Written by Tomeka Jones, CNN
In a time of unchecked racial discrimination and segregation, dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey created an unprecedented platform for the silenced: the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Founded in 1958, when there were few opportunities for black dancers, the company gave them a place to study, perform and share their stories.
"He didn't see the stories on the concert dance stage that needed to be told about African Americans in this country," said Robert Battle, the company's current artistic director, during a sit-down interview with CNN. To combat this omission, Ailey made it his mission to not only showcase the tribulations of African Americans, but also celebrate their triumphs and culture.
Since 2011, Battle has been charged with continuing Ailey's legacy at the company, bringing educational and mesmerizing dances -- from Ailey's critically acclaimed "Revelations," first performed in 1960, to radical new works devised by Battle and other distinguished choreographers -- to audiences around the world.
Robert Battle as a dancer with the Parsons Dance Company Credit: Parsons Dance Company
Battle's journey to the world of modern dance didn't come without challenges. He was born bowlegged in Jacksonville, Florida, and in order to correct the problem, he had to wear braces as a child.
"I think that's probably why I dance... There was something about having that be the thing that (I) had to overcome," Battle said. "I wasn't just going to walk, I was going to run. And then, once I stopped running, I was going to dance."
Battle initially studied martial arts so that he could protect himself from bullies in the Miami neighborhood of Liberty City, where he was raised by his great uncle and cousin. "It made me more determined. I didn't fight necessarily with my fists, but I did with my sense of determination," Battle said. He had originally wanted to become a preacher, but after watching a performance by the Alvin Ailey company at the age of 12, his interest swiftly moved to dance. "It spoke to everything I knew growing up. Those spirituals that I heard, those poems, things that had to do with our survival as a people."
Robert Battle as a child in his Boy Scouts uniform Credit: Robert Battle
Robert Battle on the subway in New York City Credit: Robert Battle
Battle attended a top-ranked high school arts magnet program in Miami before his talents landed him a full scholarship to the Juilliard School in the early '90s. While in New York, he would spend his summers studying dance at the Ailey School, and after graduating from Juilliard in 1994, Battle started his professional career with the Parsons Dance Company, first as a ballet dancer and later as a choreographer.
Battle's big break with the Alvin Ailey company came a few years later, when Sylvia Waters, then director of Ailey II, the company's younger troupe, asked Battle to choreograph an ensemble for them in the late '90s. "That was a big deal for me," he noted.
Choreographer and dancer Alvin Ailey Credit: Normand Maxon
Impressed by his work with Ailey II, Judith Jamison, who succeeded Ailey as artistic director of his company following his death in 1989, asked Battle to develop choreography for the main company. In 2003, his first work for them, "Juba," was performed.
Throughout the years, Jamison and Battle continued to work together, and in 2010, after 21 years at the helm, Jamison decided to step down from her role as artistic director. Battle said she "grabbed me by the arms and said, 'It's yours.'"
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performing "Revelations" Credit: Paul Kolnik
Despite the bullying he experienced growing up in Liberty City, Battle cherishes the fact that his community largely encouraged and celebrated his dance ambitions. One friend believed in him so much that she bought him five business suits as a token of her support. "She said, 'He's gonna be meeting kings and queens, and presidents, and he's going to need a suit,'" he recalled.
And she was right -- at least partially. In 2014, Battle went to the White House to receive the posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom on behalf of Alvin Ailey from former President Barack Obama.
Robert Battle and the Alvin Ailey dancers rehearsing "Takademe" Credit: Paul Kolnik
Battle may not have fulfilled his childhood dream of being a preacher, but if you ask him, his current profession isn't too far removed.
"You know the pulpit might look slightly different. No robe, nice jacket. But I still feel that I'm spreading the gospel: The power of dance and Alvin Ailey's legacy," he said.