Robert Battle leapt into the spotlight as a member of the Parsons Dance Company in 1994. Already a budding choreographer, he soon began setting works on the sparkling troupe, alerting audiences to his multitude of talents. Since founding Battleworks Dance Company in 2001, he has been honored by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as a “Master of African-American Choreography,” and with the Princess Grace Statue Award for choreography. Battleworks has toured the world, and his work is included in the repertory of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Hubbard Street Repertory Ensemble, River North Chicago Dance Company and Ballet Memphis.
This month, River North kicks off its 20th anniversary by performing Battle’s Train at the Annenberg Center in Philadelphia. Created for the troupe in 2008, Train is a powerful, abstract dance to a driving, percussive score. Though the company is more accustomed to less propulsive choreo-graphy, the dancers enthusiastically took to Battle’s fast-paced style. “Working with them,” he says, “was a highlight of the year.”
Dance Teacher: Several River North dancers have said they think of Train as yours and not as a piece of company repertory. Is this the ultimate goal, hoping set works remain as you made them? Or do you want them to eventually develop into the company’s style?
Robert Battle: I choreograph my dances so that they’ll keep their original raw edge. I give them moments so fast that there are no ways dancers can overly polish or simplify them. I want my dances to be like jazz music—happening in the moment.
DT: Your works are extremely physically demanding. Is there a reason for this?
RB: I took a page from David Parsons, whose works are very athletic and bold. I grew more confident and got to a place where I loved the catharsis that comes with that kind of movement. I think audiences make a visceral connection with dancers pushing themselves to the limit.
DT: What do you look for in dancers to fulfill your vision?
RB: I like what you might call a dancer’s dancer—a person who loves the sweat, energy and sheer physicality of dance.
DT: Your work has been called a “unique outlook on the future of modern dance.” How do you achieve this?
RB: I think about Martha Graham, José Limón, Ailey, Merce Cunningham and how they risked everything. You’re always insecure, but you have to follow your instincts. That’s the only way you’ll make honest movement.
DT: What effect, if any, has success had on your creative process or how you run your company?
RB: I remember Benjamin Harkarvy, who was artistic director of Juilliard’s dance division, warning me not to overextend and to remember that one is only as good as their next work. I don’t forget this. My process stays the same. I search for music and work out my movement on my dancers for inspiration; it’s like a running conversation between us.
DT: Who were your earliest teaching influences and why?
RB: First, Adelaide Munoz, my ballet teacher in Miami. She showed me classic films of great dancers and insisted I read dance history. Second, Gerri Houlihan, also in Miami. She gave me the sense of moving like liquid gold, of extending myself. Then, there was Carolyn Adams at Juilliard. She has an incredibly intellectual way of approaching dance, such as explaining that when you lift your arm into space, it is a way of connecting with the universe. DT
Valerie Gladstone writes about the arts for many publications, including The New York Times and Dance Magazine.
Photo by Milton Adams, courtesy of Robert Battle