda Quinn, who was a new dancer, had the idea of doing a “Brady Bunch” version of the first part of “Revelations.” The dancers in their different homes — you could see the dogs running past — they made it very real. And it caught fire on social media, which led to us codifying it into something called Ailey All Access.
They also did DancerDiaries, where dancers would talk about how they were feeling in this moment, and physicalize it and verbalize it in a way that was really touching and beautiful. Their need to connect with audiences no matter what was really inspiring. It solidified my own ability to see that they didn’t just want to dance, but that that was the only way that they could express their essential selves.
8. Home Gym
Luckily, I did that right before all of this hit. I had a small room that I used for storage, and I decided, let me make this into a gym. Now I have this space that has a treadmill and an elliptical and a weight machine. And it keeps me sane because I no longer dance, but we still need to get moving and get that energy out as most dancers will testify to. So it’s been a nice little respite, and it’s hard to make excuses when it’s literally two steps from my bedroom. But I still find a way to make excuses.
9. Robin Roberts on “Good Morning America”
She’s such a fan of the company, and I just love her indomitable spirit. I’ve watched her for years through some of the tough times in her life. People like that have so much to teach us about grace under fire and about courage being not the absence of fear but the presence of it, and the desire to go forward anyway.
10. Backyard Time
If you had asked somebody who knew me years ago and you’d said, “Oh yeah, he has a vegetable garden and a dog,” they would probably have said, “You have the wrong person. No way.” But being out here in nature sort of changed my feelings around watching something grow. Again, it’s those little things that you can control, that come to life, watching a tomato plant go from this little nothing and struggle up and then bear this wonderfully ripe fruit. It’s what creativity is all about.
And dogs I just love because no matter what, they’re always happy to see you. It doesn’t hurt if you have a rib in your mouth. Then they’re doubly happy to see you.
I’ve been thinking about Toni Morrison, and one of the things she said was that we think sometimes showing love to our children is seeing everything that’s wrong when they walk into a room. Oh, fix this, do that. And she said, “Sometimes they want to see, Do your eyes light up when I walk into a room?” And so in some ways, even if I’m dealing with very difficult stuff, when I see the dog, he just wants me to say “good boy” and pet him, you know? And what pulls you out of some of the things that threaten to keep you locked into sadness and being discouraged is he’s just happy to see you. Can’t you be happy to see him?