How SAB Is Working To Fix NYCB’s Diversity Problem
New York City Ballet has an image problem. Despite having the moniker of one of the most diverse cities on the planet, the company regularly comes under fire for its lack of diversity. A perception of overbearing whiteness has plagued the institution, often acting as a cultural barrier for prospective students and audiences.
Over the last three years, the company's School of American Ballet and its diversity team have been working to change this. Since NYCB preserves its Balanchine legacy by keeping everything in house—dancers are hired almost exclusively from SAB, where they are trained by former members of the company—the school is a logical place to start transforming its image. And it's working. Presently, the children's division and intermediate/advanced division boasts 44% and 29% students of color, respectively.
Photo via nytimes.com
The importance of high numbers in the lower levels can not be undervalued. Dance is brutally Darwinian, and SAB is acutely aware that not all beginners will end up in level D. "It's so important that our 6- and 7-year-old pools are as diverse as possible," says Leah Quintiliano, senior manager of diversity and inclusion. "It gets whittled down so much, we need to make sure that we are left with options later on."
In addition to broadening audition locations to identify talented students of color, two years ago, SAB launched the National Visiting Fellows Program. Up to five classical ballet instructors with a commitment to teaching students from diverse backgrounds are invited to participate in two week-long sessions during SAB's Winter Term. They observe classes, discuss pedagogy and curriculum, and have an opportunity to teach in the school then receive feedback.
This is an unprecedented amount of access to the often opaque organization.
The intimate group is highly vetted. "We have to see expertise, and know that we speak the same language," says faculty co-chair Kay Mazzo, whose enthusiasm about the program is palpable. "They have to be good teachers who know what it takes to become a classical ballet dancer."
2016-17 fellow Christopher McDaniel of Connally's Dance Workshop, in San Antonio, TX, says the fellows watch just about every level in the school. "Following each level, different specifications on technique were broken down by a faculty member with a student demonstrating," he says. Participants are in an hands-on environment, Quintiliano explains. "In some other programs, the participants may be working together in an empty studio; our fellows are present in the classroom."
Spring 2017 fellows. Pictured left to right: (front row) Robyn Gardenhire, Mariana Alvarez Brake, Kay Eichman, Christopher McDaniel, SAB faculty member Katrina Killian. (back row) Jennifer Mason, SAB alumnus Silas Farley
For Angela Harris, founder of the Atlanta-based nonprofit Dance Canvas and part of the pilot program class, this level of access was invaluable. "I focused most on the younger classes, to reflect on how I could build my pre-pointe/beginner pointe classes," she says. "The regiment of the combinations, paired with the attention to developing the articulation of the foot, made complete sense to me. I came home and I slowed my classes down and spent two months returning to facing the barre for many combinations to isolate and correct positions. It made a difference, and my students became stronger."
All expenses, including travel and housing, are paid for. "We didn't just want teachers who could afford it coming," says Mazzo. "We felt that if we are taking a teacher away from a school, we wanted to make sure that they were paid for that week." In addition, each fellow's home school receives $5,000. Quintiliano says, "This is our way of saying, 'Please, we would like to help you continue what you are doing."
Many participants find the program actually reaffirms their own mastery. "It solidified my thoughts on, Am I teaching the correctly? Are my combinations taking the student to the next level? Showing my work and writing out my mission gave me great confidence in what I have achieved as an instructor and director of a program," says Robyn Gardenhire, a former American Ballet Theatre dancer who now directs City Ballet of Los Angeles, and who was scouted for the fellowship by SAB faculty member Katrina Killian. Gardenhire was also asked to be on SAB's Diversity Board, made up of school alumni.
Robyn Gardenhire teaching at City Ballet of Los Angeles
SAB is building these new relationships in hopes of expanding its reach, re-framing its image—and ultimately resulting in brown students seeing SAB as a possibility for them. "SAB's outreach through the fellows allows us to help break down a barrier for our students to feel welcome," says Harris. "Last year, a young dancer I encouraged to audition told me she'd never thought of auditioning because she didn't feel like she was 'what they were looking for.' Although she didn't get in, she had a great experience auditioning, and is headed to Ballet West or Texas Ballet Theater this summer." Students of fellows have their audition fees waived, and over the last two years, Harris has been able to offer 15 of her students audition scholarships for SAB.
Today, as you walk through the SAB halls when the children's program is in session, it looks like the residents of New York City. Though the diversity begins to wane in the upper levels, and there is still work to do, progress is happening.
SAB's summer course
The goal of adding ballet faculty of color will be harder to come by, since SAB only hires from NYCB, and there have been so few non-white dancers. However, changes are happening on this front as well: Former NYCB dancer Andrea Long-Naidu has been a guest faculty member, was present on SAB's national audition tour this year and will return for a week of the 2017 summer intensive.
