Breaking Stereotypes

'Tis the Season for Black Claras

Samrawit Saleem, photo by Angela Sterling, via PNB

Two questions I'm often asked as an advocate for diversity in ballet are, "Do you think ballet organizations are genuine?" and, "Do you think it's changing?"

Quite honestly, there are times when I am not so certain. Then there are days when I get texts and Facebook messages alerting me to a story that reinforces my belief that ballet might just be shifting.

One such moment was in late November when Andrea Long-Naidu texted me the image of Pacific Northwest Ballet's Clara, Samrawit Saleem. There she was, seated on the floor in her party dress, gazing down lovingly at her Nutcracker with an elegant use of épaulement. Andrea called me, "Theresa, she's gorgeous, she's brown and look at her hair!!" She was referring to Saleem's double strand twists that were styled half-up half-down. My mouth was agape.


Photo by Erika Schultz for Seattle Times

On social media, "skin-folk" had gotten hold of the image and were reposting it, prizing the casting and, of course, her hair. African American hair has been stigmatized since slavery, when women were forced to wear head scarves because it was deemed unsightly. Even today there are court cases against employers who forbid black women to wear their natural hair in corporate settings, deeming it "unprofessional." PNB's casting of a black Clara was courageous, but a black Clara with natural hair was radical.

I needed to get to the bottom of it.

I soon learned that, over the past three years, PNB has had five Claras, who perfectly represent the demographics of Seattle: two are white, one is Korean, one is Japanese/Spanish and the last is Saleem (who is the first African American Clara in PNB's Balanchine version of Nutcracker). Artistic director Peter Boal makes it clear that she was not chosen because she was black. "Samrawit was cast as Clara because of her talent and presence," he says, "and there were no barriers at PNB to block her from this opportunity."

Often in my advocacy, I find myself to be a sounding board for the frustration and mistrust the African American community has when it comes to ballet's push for diversity. It's warranted. Often our issues are treated as fads, and organizations pocket large amounts of money for simulating support and offering "exposure" that yield little-to-no sustainable change. It is natural for folks to be suspect. I've made it my self-imposed job to suss out the authentic players from the face savers. When I saw the PNB picture of Saleem, I was warmed, not only because if her undeniable coco-ness and her twists, but because I knew deep down the work was working.

Samrawit Saleem as Clara. Photo by Angela Sterling, via seattletimes.com

I have seen how Boal and PNB's executive director Ellen Walker have been unafraid to hear hard truths, and have committed to listening, learning, then doing the right thing. PNB has been part of Seattle's Justice and Equity Committee, and together they are dedicated to making changes organization-wide. "Hearing the perspective of others reiterated the importance of being intentional about our casting, and showing audiences, families, board and the community what our values are," Boal says. "It reiterated the importance of putting role models in the front of the room, or at the center of the stage."

When asked about earning the coveted role of Clara, 11-year-old Saleem says, "I was really excited and worked really hard on this." Saleem joined PNB's school three years ago through its DanceChance program in partnership with Seattle's public schools, after training with Edna Daigne of Ewajo Dance Studio, a veteran dance teacher in the African American community.

Saleem's parents are acutely aware of the culture of whiteness in ballet and do not hesitate to speak up. When her mother accompanied her to the DanceChance orientation, there was talk about hair and the traditional bun. Mrs. Saleem approached DanceChance coordinator Lauren Kirchner, and suggested that she include hair alternatives. Kirchner was responsive. PNB is on a learning curve, but seems to be leaning in.

Photo by Erika Schultz for Seattle Times

Samrawit's father Zithri Saleem, is a critical theorist, and keeps this event in perspective. "We celebrate, but we celebrate in the context of whiteness," he says. "It is a reflection—the 'first black' anything is an indictment of where we are, and we can't lose sight of that." As parents, the Saleems are vocal when necessary—something that quite frankly frightens most ballet organizations: having to "deal" with parents. However, PNB has been receptive. "We have never had any issue getting access," says Mr. Saleem, "and we don't let anything slide."

