FORTUNE -- In 1958, in the midst of the civil rights movement, a young African American man originally from Texas formed a multi-racial modern dance troupe, a daring move. The group first performed in New York City at what was then called the 92nd Street Young Men's Hebrew Association (now the 92nd Street Y).
That company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, has since become a major force in American arts. In 2008, Congress named it a "cultural ambassador to the world."
So the pressure is on Robert Battle, who took the helm as artistic director of the company in July 2011. He speaks with Fortune about the challenges and the payoff of keeping a modern dance company modern.
Fortune: How did you first get into dance?
Robert Battle: I was born, completely bow-legged. I always say that because of the irony of being in dance in such a big way. When I was about five years old, I got braces and straightened my legs out.
About that time, I moved with my family to Miami to live with my cousins because my great aunt and uncle raised me and my great aunt had a stroke. My cousin, who's still the one I call mother, was into the arts. I started imitating her on the piano, and they realized I had an ear for music.
You know those kids with a high voice until they are 14? I was that child. My voice changed around Michael Jackson time -- everybody was imitating Michael Jackson in the 80s, and that got me more interested in dance.
I auditioned for dance in my high school and I got in. I loved it. Dance was the one discipline where I felt comfortable.
What was you first experience with the Alvin Ailey dance company?
I saw Alvin Ailey's Revelations when it came to Miami. I just fell in love with that work. It was like, Christmas for a young person, do you know what I mean? When your eyes are wide open and everything was unbelievable. That got me more into dance, more serious about it. More
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