When asked if the fellows might be called on to teach at the school, Mazzo paused. "Down the road…I don't know, we are always evolving. I can certainly see some of our fellows guest teaching here, and then we have to see how it works." She maintains that either way, the door to SAB will always be open to fellows to observe or get feedback. Harris shares that fellows feel supported—SAB's director of development gave her a list of potential funders for new programs at her school, and on a recent trip to New York, she spent an hour catching up with Quintiliano.
It is said that it takes 10 years to make a dancer. It might take just as long to change the perception that people have about NYCB. After all, the final decision on hiring lies with ballet master in chief Peter Martins. But the team at SAB has made it a mission to find and train dancers of color so that Martins has strong candidates to choose from.
We already have evidence of their work. Of the eight apprentices appointed this year, five are of color. Two are African American—India Bradley and Darius Black—and Gilbert Bolden is biracial. Where SAB's tradition might not make "outreach" a model for them, they are working to escort people in.
SAB students moments after they were tapped to become NYCB apprentices for the 2017/18 season. Pictured left to right: Andres Zuniga, Gabriella Domini, Nieve Corrigan, Roman Mejia, Darius Black, India Bradley, Mary Thomas MacKinnon, Gilbert Bolden. Photo by Paul Kolnik
The dancers file into an audition room. They are given a number and asked to wait for registration to finish before the audition starts. At the end of the room, behind a table and a computer (and probably a number of mobile devices), there I sit, doing audio tests and updating the audition schedule as the room fills up with candidates. The dancers, more nervous than they need to be, see me, typing, perhaps teasing my colleagues, almost certainly with a coffee cup at my side.
By itself, a competition trophy won't really prepare you for professional life. Sometimes it is not even a plus. "Some directors are afraid that a kid who wins a lot of medals will come to their company with too many expectations," says Youth America Grand Prix artistic director Larissa Saveliev. "Directors want to mold young dancers to fit their company."
More valuable than taking home a title from a competition is the exposure you can get and the connections you can make while you're there. But how can you take advantage of the opportunity?
New York Live Arts opens its 2017-18 season with A Love Supreme, a revised work by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and collaborator Salva Sanchis. Known as a choreographer of pure form, pattern and musicality, De Keersmaeker can bring a visceral power to the stage without the use of narrative. She has taken this 2005 work to John Coltrane's famous jazz score of the same title and recast it for four young men of her company Rosas, giving it an infusion of new energy.
Photo by Anne Van Aerschot
Before too long, dancers and choreographers will get to create on the luxurious 170-acre property in rural Connecticut that is currently home to legendary visual artist Jasper Johns.
If you think that sounds far more glamorous than your average choreographic retreat, you're right. Though there are some seriously generous opportunities out there, this one seems particularly lavish.
Every dancer has learned—probably the hard way—that healthy feet are the foundation of a productive and happy day in the studio. As dancers, our most important asset has to carry the weight (literally) of everything we do. So it's not surprising that most professional dancers have foot care down to an art.
Three dancers shared their foot-care products they can't live without.
Dancers trying their hand at designing is nothing new. But they do tend to stick with studio or performance-wear (think Miami City Ballet's Ella Titus and her line of knit warm-ups or former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor and her ballet costumes). But several dancers at American Ballet Theatre—corps members Jamie Kopit, Erica Lall, Katie Boren, Katie Williams, Lauren Post, Zhong-Jing Fang and soloist Cassandra Trenary—are about to launch a fashion line that's built around designs that can be worn outside of the studio. Titled Company Cooperative, the luxe line of women's wear is handmade in New York City's garment district and designed by the dancers themselves.
Royal Ballet dancers Yasmine Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell recently got together for a different kind of performance: no decadent costumes, sets, stage makeup or lighting. Instead, the principal and first soloist danced choreography by principal character artist Kristen McNally in a stark studio.
The movement is crystal clear, and at the beginning, Naghdi and Stix-Brunell duck and weave around each other with near vacant stares. Do they even know they have a partner? And how should they interact? The situation raises a much larger question: How often do we see a female duet in ballet?
As a student, Milwaukee native John Neumeier appeared in an opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Hamburg Ballet's artistic director and one of the world's leading choreographers, Neumeier now returns to the Midwest to direct and choreograph a new version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, a co-production of the Lyric Opera, LA Opera and Hamburg State Opera. Set to open in Chicago September 23 with the Joffrey Ballet, the ambitious work will see additional engagements in Los Angeles and Hamburg over the next two years.
How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?
It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.
You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?
When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.
Another idea in Orphée which fascinates me is its directness in projecting profound human emotions—emotions not used as an excuse for vocal virtuosity, but expressed in simple and direct musical terms. In Orphée, we have a mythical subject which is related in an extremely relevant, familiar, human way.