Solange Knowles Breathed Life Into the New York City Ballet

The artist created her first original score for a ballet at New York City Ballet’s Fall Fashion Gala, and it attracted a whole new fan base of first-timers.

In Depth
Solange Knowles Breathed Life Into the New York City Ballet
Photo:John Lamparski (Getty Images)

Everyone tells you to arrive early to the New York City Ballet to avoid the last-minute flurry of anxious ticket-holders who missed the train or left their tickets at home or forgot that, yes, the David Koch Theater still requires masks indoors. On Wednesday night, however, the ballgown-ed and tuxedo-ed hordes outside the Lincoln Center were unavoidable, no matter how early you showed up. The lines spilled out onto the sidewalk, wrapping around the outside of the plaza, as people of all ages shifted back and forth, clasping their hands at their waistlines, antsy to go inside. NYC Ballet’s annual Fall Fashion Gala has always been a spectacle—a meeting of some of the greatest minds in fashion and dance—but this was something different. This was about Solange.

In August, the New York Times reported that City Ballet—one of the most prestigious and, at times, controversial ballet companies in the country—had commissioned Solange Knowles, the Grammy-winning visual and musical artist, to compose her first original score for a ballet company. The composition was set to premiere at the company’s 10th anniversary of its annual Fall Fashion Gala (the brainchild of longtime City Ballet board member Sarah Jessica Parker) in September, in addition to a slew of shows in October and May of 2023. Though longtime fans of Knowles clamored to get tickets to see her take on a new artistic endeavor, the announcement also drew excitement for another reason: Knowles would become just the second Black female composer to produce work for the City Ballet ever, and she seemed to be drawing a near inconceivable wave of young Black fans to the theater’s crushed velvet seats—the same seats once reserved for the upper crust of New York’s oldest money and the white nouveau riche.

In the lead-up to the show, I spoke to a few young people who were irked that Knowles’ debut—a major Black cultural moment within a historically white institution—had been reserved for the Fall Fashion Gala, meaning the majority of the best seats in the house would be occupied by City Ballet regulars, donors, and celebrities willing to shell out anywhere from $750 to $200,000 for the evening. But as the line snaked closer to the theater doors, it became clear there was nothing but a positive, reverberating buzz that only someone like Knowles could instill in a crowd of ballet-goers. Even as the general attendee line awkwardly brushed up against the gala’s outdoor cocktail hour, everyone seemed genuinely excited.

As I settled into my $84 seat in the middle of the fourth ring—the nosebleeds in the back of the theater four levels up—I scanned what looked to be a sold-out audience. Later, in Daily Mail and Page Six articles, I’d see that Kristin Davis, Laverne Cox, Claire Danes, Queen Latifah, and a bevy of top-brass fashion editors were also in attendance. I’d see that Beyoncé and Tina Knowles came to support Solange on her big night. I’d see that City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck graced the red carpet in a lime green Valentino gown, paired with her satin pointe shoes. But it’s not so much the evening’s star power that excited me. Rather, it’s the changing guard and the fourth ring of audience members beside me—those making the notoriously stuffy ballet look young, fresh, and alive.

Photo:Getty (Getty Images)

There are women in cowboy boots and sequined dresses, pre-teens in jeans and touristy New York sweatshirts, and queer couples galore—Black femmes and mascs and everything in between. There are hype beasts in sweater vests with neon turquoise buzzcuts and a man in a three-piece tuxedo wearing an AOC-inspired “Eat the Rich” mask. There are Gen Z kids in moto jackets and disco titty tops, pixie cuts and traffic cone-orange bobs, corsets and glittering moon boots. Of course, the regular sorts are there, including darling toddlers in tutus bouncing off the walls and the stuffy elderly couples you’d imagine. But finally—finally—this audience reflects the freedom and creativity and experimentation that art was always meant to represent. Finally, this crowd looks like the future of ballet.

The lights dim, and a hush settles over the crowd, as the program begins with “Symphony in C,” classical choreography by George Balanchine. It is fine. Pretty. Then audiences are treated to what they’ve waited for: “Play Time,” choreographed by 23-year-old Gianna Reisen, who at 18 became the youngest choreographer in City Ballet history. Her piece is set to Knowles’ composition, which is heavily and audibly inspired by jazz music. It rattles around the stage, electric—erratic, even. It’s Reisen’s first time working with original music, and the piece, meant to emulate the stifling structure and sameness of Wall Street’s finance suits, is fun. Knowles’ work is like a pleasant plunge into an ice bath amid all the classical music.

While the night marked a huge feat for Knowles’ career and potentially an exciting new chapter in City Ballet’s commissioning habits, there was just one Black dancer, India Bradley, cast in the piece—something that several Twitter users called out (though there were far more Black dancers in other pieces throughout the night). Though newly promoted principal dancer Chun Wai Chan, the company’s first Chinese principal in its 74-year history, and Asian American dancer KJ Takahashi were cast in “Play Time,” City Ballet, unlike Alvin Ailey or Dance Theatre of Harlem, isn’t exactly known for its Black representation, and the cast makeup shouldn’t have been a surprise. But the dissonance between Knowles’ striking composition and the lack of representation onstage curbed my enthusiasm in the smallest way: just a reminder that City Ballet appears pointed in the right direction, but is still far from an equitable stage presence. (The company currently does not employ any Black principal female dancers.)

That said, none of this should take away from the payoff of hearing a crowd leap to its feet, roaring with applause for Knowles, who came out for a quick bow after the piece concluded. Make no mistake, this crowd was here for her.

Later, after the show (including a stunningly queer piece from Kyle Abraham, another Black artist on the evening’s program), I chatted with a group of six young people between the ages of 14 and 26. None of them had been to the ballet before, despite being from the Bronx. All of them said they had come to see Solange. And all of them said they would absolutely be coming back. When I asked how watching ballet had made them feel, a young girl described the show, especially Abraham’s work, as beautiful and emotional. A 14-year-old boy dressed in a tuxedo said, “I never really sat down and analyzed [ballet] before, but it was cool. It was really cool.”

When I asked a 27-year-old—who had also come to see Solange, and was attending the ballet for the first time—what they thought of the evening, they lit up, gesturing wildly about “the art, the fashion, all of it.” What they’d seen tonight, they said, “was expressive. It gave me chills. I felt it.” They remarked how traditional ballet had always felt to them, but “this felt really fresh and alive.”

Before we exited the theater, the general audience again had to pass by the extravagantly-set gala tables, where people like Zac Posen, Andy Cohen, and Lizzie Tisch would continue their night. It felt like an easy, if not slightly too-on-the-nose metaphor for ballet’s shifting place in culture, with the newer crowd left craning their necks over the balconies to catch a glimpse of how the other half experiences the ballet. But the next generation of audiences weren’t just present, like some happy accident that might make City Ballet look good in its donor presentations: We were invited. And while it wasn’t perfect, this deliberately orchestrated shift worked. Thanks to the power of Solange, shes and gays and theys and anyone who once felt the ballet wasn’t for them had been explicitly welcomed in, exactly as they are.

For some reason, I’d half expected everyone who came for Solange to leave after her piece was over, bored by ballet’s out-of-reach antics. But they all stayed. Echoes of the audience’s “oohs” and “aahs” rang in my ears as I saw a line of young Black girls waiting to take their photos in front of the gilded walls of the theaters and on the steps in front of the Lincoln Center. To me, at least, they looked at home.

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