After her casting, Samrawit says that there was a discussion about her hair amongst her classmates. "There were some girls who were saying, 'Well you know you're going to have to change your hair.' "

They were wrong. Boal was clear from the onset: "I felt quite strongly about this and started a conversation about her hair as soon as she was cast. I didn't want Samrawit or her family to think they needed to change her hair to fit a tradition. I also didn't want Samrawit to feel obligated to keep her braids. We communicated with Samrawit and her mom, letting them know that her hairstyle was their call: As long as the crown would stay on her head, my needs were satisfied. She wears that crown beautifully."

As a major ballet company, PNB is emerging as a leader in the diversity movement. "It's no longer good enough for PNB to be a welcoming place for people of color," Walker says. "We need to do that intentional work of finding people of color to join our school, our company, our staff and board."

Photo by Erika Schultz for Seattle Times

Zithri Saleem has seen a conscious shift. "Over these three years, I've seen an awakening," he says. "It has been a great experience for Samry. I feel that she is valued here."

PNB might be the largest ballet company to feature a brown Clara this season, but it is certainly not the only one. Is this a trend or is the media just picking it up more?

At Ballet Memphis, Felicia Baker is not the company's first non-white Clara, but she is its first African American Clara. Diverse casting has been the norm at Ballet Memphis for a long time now, says artistic director Dorothy Gunther Pugh. "We have had interracial lead couples in our Nutcracker, as we have in all our work we present. I think it is enormously important for all audiences to see non-white boys and girls and women and men on the stage."

Salomé Tregre is Cincinnati Ballet's first black Clara in 50 years. (There have only been two non-white Claras in the role previously). The 13-year- old has been at the academy for 10 years. "Salomé is student that we have watched for quite some time," says second company director Suzette Boyer Webb. "Her drive, hard work, attention to detail and coachable manner earned her this role."

You have to wonder if audiences were taken aback after almost a half a century of traditionally white Claras. But Webb says Tregre was welcomed by the audience and everyone involved in the production "with open arms."

Salomé Tegre in rehearsal. Photo via thevoiceofblackcincinnati.com

I see these Claras as evidence that the work for equity is beginning to make a difference, not solely because of casting but the thinking that motivates it. However, I would be remiss if I did not mention that some of the productions that feature African Americans at Christmastime are nontraditional, like Debbie Allen Dance Academy's Hot Chocolate Nutcracker and Brooklyn Ballet's Brooklyn Nutcracker.

For 25 years, Atlanta-based Ballethinc has been presenting its Urban Nutcracker rewritten by co-founder and director Waverly Lucas. "I was motivated by the fact that I had performed in many Nutcrackers as a guest artist and only one had a black Clara," he says. "I began by changing the perspective of the story with characters that reflect African American or African diasporic culture." Taking a page out of Karel Shook and Arthur Mitchell's Creole Giselle book (both Lucas and co-founder/director Nina Gilteath are DTH alums), he flipped the script and culturally redesigned the characters making Clara into Sarah, Sugar Plum Fairy became Brown Sugar, and the Cavalier (I love this one) became The Chocolatier.

The thing that makes this rendition so brilliant is that it eradicates the offensive stereotypes that we all try to look beyond in the second act. Lucas also added culturally-specific characters like Big Mama, Mother Spice, Sassy Sadie and the Sailor, and The Reggae Ragdolls. He even reimagined the actual Nutcracker. "Ours is in the image of Marcus Garvey and his Garveyite Soldiers," he says.

Demographically, it's genius. Atlanta is a majority African American city. If Atlanta Ballet—which only has one African American dancer—is interested in drawing African Americans into the theater, a collaboration with Ballethnic on something like a reimagined Nutcracker might do the trick!

Perhaps Ballethnic has it right in reimagining the traditional ballet, because when we talk about creating equity in ballet, essentially we are talking about reimagining the ballet tradition—Eurocentric whiteness. It won't happen overnight, and it may take a while until the work is visible. In the meantime, Peter Boal is right when he says, "We are thrilled that more children in both the audience and at PNB School can see themselves onstage as future Claras and ballerinas."

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When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

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