The world-touring Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will perform "one of the greatest dances ever created" on Tuesday in Danville, troupe artistic director Robert Battle says.
Others share Battle's sentiment for Revelations, the signature work of the black modern dance group created by Alvin Ailey in 1960. In 2008, the Salt Lake Tribune suggested that if the United States were to ever have a national dance in the same way it has a national song, flag and bird, it ought to be Revelations.
Set to black spirituals and gospel songs, Revelations blends dance techniques to tell the sweeping, moving tale of the black experience throughout history. Although now more than 50 years old, Ailey's masterwork retains an enduring national relevance and remains popular with audiences, one reason it remains in the troupe's otherwise evolving repertoire.
"It starts from bondage to the freedom of the human spirit through faith and hope," says Battle, the latest of only three artistic directors to lead the company since its inception.
"It connects people because it has a universal message of hope," he says. "By the end of it, people are dancing in the aisles and clapping to the beat, no matter if we're across the street or across the ocean."
The performance at Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts by the troupe — which includes company member Aqura Lacey of Louisville — will feature not only Ailey's signature work but three newer pieces. Continual expansion of the company's repertoire via the creation of new works (usually by commission) is as much a part of Ailey's legacy as the older works that have thrived for decades.
In his first season as artistic director, Battle commissioned a work called Home, which deals with HIV/AIDS. Battle tapped hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris, who created the work based on the stories, poems and images submitted to "Fight HIV Your Way," a contest by Bristol-Myers Squibb. The topic is close to the hearts of the company because founder Ailey died of AIDS in 1989.
"Ten stories were chosen out of 2,500," Battle says, "and those 10 became the inspiration for the dance. I thought it'd be great to have someone do it through the lens of hip-hop."
Battle says one of Harris' gifts as a choreographer is "his means of expressing many things that is unexpected in the way of hip-hop."
Company dancers are required to be versatile, easily blending genres from hip-hop to ballet to African dance. For instance, Takademe is set to the deconstructed and abstract beats of the Indian classical dance Kathak. It was choreographed by Battle before he became the Ailey artistic director and was with Parson's Dance Company.
"It was really about the spirit of creating," Battle says of the work's inception.
"I wasn't commissioned to do that piece — I made that dance in a living room in Queens," N.Y., he says. "It's a brief solo that really reminds me of my own influences. From Michael Jackson to tap dance to martial arts, all of the things I have experienced are in that three minutes, 30 seconds."
Battle says he is a careful steward of Ailey's legacy.
"He didn't see the opportunities for African-American dancers and choreographers to express themselves as fully as possible," Battle says of Ailey's founding of the company in the mid-20th century.
"It started with the notion that dance is for everybody and that no one should be left out," Battle says.
"Just knowing that and knowing who I am within that and how it has affected my life is why I'm here. Whatever I have to offer in terms of moving the company into the future is based on that premise, and the sky is the limit. He created this wonderful program and that we can now go anywhere we want to go."