The Segerstrom Center for the Arts welcomed back the esteemed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater this past April, with an incredible piece by Artistic Director Robert Battle, “No Longer Silent.” Originally created in 2007, it was part of a concert of choreography that brought to life long-forgotten scores by composers whose work the Nazis labeled “degenerate” and banned. The piece is set to “Ogelala,” a piece that Jewish Czech composer, Erwin Schulhoff, composed between 1922 and 1925. Battle said, when he held Schulhoff’s score in his hands, “I felt I was holding his words in my hand. And then I knew I could tell the story.” Modern dance is about being seen and heard and is an example of art as a weapon of change. “There are echoes of what history can teach us,” he said. The goal is “to have work that shakes our consciousness and calls on our heart.” I recently had the chance to speak with Robert about the piece, from its creation, to its relevance today.
How did you first hear about Schulhoff and his piece, Ogelala? What about his story and music particularly spoke to you? It chose me and I chose it. Immediately, just the music itself captured my imagination. The piece was written before the war, but it was as if he was foreshadowing, from the very first notes, it’s a warning. Everything in the music told me exactly what to do—it illustrated the tenacity of the human spirit. The music is a driving force; when I heard it I had one experience and when I held the piece physically in my hands I felt instantly connected. When we, as artists, give those works voice and reveal them to the world so many others are no longer silent—we give a voice to the voiceless.
Given the anti-Semitism that is happening in Europe and all over the world—do you feel the piece will resonate with more people and is more relevant than ever? Absolutely. The things we place in history are not really in history in so many ways. They still resonate because they are still going on. We as artists cannot remain silent in terms of how we see the world.
Were you thinking about other rights movements when you were creating the work—LGBTQ, civil rights, religious freedom, etc? It’s all crystallized by Terence, “I am a human being; nothing human can be alien to me.” Our common humanity is what binds us together. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” What goes on in each of our communities happens all over the country. These artistic works can be transformative.
What do you want people to take away from this performance? I want people to be inspired—to know that dance can be a powerful way to express stories that are so important and celebrate our common humanity. In times like these we all need to be inspired, enjoy the dance company, and revel in what the human body can do.
Tanya Schwied graduated from New York University, studied abroad in Israel, and currently works for the CEO and President of Jewish Federation & Family Services.