Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s return to New York City Center December 1–19 is more than just a post-pandemic homecoming. The season also marks Artistic Director Robert Battle’s 10th anniversary and the final performance for star dancer Jamar Roberts. Both luminaries will be celebrated for their inimitable contributions to the Company, and they’ll also debut world premieres.
These premieres both debuted virtually and take the stage for the first time in the New Works program Friday, December 3. Roberts’s Holding Space, set to an eclectic score by Tim Hecker, explores ways of taking care and healing. Battle’s For Four, set to a 4/4 Wynton Marsalis’s jazz score, captures the repressed energy of pandemic isolation.
After the weight of this recent period, Battle believes the Company’s return to City Center will be “life-affirming” and looks forward to the “exchange of heart and soul” that accompanies live performance. That exchange will be particularly potent Tuesday, December 7, when his visionary leadership will be celebrated in a Battle 10th Anniversary program. In addition to For Four, the program includes Mass, Ella, In/Side, a new production of his duet Unfold, and a Love Stories finale. These works span many years, and Battle likens the evening to “opening a diary.” It’s a rare privilege for audiences to have a glimpse into the brilliance of Battle’s scope of work. He will be honored as a living legend when he receives the prestigious 2021 Dance Magazine Award on Monday, December 6—a perfect start to a momentous week.
“I feel so full of hope, of pride,” Battle says of this milestone year. “Looking forward to the next 10 years, I hope to even more fully realize my own vision as extending Alvin Ailey’s legacy and creating my own.”
Battle also looks forward to celebrating the unmistakable talents of Roberts, whom he appointed Resident Choreographer in 2019 (a role Roberts will maintain). Battle himself transitioned from dancing to choreographing about 20 years ago—around the same time Roberts joined Ailey—and is excited for Roberts to be able to “realize more fully his choreographic gifts.”
Roberts’s absence from the stage will certainly be felt, but his choreographic presence has proved to be a force all its own. He pours himself wholeheartedly into his works, which often address the painful truths of our world. He aims to cut through difficult moments and believes, “unless you approach it with a big heavy sword, you will not be heard.”
Roberts can be heard loud and clear with Holding Space, which is set against a backdrop of civil unrest and environmental threat. Though originally choreographed under the constraints of social distancing, Roberts says, “the restrictions freed me up to explore in new ways.” The piece returns with Battle’s For Four Thursday, December 9 in a farewell evening to Roberts that offers audiences the singular pleasure of watching him command the stage in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations one last time.
While Roberts has been an undeniable standout during his two decades with the Company, he is excited “to give the floor to the younger dancers” and finds his choreographic work deeply fulfilling.
“Teaching choreography is an act of giving, an act of generosity,” says Roberts. Like Battle, his willingness to share his work is a gift to dancers and audiences alike. The similarities between the two—both Miami natives—are uncanny at times, and we are fortunate to live in a time when both are creating so fervently.
After such a vast amount of time away from the theater, there might be no greater gift than experiencing the remarkable talents of the Ailey company, savoring Roberts’s dancing one last time, and celebrating Battle’s journey at the helm. Audiences are in good hands for decades to come with these virtuosos leading the way.
Lauren Morrow, formerly Associate Director of Public Relations for the Ailey organization, is a fellow in the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. She has received numerous awards for her fiction and is currently at work on a novel.