Q&A: Robert Battle on bar-b-que, boogeying w/the Clintons, & the perfect NYC day
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Artistic Director Robert Battle is currently leading the Company on a 21-city U.S. tour that will end in an engagement at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater from June 12-16. Battle, 40, lives on the Upper West Side with his long-time friend, voice teacher Nina Miller.
What would you most like to see changed in NYC?
Just one or two days a week when everything works - when all the subway lines are working, when there is no need for substitutions or explanations, when there are no detours because of construction, when everybody's cool. It's a utopian idea. I suppose part of the idea of New York is you have to stay flexible. When the subway breaks down, it creates the opportunity for conversation.
What makes dancers so beautiful?
Training and an awareness of their physicality. Exercise is important but dancers have a sense of articulation in their joints, muscles and cartilage that most people don't think about. You are articulating a message through your physical training; executing flights of fancy with total grace. Dancers can spend an entire class on walking; their posture, focus and sense of themselves in space.
Where do you go dancing for fun?
I know all the social dances, but they're not fun for me. I'm a choreographer and I just can't turn off that part of my brain. I'm observing and getting ideas. Watching people dance, though, I feel some of the same things I get watching the Ailey Company - that sense of adrenalin and fun. People who aren't professional dancers are so much more revealing in their movements, and sometimes exhibit something very primal.
Yet, people probably invite you to dance parties thinking you'll set the floor on fire.
The most fun I had not dancing was at a party in the Hamptons. I stood on the side and watched Hillary and Bill Clinton start the whole party by (freestyle) dancing. They were great! Very secure in their physicality. Finally, I said to myself, "okay, Robert: fake it," and chimed in.
Have shows such as So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With the Stars increased interest in companies such as Ailey?
We appeared on both shows in guest performances. Do you know how many millions of people those shows reach? We can't travel enough to reach that many people. Social media has helped our reach, too. We have 200,000 Facebook fans. It really makes a difference: People become more engaged and want to see the company.
You have one of the most prestigious cultural jobs in NYC and even you can't afford your own apartment?
I've lived with Nina for more than 10 years. We're like family. The costs of living in this city are not always conducive to what artists are paid, but there is a community of artists here that really support one another. To make sure artists aren't pushed out we have to come up with creative ways to stay viable.
How has the housing crisis affected the young dancers at Ailey?
People move farther and farther out in the outer boroughs. It's definitely an issue because not having affordable places to live for young, talented people is potentially damaging to the artistic fiber of our city - and the arts are one of the reasons this city is so vibrant. There needs to be some really tall thinking about solutions. But artists are like gypsies: They're used to adapting.
Your favorite NYC hangouts?
I grew up in Miami and I'm a barbecue guy so I find these little places that remind me of that. I love Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Harlem: They have great wings. And people really need to know about the beef ribs at Daisy Mae's on 11th Ave. around 45th St. Those ribs? People need to know!
What do you do with a night off?
I like to see jazz at Lincoln Center. Wynton Marsalis is a friend of mine, but it's also just so great to see different artistic expression: It's liberating, and I play off the thought process.
What would you say to New Yorkers who feel priced out of such cultural offerings?
Life is not just about feeding your stomach: You have to feed your soul. And when your spirit is good, you do your job better. There are all kinds of special deals and free performances. You can see some matinees for as little as $15.
How do you honor the enormous legacy of Alvin Ailey while staying true to your own creativity?
Judith Jamison, who took over after his death, chose me. There was a feeling he would have blessed this. Judith Jamison said, "We are not filling shoes. We are standing on shoulders." Dancers are all about imagery - it's how we express thought - and that stuck with me. That image makes me feel very tall and capable. I thought his memory would very daunting, but instead of it being an obstacle, it feels like an opportunity.