Theresa Ruth Howard danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem, and was a founding member of Armitage Gone! Dance. She is the founder and curator of the Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet. She has taught at the American Dance Festival, Sarah Lawrence College, and was an artist in residence at Hollins University. She is a contributing editor to Dance Magazine and has written for Pointe, and the Source magazines as well as the Italian dance Magazine Expressions. Ms. Howard also teaches both Ballet and Contemporary dance internationally.
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So far, the fervor to create diversity in ballet has primarily focused on dancers. Less attention has been paid to the work that they'll encounter once they arrive.
Yet the cultivation of ballet choreographers of color (specifically black choreographers) through traditional pathways of choreographic training grounds remains virtually impossible. No matter how you slice it, we end up at the basic issues that plague the pipeline to the stage: access and privilege.
When 59-second clips of "This is America" began to take over my Insta feed last week, I didn't know how to feel. Graphic images from the music video showed the execution of a man with a guitar and the mass shooting of a church choir.
What truly struck me was physical and facial animation of Donald Glover a.k.a. Childish Gambino, as well as the gaggle of children shadowing his movement. Many saw the dance as a distraction from the mayhem in the background.
Last month, Kyle Abraham was announced as one of the six choreographers contributing new work to New York City Ballet's 2018-19 season.
In its 70-year history, NYCB has only commissioned four black choreographers—all men: John Alleyne and Ulysses Dove in 1994, Dance Theatre of Harlem's Robert Garland in collaboration with Robert LaFosse in 2000, and Albert Evans in 2002 and 2005. It's been 11 years since Evans, an NYCB alum, made work for the company and 18 years since a black choreographer outside of NYCB has been invited to choreograph.
Take a moment to take that in.
After seeing Dada Masilo's rendition of Giselle, I couldn't help thinking, "If ballet did a version like this, it would transform not just the genre of the 'story ballet,' but, even more powerfully, the narrative of the "ballerina" itself."
I was especially interested in Masilo's Giselle after writing A Radical Reimagining of Ballet for 2018, which pondered how classical ballets could be modernized, and what effects that would have on leading ladies like Odette/Odile, Aurora and Juliet. Though Dada Masilo/the Dance Factory is not a ballet company, I thought her take on story might be an interesting place to begin to imagine.
Camille A. Brown is on an impressive streak: In October, the Ford Foundation named her an Art of Change fellow. In November, she won an AUDELCO ("Viv") Award for her choreography in the musical Bella: An American Tall Tale. On December 1, her Camille A. Brown & Dancers made its debut at the Kennedy Center, and two days later she was back in New York City to see her choreography in the opening of Broadway's Once on This Island. Weeks later, it was announced that she was choreographing NBC's live television musical Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, to air on April 1.
An extraordinarily private person, few knew that during this time Brown was in the midst of a health crisis. It started with an upset stomach while performing with her company on tour last summer.
"I was drinking ginger ale, thinking that I would feel better," she says. Finally, the pain became so acute that she went to the emergency room in Mississippi. Her appendix had burst. "Until then, I didn't know it was serious," she says. "I'm a dancer—aches and pains don't keep you from work."
Recently, I went to see Black Panther. When the aircraft penetrated the invisible force-field cloaking the fictional African nation of Wakanda—a country unmolested by European colonization, one that is powerful, prosperous, thriving and the most technologically advanced society in the world—I literally gasped.
Evan Narcisse, a pop culture critic who co-writes "The Rise of the Black Panther" miniseries told The Washington Post, "Wakanda represents this unbroken chain of achievement of black excellence that never got interrupted by colonialism." It presents African peoples with agency, self-definition and identity. In Wakanda there is no "black" excellence, there is just excellence.
Last month, the International Association of Blacks in Dance's third annual ballet audition for women of color was expanded to include a separate audition for men.
The brainchild of Joan Myers Brown (founder of both Philadanco and IABD), the women's audition was created to specifically address the lack of black females in ballet. However, the success and attention that audition drew made the men feel left out, so IABD decided to give the men equal time this year.
2017 felt like we were living the Upside Down of the popular Netflix series "Stranger Things." From Donald Trump becoming president, to the sexual harassment scandals that ricocheted into the ballet world, everything we thought we knew was turned on its head.
Yet while the deconstruction of institutional paradigms is frightening, it also presents an unprecedented opportunity for redesign.
Ballet, much like our political parties, seems to be stuck in an antiquated format that's long overdue for a makeover. With the world changing at lightning speed, if ballet wants to survive it will have to undergo a radical reimagining. But what would that look like?
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.
Points should be given to the dance world for beginning to address the issue of diversity. But have we ever taken into consideration who critiques dance—and the lack of diversity in that area of our community? Or how critics' subconscious biases create barriers to the elevation of non-white artists?
Recently, Charmian Wells wrote a scathing critical analysis of New York Times dance critic Gia Kourlas' review of DanceAfrica. Entitled "Strong and Wrong: On Ignorance and Modes of White Spectatorship in Dance Criticism" it took Kourlas to task for critiquing from a place of cultural and technical ignorance.
Forces of Nature Dance Theatre, which performed at DanceAfrica. Photo via Facebook.
Reviews are part of the life blood of artistic sustainability—funders, agents, bookers and audience members use them as guides. Dance critics have a responsibility to the community to do, and be better, or at least have the courage to let the reader know what they don't understand.
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.