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Going to Battle

At VCU, New York choreographer Robert Battle explores Richmond's history of slavery.


"Get to your butts quicker," he offered, as they panted to keep time with the driving accompaniment by drummers Marc Langelier and Robbie Kinter. "Logic will tell you the sooner the better." Battle ended the class by asking the students to run across the floor in fast, gorgeous surges, gradually tilting back their heads and opening their chests to the sky as they ran. At the end of class the students gave him a whooping, cheering ovation.

Battle, originally from Miami, has studied dance since the late 1980s, first at the New World School of the Arts in Miami, and then at the Juilliard School in New York. After graduating from Juilliard, he danced with David Parsons Dance Company until 2001, when he left to fulfill the dream of starting his own company, Battleworks. Despite a constant struggle to make ends meet, Battleworks has earned critical praise and most recently, the honor of performing at last summer's American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C. Richmond audiences will be treated to what The New York Times calls Battle's "highly dramatic" style in a program by his company this weekend at the Grace Street Theater.

When VCU dance chair Martha Curtis began talking to Battle about a possible residency, they discussed using Battle's "Juba" (2003), originally commissioned by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, as the basis for a new work to be created for VCU Dance students. "Juba" is a celebratory work, says Battle, but one "coming from a darker, deeper place." It turned out to be a fitting title, since "juba" also refers to a dance that originated in West Africa and was brought to the states by slaves who, being denied the use of drums, created percussive rhythms by stamping, clapping and slapping their own bodies.

During his first visit to this former capital of the Confederacy, Battle and his VCU dancers have grounded their work in the context of Richmond's turbulent African-American history. The dance department arranged for them to take an African-American history tour with the Valentine Museum, and on Oct. 4, the department presented the work-in-progress and dialogue with Battle to the African-American Studies Department, as well as to the general public. A fully produced version of the work will be performed in the VCU Dance Student/Faculty Dance Concert, Feb. 24-26, 2006.

Tentatively titled "The Virginia Reel," this new work follows in the footsteps of "Juba," and though it does not tell a story or follow a clear narrative line, it contains abstracted references to the grim history of slavery — in tightly bound, stamping walks, clenched fists, crossed wrists and other restricted movements — and to the survival and celebration of African-American culture. The title, recently suggested by his mother, Battle says, evokes folk dance as a ritual, social event that, through the intersection of American, African, and European forms, can break down barriers between people of different cultures and backgrounds.

Battle's own movement style, in "Juba" and throughout his company's current repertory, feels in its explosive, often aggressive attack — stamping, high-stepping, jumps, falls and even shouts — tribal, ritualistic and elemental. He speaks of dance as a "universal language," as the oldest art form that focuses on "the single act of communicating," and when he looks for dancers, beyond the usual demands of technical facility, power, and versatility, Battle seeks "a certain honesty in the movement," a willingness, he says, paraphrasing Alvin Ailey, to reveal themselves in the movement and not to hide behind it.

Working in the studio with VCU dance major Donna Vaughn on a solo section of "The Virginia Reel," he tells her, "I don't think I want to count it. You can feel your way through." As she runs through the movement for herself, he speaks for a moment about his choreographic process: "It's not about me seeing me [in the movement]. It's about revealing the person [who's performing it]." And after rehearsal, sitting outside in the sunlight, he elaborates on his feelings about dance. "The ultimate thing is to communicate an idea or a feeling. My lifelong journey involves learning how to speak more clearly, sometimes with as few words as possible." S

Battleworks Dance Company performs Friday and Saturday, Oct. 14-15 at 8 p.m. at the Grace Street Theater, 934 W. Grace St. Tickets cost $20. Call 828-2020. "Robert Battle: Work in Progress and Dialogue" will air on WCVW Channel 57, Richmond cable channel 25 Monday, Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 23 at 7:30 p.m.His work with VCU students will be performed at the Student/Faculty Dance Concert Feb. 24-26.

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