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As Theater Goes Virtual, Alvin Ailey Artistic Director On The Future Of Dance

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

All this month, we are thinking about the global coronavirus pandemic and how it has upended the arts. We're looking at how those who make a living in the arts have adapted creatively and personally, and we're asking if some of these changes might become permanent. Today, we're focusing on the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Based in New York City, the company was forced to suspend all live performances in the spring during the first surge of COVID cases in New York. But rather than stop dancing, it launched Alvin Ailey All Access, where audiences can access filmed performances, classes and workshops online and - wait for it - for free. And this week, Alvin Ailey kicked off its first-ever virtual season, which will feature new pieces created, choreographed and performed during the pandemic. Joining us now to tell us more is Robert Battle, the company's artistic director.

Robert Battle, welcome back to the program. Thank you so much for talking to us once again.

ROBERT BATTLE: Well, thank you. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So before we jump into this new virtual season, can I just ask how are you doing? How have you been?

BATTLE: You know, I've been well. I'm a bit of an introvert, actually. People would not think that because most of my life is around a lot of people as we tour and travel. So, you know, I've sort of kind of taken to myself. But also, it's been an exciting time as much - it's like mixed blessings, right? You know, I mean, it's - you look at the news and the cases and feel such helplessness and sadness. And then I look to my dancers, to the Ailey organization that is continually connecting and inspiring, uplifting people. So it's an interesting time.

MARTIN: And what are you hearing from your dancers?

BATTLE: You know, we decided to do all of this virtual content starting from when we had to come off tour in March, I believe. And Ailey All Access started, where we had original content from the dancers and all of the things we brought to bear that reached over 10 million people in 121 countries.

And so then to have this virtual season for December, which is our usual City Center New York season, I think the dancers felt a sense of gratitude to be able to still be creative, that thing that feeds their soul, knowing how wonderful it would be for the people who get to see it for free, people that may have never come to the performance live. Because they're now at home, they're like, well, why don't I try this out? And so I think we're gaining new fans.

MARTIN: You know, which is good to hear. I mean, every art form has its challenges, but dance is so personal. I mean, it's performed - you know, most pieces - I mean, there are solos, of course, but, you know, most pieces are performed in close proximity to others. You need room to move. So how did you even start to reimagine performances, especially Ailey performances, which are known for, you know, sweeping moves across the stage, you know, intense...

BATTLE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Physicality? I mean, how did you even start to think about how you could reimagine that for this new world we're in?

BATTLE: We first started to think about conditioning because the dancers had been off for a few months because of the pandemic. So we first had to figure out how to gradually get the dancers in shape. So we started, you know, with this kind of training. So that took five weeks.

And during that time, we started to reimagine "Revelations" because we're celebrating the 60th anniversary of "Revelations," Ailey's most seen and celebrated dance. And so we started to think about, how could we do that and not touch?

And to sort of talk about that - I mean, we had to - we had a whole task force in our organization, you know, working with the city of figuring out, what are the boundaries, you know, in a dance class for our Ailey school students? You know, we had to have smaller classes, and we had to have these taped on the floor - these boxes to work in - same with the dancers of the company. You know, we had an app to test the dancers. We had COVID tests every week in the building.

And then we filmed in the Bronx outside, which was - brought its own challenges - you know, when it was going to rain, when not, how are we going to get through this? We're dancing on the grass, and we're not used to that. So there was a lot that went into the planning of it. I mean, everybody was - just sort of came together and gave into the situation.

And we start - we decided to not dance in spite of the pandemic, but dance because of our love for the Ailey legacy and knowing right now, it's so needed for people who are dealing with so many different things.

MARTIN: Well, to that end - I'm glad you mentioned that because, you know, as you said, "Revelations" - it's the 60th anniversary of this piece. It's a signature piece. It's choreographed by Alvin Ailey himself, you know, at the height of the civil rights movement. It's been seen all over the world. It's been performed all over the world. And yet, it would've been easy for you to say, you know, it is what it is; we'll just film it in a static way. But you took it outside. You tried these sort of...

BATTLE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Different things. I wonder, is there a message in that or a lesson in that that you will carry forward when, hopefully, this whole thing is over?

BATTLE: I definitely think so because often, you know, necessity is the mother of invention. And sometimes, that thing that you, you know, you have to do differently and rethink and reimagine actually sticks around, you know (laughter)? It's like, I can't imagine that once we're back doing live performance that some of the things we've learned about filming dance and embracing that as a thing unto itself rather than only a response to not being able to be in the theater, but to go into the art of filming dance - and I think that's what's wonderful about what we did with "Revelations." You know, we did the "Wade In The Water" part outside in the garden. So it gave you that sense of being more authentic. So it just offered us such opportunities.

And so we want to make the filming look as if that's what it's meant to be - that it's not saying, oh, well, unfortunately, we can't be in the theater, so we're going to do this. But we want it to look as if that was the intention all the time. And that's what I think we're achieving.

MARTIN: One of the things I did notice is that the spacing was different than it would have been in the theater. And I appreciate, you know, the optimism. You're saying that this is an opportunity to be creative in a different way.

BATTLE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Is there a sense of loss, though?

BATTLE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Do you feel a sense of loss? I - forgive me for perhaps overinterpreting you, but I know that you had remarks at the opening benefit, which is online, and people can watch it - which, again, normally you would've to pay pretty good-priced ticket...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...To see that. But it does seem as if there's a bit of a sense of sadness.

BATTLE: Yes. I mean, we can't deny that. I mean, this is unprecedented. And would we prefer to have finished our tour and to be at City Center seeing all of our fans? You know, the one thing that you don't have, even with a virtual presentation, is the applause, you know? And I know that that may seem trite when you think of everything that's going on, but there's something in that applause.

And then, you know, on a practical level, revenue. I mean, we're doing this for free, which we love that we're in a position that we can do that. But that's - you know, we're a dance company. We're a business. And so all of that is a strain. And having to furlough the second company, our junior company, and some of the staff intermittently - that's all very difficult. But we persist. We persisted because it's important that we know that there will be a tomorrow for the Ailey organization. So the things that we can do, we're committed to do.

MARTIN: That is Robert Battle, artistic director at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. You can watch performances from their new season, Ailey Forward, on their website from now until the end of the month and, as we mentioned, for free.

Robert Battle, thank you so much for being with us once again. Our very best wishes to you and to the company.

BATTLE: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WADE IN THE WATER")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Wade in the water. Wade in the water, children. Oh, wade in the water. God's gonna trouble the water. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.