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Bodies as instruments

Making music from movement is Robert Battle's aim in 'Juba.' In a broader sense, that's the basis of all of his choreography.

March 24, 2004|Victoria Looseleaf | Special to The Times

"I hated modern dance. I saw it as these angry, barefooted people with all this angst," Robert Battle recalls. "But I learned to love it, and the first time I understood it, it clicked."

Something clicked, at any rate, for at 31, this strapping dancer is also a rising choreographic star. After performing for seven years with the Parsons Dance Company, he founded his own troupe, Battleworks, in 2002. And tonight, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will present the L.A. premiere of his "Juba" on a mixed bill, repeating Saturday, that kicks off the first of six shows by the troupe at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

The 15-minute "Juba" is Battle's first work for the main Ailey company (he made a piece for the offshoot Ailey II several years ago), but with its dynamic quartet of quivering bodies and hand-clasping, thigh-slapping moves, it makes a neat fit with the other works tonight: Alonzo King's "Heart Song," a new production of Elisa Monte's 1979 "Treading" and Ailey's revered masterpiece, "Revelations."

In fact, Battle's contribution might almost be called "Jubilation." Although he says it is rooted in West African dance rituals and is a metaphor for black survival, it seems the antithesis of angst.

Its creator has a teddy-bear-of-a-man countenance and a big grin that complements it, and his conversation is replete with positive assertions. He says he dedicated "Juba" to Ailey, who died in 1989, because the work's arc from rebellion to survival to celebration "is what Alvin Ailey's life means to me."

Yet he also acknowledges being a control freak and working best under pressure. He says that he gets ideas while driving around Manhattan, where he's lived for about a decade, and that he finished "Juba," which has an original score by John Mackey, in a week, after only three weeks of rehearsal.

"If you have too much time," he says, "you lose the rough edges."

Battle was born in Florida and raised by a great-aunt and great-uncle. As a child he studied piano, but he says he couldn't remember the notes. "I was nervous and started dancing. I found I could use the nerves to express myself. Once dance took hold, I never left it."

He immersed himself in ballet, tap and "everything else," including modern dance at Miami's New World School of the Arts. He then made his way to New York, where he attended Juilliard, received a Princess Grace Dance Scholarship and studied choreography with, among others, Bessie Schoenberg. After earning a bachelor's, he joined the Parsons troupe, where he danced many of artistic director David Parsons' 50 works. They included the signature solo "Caught," in which strobe lighting creates the illusion that a leaping dancer is hovering in midair.

Battle, now 30 pounds heavier, says, "To do that piece well, you have to be that type of dancer. I've seen dancers vomit afterward. When I'm dancing, I prefer to move lyrically. It's in David's blood, but for me, my passion is more toward creating."

Parsons also fed that passion, however, by encouraging Battle to try his hand at choreography. The result was "Strange Humors," a work that also features music by his former Juilliard classmate Mackey. "Humors" was performed in Australia, Italy and across the U.S., and it caught the eye of Sylvia Waters, the director of Ailey II, a company that fosters young talent.

From there it was only a hop, skip and a jete to Judith Jamison, the artistic director of the Ailey troupe, which is currently celebrating its 45th anniversary season. Jamison says that one of the ways she's kept the company fresh is by commissioning new work. Her criteria, she explains, are that dancers and audiences be challenged -- "and that I be challenged. I have to be moved one way or the other."

"Battle reminds me, sometimes, of Alvin, because of his intelligence and cleverness," Jamison says. "He really thinks about structure, tone, dynamics. He's extremely talented, and we're seeing the beginning here."

With "Juba," Battle says, he wanted to explore the notion of where ritual and folk traditions exist in today's society, so he knew he wanted a contemporary but also classically oriented score. He says he asked Mackey to compose something "Rite of Spring-ish" crossed with Led Zeppelin. Heavy on percussion, with the added fillip of an electric string quartet, the music provides a jagged backdrop for the frenetic dancing.

"I think anger and ecstasy walk a fine line," he says. "The slaves weren't allowed to have drums. To sing and dance while you're being whipped -- this is complicated. You don't tread lightly here. But the desire to dance under the most horrible situation is so strong that art prevailed. They would use their bodies as instruments. Through this frustration, they finally freed the spirit."

Says Matthew Rushing, an Ailey dancer for 11 years: "Dancing 'Juba' is like screaming at the top of your lungs after a year of silence."

Battle, who has choreographed about 20 dances, also has been commissioned by Chicago's Hubbard Street 2, Dallas Black Dance Theater and the Juilliard School, for which he's doing another piece this year. As for Battleworks, the nine-member company has performed in Germany, South America and New Orleans and at Jacob's Pillow in the Massachusetts Berkshires.

"I'm a voyeur in my work," Battle says. "I go to clubs and watch the way people dance, the way they put on makeup or what they wear. They dance themselves into a frenzy. I think if I can take this energy and put it on stage, more people would want to see dance."

*

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: Today, 7:30 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m.

Price: $25-$75

Contact: (213) 365-3500

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