Black Ballet Companies Converge in Historic, ‘Electric’ Program at the Kennedy Center

"For all of us to be on one stage coming together for not just one show, but seven shows?" dancer Karla D. Tyson told me. "It’s unheard of.”

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Black Ballet Companies Converge in Historic, ‘Electric’ Program at the Kennedy Center
Ahmad Hill in middle with Maurissa Powell (left), Nailah Imani (middle), and Saabirah Christopher (right). Photo:Shoccara Marcus

The show starts with 624 names.

They roll down the screen from Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet like credits, all the Black and brown people who’ve contributed to the field of ballet highlighted in the spirit of Sankofa—an African tradition that acknowledges the importance of recalling the past in order to ensure the future. Historically, their contributions have been erased, downplayed, or muted, but tonight, their contributions are front and center. Despite allies and historically white institutions showing up for Black communities in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, what is about to take place on the stage of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., is a convergence of individuals who have been doing the work for decades. And while the evening is a collaboration of three predominantly Black ballet companies, the influence and echoes of every one of those 624 people can be felt on that stage.

This week, the Kennedy Center, one of the leading performing arts organizations in the country, united the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Ballethnic Dance Company, and Collage Dance Collective together on a program for the first time. The series, titled “Reframing the Narrative,” hosted seven performances centering Black excellence in dance, including several throughout Juneteenth weekend. Both Ballethnic and Collage Dance were formed by disciples of Dance Theatre of Harlem’s visionary artistic director Arthur Mitchell, who created one of the foundational Black ballet companies in America in the height of segregation.

The program, a nearly two-year-long brain child of curators Theresa Ruth Howard and Denise Saunders Thompson, also features the world premiere of a commission by choreographer Donald Byrd, which brings together Black ballet dancers currently performing in historically white ballet companies all over the world. Curated by Howard, the piece features Portia Adams (Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo), Precious Adams (English National Ballet), Jonathan Philbert (Atlanta Ballet), Corey Bourbonniere (Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre), and Miranda Silveira (The Joffrey Ballet), among others, as they’re given the opportunity to dance in a space where their Blackness is centered, rather than exploited. In a wave of performative diversity efforts, the Kennedy program appears to be proof that some organizations are actually listening to the needs of modern audiences.

In a phone interview with Jezebel earlier this week, Saunders Thompson, President and CEO of The International Association of Blacks in Dance, said that there was an electricity in the air on the night of the program’s premiere. The audience, she said, looked like America—one of the most diverse audiences she’d ever seen at the Kennedy Center. Sitting in front of her was a white father (“I’m assuming a dance dad,” she laughs) and daughter who sat on the edge of her seat for the entire performance. To her left was an African American family; to her right was an elderly “white hair” couple, and behind her, was a young Millennial family. The show, as intended, had brought a truly diverse audience together; the programming centered Blackness, but it had drawn a crowd of dance lovers of all racial backgrounds and generations. “Everyone was just amazed,” Saunders Thompson said. “No one left the theater early.”

Saunders Thompson, who has worked as a professor, arts programming executive, and advisor for over twenty years, was particularly touched by the reaction of the female dancers who’d been plucked to participate in Byrd’s piece, giving them a break from their usual rehearsal environment. After years of code switching to fit into white spaces, and being pitted against fellow Black dancers for token roles, she says their response to the experience has continued to make her smile. “These female dancers have actually come up to me and said, ‘Thank you for creating this space that allows me to just be my authentic self,’” she said. “I’ve had a number of the women who are performing this week in these companies and in the commission come up to me and say that it means the world to them that they do not have to carry this weight and this burden in this particular space.”

Saunders Thompson, explained that each company on the program brought audiences their own unique brand of ballet. Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem represented classical ballet, while Collage, she says, presents a more contemporary version of the classical art form. Ballethnic, then, included classic ballet technique, but incorporated influences of high-energy African dance.

Photo:Shoccara Marcus

Atlanta’s first and only professional Black-founded ballet company, and the oldest in the South, Ballethnic was founded in 1990 by Nena Gilreath and Waverly T. Lucas II, both former dancers with Dance Theatre of Harlem and Atlanta Ballet. At the Kennedy Center, the company performed a 10-dancer ballet called “Sanctity,” which “expresses the importance of collective work of a community by knowing one’s purpose,” as well as its signature work “The Leopard Tale.” Choreographed by Lucas, the work combines ballet and African dance in a tale of survival in the African jungle. And while the company is now thriving, having just celebrated its 32-year anniversary, Gilreath told us in a Zoom interview that the path to sustainability and prominence was an arduous one.

“Being young and Black always felt like it was a burden in ballet because there’s so many doors that we had to literally force our way into. Even during my training at North Carolina School of the Arts, people would ask, ‘Why are you here? What makes you special? You’re not going to get the same roles because these roles are relegated to white women,’” Gilreath said. “Now, after the George Floyd reckoning, a lot of attention has been placed on diversity, but I don’t know if it’s always genuine. And if I look back, many times us young Black dancers were used as a token or a pawn or a way to get money for the school or for scholarships, and not necessarily for company employment.”

But Gilreath always brought her Blackness with her. Even at the Atlanta Ballet, when it was Martin Luther King Day, she’d refuse to come to work, regardless of whether the company gave the dancers the day off. Gilreath knows perhaps better than anyone that the ballet excellence featured at the Kennedy Center this week didn’t happen overnight. These companies, as Saunders Thompson said, have always done the work, and it’s important to communicate that to audiences: Although the viewing experience might be new to you, Black dancers thriving in ballet is not rare, even if this many Black companies on one stage might be.

“It’s a very humbling experience that [the Kennedy Center] wants to highlight us,” added Karla D. Tyson, one of the Ballethnic’s veteran dancers. “That’s so rare, and for all of us to be on one stage coming together for not just one show, but seven shows? It’s unheard of.”

For Tyson, the performance is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to highlight the rhythm that makes her culture, her music, the way she moves her body. And she’s relieved that in a company like Ballethnic, she gets to dance roles like Miss Brown Sugar (the equivalent of the Sugar Plum Fairy from “The Nutcracker”) and Sarah (the equivalent of Clara) who were designed from the beginning as Black characters.

Just as Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded as Mitchell’s cultural response to the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King’s assassination, this moment at the Kennedy Center feels like the only proper response to a time in which Black dancers have historically been shut out of opportunities.

“This is an ongoing saga, and a very cyclical conversation, because many of us have talked about he same ideals for many years. In my college years, it was multiculturalism, or blind casting,” said Saunders Thompson. “But, here is a commitment by many. The field in general has a long way to go, because dance is reflective of what’s happening in our country. But these conversations are real, the people who are making it happen are very real, and the push for normalization of Black and brown people in the ballet world, in the dance world, is very real.”

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