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Robert Battle and members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The company returns to Cal Performances April 1-6. Photo: Andrew Eccles

Is the juice worth the squeeze?

It’s the unexpected question Robert Battle, now in his third year as Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, asks himself every day. The “squeeze” is the hard work of running a dance company and the dollars an audience spends to attend a performance. The “juice” is the legacy-upholding, future-building, legendary output of the company’s indelible dancers and choreographers.

Inheriting the heavy mantle of a dance company founded in 1958 by choreographer and activist Alvin Ailey, Battle succeeded former Ailey dancer Judith Jamison’s 1980 to 2011 term of leadership. As the troupe’s third artistic director, Battle says that during the first season, audiences showed up to see a spectacular season already fine-tuned by Jamison, a signature Ailey dancer. The second year, they were simply curious about the new leader’s imprint. In 2014, record numbers during the company’s New York City performances in December, have given him courage.

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Linda Celeste Sims, Rachael McLaren and Alicia Graf Mack of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Photo: Andrew Eccles

“Some moments on the way to where I want to go with the company seem glacial,” he admits, in a phone interview. “But overall, it’s ‘Wow! This is my vision, come to life.’ For me, I spend so much time perceiving a program in my head, by the time it happens, I’m already on to the next thing.”

At the same time his futuristic brain is plotting the next genre-stretching adventure for Ailey dancers and audiences, Battle says telling the African American story remains the same. The fusion of Western culture and African visual art, dance and music—bursting from the repertory in stunning multi-media set designs, the dancers’ pliant torsos and complex, poly-rhythmic scores—has always suggested, anything is possible. “The story is the same,” Battle insists, paraphrasing a favorite quote: “I’m human and nothing is alien to me. (Our repertory) may not seem to be about the African American experience, except it always is. It’s unavoidable.”

It’s also unavoidably rich, with deep plunges into the past in pieces like Revelations (1960), Night Creature (1974) and The River (1970), all included in the six-day, Berkeley appearance at Zellerbach Hall. Three different programs herald the Ailey history with these carefully curated and recreated dances. But a kingdom of treasures are also found in the company’s forward thrust, with the presentation of Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s (returning for a second year) Minus 16 (1999), Bill T. Jones’ D-Man in the Waters (Part I) (1989), and two Bay Area premieres.

Choreographer Ronald K. Brown’s new work, Four Corners, is his fifth commission for the company. Collaborating with recording artist Carl Hancock Rux, whose song, “Lamentations,” gives “voice” to Brown’s investigation of grief-to-peace, allowed the hard-driving movement maker to unleash his more poetic dreams. Grounded and earthy in its physicality, the aftertaste of Four Corners promises hopeful upsurge.

The creation of Lift, Canadian-born choreographer Aszure Barton’s first piece for the company, began over a year ago in Berkeley. Invited to observe, Barton watched the dancers for five shows. In her head played the groundwork for an original, percussive score from her frequent collaborator, saxophonist Curtis Macdonald. Armed with impressions of the Ailey dancers, Macdonald and his rough score, and dancers from her Aszure Barton & Artists dance company, Barton headed for the mountains in Banff, Canada. A two-week incubator session resulted in scads of movement she used to start the piece.

But like many artists who align themselves with dancers’ individuality and the creative process’ tendency to implode well-laid plans, Barton entered the five-week rehearsal period saying, “Let’s start somewhere and build from all four corners. Let’s build from scratch.”

In a phone interview, Barton says she was interested in “beautiful mistakes” and “quick pick-ups” and “collective language.” Lift is designed with an inter-changeable cast: “New dancers are always going into parts and I love that,” she says.

Stepping into a new work, she says each piece teaches her how to live her life. “It teaches me how to be the most authentic Aszure possible,” she says. “Life is a process of getting to what I believe in.”

A self-described people pleaser, Barton says she’s beginning to accept that every process has moments of struggle. She had all the dancers learn all of the movement material—meaning endless repetition and frustration was a part of the process. “I think I pissed them off quite a bit,” she confesses, before defending her desire to see a phrase set on multiple bodies before determining its shape. The dancers, all equally powerful and intensely cohesive, learned ownership, she insists. “They have an incredible camaraderie and were entirely hungry for new works. I, myself, was completely naked in front of these warriors.”

Now based in New York City, Barton’s works run the gamut, from choreography for the Broadway revival production of The Threepenny Opera to the repertory of The National Ballet of Canada, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, American Ballet Theatre and more—to the Sundance Channel’s Iconoclasts Series with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Alice Waters. Asked what a sophomore piece for the Ailey company might look like, she says, “I’d want to make something that contrasts: not percussive, rhythmically simpler.  Something that challenges all of us in new ways.”

Battle says “birthing” a new or older piece requires dancers like his—artists who push to the precipice, but remain accessible and disarming. Settling in Zellerbach’s now familiar seats, his mind racing into the future, he anticipates athleticism, artistry, applause and a resounding “Yes!” in answer to his daily question.

Ticket information is available here for performances at Zellerbach from April 1-6.

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