MOSCOW — Robert Battle smiled at the incongruity, sitting in the high-noon darkness of a subterranean cafe in Moscow and slipping on the weighty mantle once worn by Alvin Ailey and then by Judith Jamison as artistic director of a much-celebrated American modern dance company.
Battle, a 38-year-old choreographer and former dancer, was made artistic director designate more than a year ago and took over his new role Friday, while the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was on tour in Moscow.
The venue — the troupe’s home is in New York, about 4,700 miles and another culture away — was as curious as it was resonant. Alvin Ailey, a black man born into the deeply racist U.S. society of 1931, created his company because, as he once said, “I’m trying to say something about the beauty of black people, about the elegance . . . and about their intelligence.”
Ailey died in 1989, but his company delivered his message, eloquent and relevant as ever, to full houses in six performances at the storied Stani
slavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater.
This visit to Russia, with performances in St. Petersburg Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, was sponsored by the U.S. State Department and others as part of President Obama’s effort to engage Russia and warm up a relationship that had been cooling. It began a year-long “American Seasons” that will include an Annie Leibovitz photography exhibit and, in April, performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Detractors say that reset policy has meant giving Russia a pass on the arbitrary ways it often treats its citizens. If so, the Ailey performances are a reminder that cultural statements can be as powerful as the political, even if more subtle.
Ailey started the company in 1958, the year high schools in Little Rock, Ark., were closed to prevent integration and 10,000 students marched on Washington in support of integrated schools.
Although Russia’s laws are not discriminatory in the manner of American Jim Crow legislation, they are arbitrarily applied, and many people here hold a deep-rooted prejudice against their fellow citizens from the Caucasian mountain regions of the country such as Chechnya and Dagestan. The ethnic groups there tend to have dark hair and be olive-skinned. Russians call them black; they are frequently demeaned and their rights violated.
Toward the end of June, a soccer fan in a mid-size city threw a banana onto the field to taunt Roberto Carlos, a Brazilian who plays for the Dagestan team. A similar incident occurred earlier this year in St. Petersburg.
The racism seems particularly virulent in the sporting world. In December, Moscow soccer fans got into a street brawl with young men from the Caucasus. In the melee, an ethnic Russian was killed, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin laid a wreath at the spot, a gesture interpreted as taking sides before the facts were known. Days of ethnic tension ensued.
Racial profiling is so routine that on a short subway trip to the theater last week, police could be observed several times stopping Caucasian-featured young men and women, demanding to see their identification papers.
The Ailey performances offered Russians a different stage to engage with people of color. This is the home of classical ballet, and the audiences were both knowledgeable and appreciative. In the conversation with mostly Russian journalists — only one American reporter was present — Battle was pelted with admiring and well-informed questions.
“One thing Judith Jamison always does is to remind us that Mr. Ailey started the company during the civil rights movement,” he said, answering a question about his sense of Ailey’s original vision. “This was more than a dance company. It was a movement, and we feel connected to it.”
The tradition, and the movement, he said, have been passed physically, from person to person, from place to place, in a company that now includes two Marylanders, Alicia Graf Mack from Columbia and Jacqueline Green from Baltimore.
“Here I am in a basement in Russia, talking to journalists and picking up the baton,” Battle said with an easy smile. “I’m both grateful and inspired.”
That evening’s performance — similar to a February program in Washington — began with “Anointed,” a ballet by Christopher Huggins describing Ailey turning the company over to Jamison, and now Jamison conveying it to Battle.
It concluded with “Revelations,” said to be the most-performed work of modern dance ever.
During an intermission before she danced in “Revelations,” Mack, who just rejoined the company, said the Russian audiences had been present and responsive.
“I tap into my deepest spiritual self on the stage,” she said. “For me to be part of a company that celebrates humanity in such a beautiful way helps me be my best self.”
On the stage, Mack said, she fully and deeply lived her life.
Soon, she and the others were soaring body and soul to the gospel music that has captivated so many audiences — “Wade in the Water,” “Sinner Man” and “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.”
The performance was powerful, the dancers beautiful, elegant and intelligent, and the Russian audience felt it, clapping and clapping and clapping again.