Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater occupies a singular place in American cultural history and today’s dance scene.

Founded by Ailey in 1958, the company has performed for presidents and princes, at the Olympics and on “Sesame Street.” Almost from its inception, it has toured the country and the world, including historic visits to the U.S.S.R. and China, earning a reputation as an ambassador for American arts.

Ailey was also a pioneer in bringing dance into the community, through both educational outreach and a rich U.S. touring schedule (currently eight months of the year), which includes a stop at Merrill Auditorium in Portland on Tuesday.

This is a pivotal year for the company, with the appointment of artistic director Robert Battle, an award-winning choreographer whose former company, Battleworks, has performed in Maine at Bates Dance Festival.

In all the company’s history, Battle is only the third artistic director. The legendary dancer Judith Jamison was chosen by Ailey as his successor before his death in 1989, and Jamison chose Battle last year (she remains as artistic director emerita). “She said that I reminded her of Alvin,” Battle said.

He sees his mission as a blend of honoring and maintaining the company’s traditional identity and carrying it into the future. While continuing to present classics such as Ailey’s spiritual-based “Revelations,” Battle expects to “not necessarily reinvent the wheel, but roll it up the hill” in choosing new repertory.

Tuesday’s performance will include “Revelations” and three other stylistically diverse dances. “Home,” by Rennie Harris, a groundbreaker in bringing hip-hop to the concert stage, is in its premiere year. Battle’s Indian-inspired, rhythmic “Takademe” was composed in 1999, but this year is its Ailey premiere.

“Streams” was Ailey’s first abstract piece of choreography.

“I think he was enjoying the technical ability of his dancers and exploring that,” says Battle.

Similar to a ballet like Balanchine’s “Serenade,” “Streams” has emotional depth without a specific story or message.

Such striking differences among pieces serve as an artistic palate refresher. “Choreography with a strong, specific voice affects how the audience sees the other works,” Battle said. “Each work feeds off the next.”

Whether dancing a brand-new composition or an oft-performed signature piece, “we really dive into it,” said dancer Alicia Graf Mack, to keep performances “fresh and interesting.”

This means focusing not just on technique but on the deeper artistic and spiritual aspects of dance. In an era of what Graf Mack calls the “super dancer,” she says that a solely technical performer couldn’t present the Ailey repertory well. Superb technique is essential, she adds, but only as a base for artistic expression and integrity.

Ailey dancers are known for combining athleticism and expression, and also for their individuality. “No two of us look alike or have the same body type,” Graf Mack said. “Ailey loved people, and the dancer inside.” Of the nine new dancers to join the company this year, “each one is so special, with something different in their technical and artistic strengths,” she said.

Graf Mack began as a ballet dancer, starting her career with Dance Theatre of Harlem, and she notes that Ailey and Jamison were classically trained. In his dancers, Ailey wanted to see “ballet from the waist down but a modern (dance) torso; clean technique below a large sense of movement,” she says.

Ailey’s blending of genres was ahead of his time. Today, the boundaries between ballet and modern dance are becoming increasingly blurred.

The most essential difference is the usage of weight, Battle said. “The choreography I love has so many influences.” 

Jennifer Brewer is a freelance writer, teacher, musician and dancer based in Saco.