How do you go about taking the helm of one of the most acclaimed dance companies in the United States, keep the good but still put your own mark on the proceedings?
Houstonians will have a chance to see when Robert Battle, only the third artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in its more than 50 years of existence, brings his troupe and vision to Jones Hall courtesy of the Society for the Performing Arts for three performances on March 2-4 as part of his inaugural tour of the country.
Yes, the much-loved Revelations will be included in every performance, but there's also the chance to see Battle's first commissioned work, Home (2011), choreographed by Rennie Harris, a hip-hop choreographer, that was inspired by stories of people living with the HIV virus and dedicated to Ailey, who died of that disease in 1989, Battle said.
And if you're a fan of breaking down that fourth wall, then the March 2 and 4 performances with Ohad Naharin's Minus 16 will give you the chance to even join the dancers on stage.
Battle had ties with the Ailey for many years as a choreographer and artist-in-residence. He grew up in Miami and went to Miami's New World School of the Arts and the dance program at The Juilliard School. He even founded his own Battleworks Dance Company and has performed overseas and throughout the country. In 2005 he received a "Masters of African-American Choreography" from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Even with all this on his résumé, Battle went through a year-and-a-half vetting process for the Ailey top job. He said his immediate predecessor, Judith Jamison, always thought he was right for it, adding that it was never a question of whether he would accept the position if offered, but of what he'd do with it if he got it.
"I think of it as the greatest opportunity for anyone in the arts to lead a company like this, an institution like this," Battle said. He didn't want to institute change for change's sake, he said, but thought about the opportunity for "growth."
So he brought in the work of modern dancer choreographer Paul Taylor -- "We'd never done a Taylor work. Taylor's an American master" -- to the company for the first time. He also brought his own choreography, Takademe, a piece with Indian Kathak dance. So far, the audience reception has been good, he said.
"I think that people were very curious about what was going to happen, what was it going to be, and we've gotten just great, great, great responses."
Ailey has always been more than a dance company, Battle said. Started around the time of the civil rights movement, it was a way to express the African American experiences and culture at that time. "In a way, the company from the very beginning was part of the movement. Judith Jamison kept reminding us of that."
"The company has never looked better," Battle said. "The challenges to the dancers of the new repertory have brought a new electricity that is palpable. People can expect the traditional Revelations and be moved by that, but they can also expect to have new surprises. "
"We're making history. I would urge people to come out and see what we're cooking up." The Society for the Performing Arts is presenting Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at 8 p.m. March 2 and 3 and 2 p.m. March 4 at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. For ticket information, go to www.spahouston.org.