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Robert Battle brings local Alvin Ailey premieres to town

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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater director Robert Battle’s “Awakening” is among the works getting its West Coast premiere at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. (Courtesy Paul Kolnik)
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The New York-based Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returns to UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall this week with three programs for its annual residency — and what a glorious homecoming it is.

Artistic director Robert Battle is bringing two of his own dances for their West Coast premieres, including “Awakening,” the first work he has created for the company since assuming the position five years ago.

Set to composer John Mackey’s score, “Awakening” features Battle’s signature style.

“The work is a kind of ‘Rite of Spring’ … out of the chaos, the leader is born,” Battle says.

Programming also includes Battle’s “No Longer Silent,” set to music by composer Erwin Schulhoff. Schulhoff, who was Jewish, saw his music banned by the Nazis and died in a concentration camp in 1942.

It’s no surprise the company would perform such a potent piece. Ailey’s legacy, Battle notes, was not only to entertain, but also to educate.

“That is the wonderful thing about art. It can transcend place and time and circumstance,” Battle says. “Through his music, (Schulhoff) is no longer silent.”

Battle, 43, is the third artistic director of the thriving company since it was founded in 1958 (Ailey chose his successor, renowned dancer Judith Jamison, who in turn selected Battle).

Battle says the challenges he faces are the same as those facing his dancers: to always be thinking ahead while also being present in the moment. A season can be great, but the next one is just around the corner.

“You have to keep reinventing yourself daily,” he says.

Also being presented is Ailey’s 1960 signature work, “Revelations.” Battle was in middle school when he saw the masterpiece for the first time.

“That was an awakening for me,” Battle says. “It was the sense that I understood what I was looking at … nobody had to explain anything to me.”

(The famous dance also is the subject of a flash mob event at 12:30 p.m. April 1 beneath UC Berkeley’s campanile; workshop sessions for anyone who wants to participate are offered between 10 a.m. and noon in Hearst Gym on campus.)

Other works in this week’s lineup include the West Coast premieres of “Exodus,” by hip hop choreographer Rennie Harris, featuring a score that mixes gospel with house music and spoken word by Raphael Xavier and Ost & Kjex; and the Cuban-inspired “Open Door,” by Ronald K. Brown, with music by Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra.

“You can experience the unexpected – things you never thought you’d see reflected in movement,” Battle says. “I want people to be inspired by the notion that anything is possible.”

IF YOU GO

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Presented by Cal Performances
Where: Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft Way at Dana Street, UC Berkeley campus
When: 8 p.m. March 29-April 1, 2 and 8 p.m. April 2, 3 p.m. April 3
Tickets: $36 to $150
Contact: (510) 642-9988, www.calperformances.org

Program A: Open Door, Awakening, A Case of You, Revelations (March 29, April 1, April 3)
Program B: Exodus, No Longer Silent, Revelations (March 30, 8 p.m. April 2)
Program C: Toccata, Cry, Piazzola Caldera, Odetta (March 31, 2 p.m. April 2)

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