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.
On Monday night, a memorial was held at Riverside Church to honor the life and achievements of Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. With nearly three months to process and grieve (Mitchell passed away on September 19) the atmosphere was not that of mourning as much as reflection, reverence and admiration for who he was, what he built and what remains. (Watch the full livestream here.)
The church filled with family, artistic friends, fans and admirers. What was most gratifying was the volume of DTH alumni from the school, company and organization who traveled across the globe to pay their respects, from founding members to present dancers and students. The house of worship was filled with the sentiment of a family reunion. As Mitchell was sent home, it was a homecoming for many who have not shared air together in decades. What was palpable was the authentic bonds that Dance Theatre of Harlem and Mitchell fostered in all.
Recently, English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams announced that she will no longer be wearing pink tights. With the support of her artistic director Tamara Rojo, she will instead wear chocolate brown tights (and shoes) that match her flesh tone.
It may seem like a simple change, but this could be a watershed moment—one where the aesthetics of ballet begin to expand to include the presence of people of color.
Last Wednesday, Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder and ballet pioneer Arthur Mitchell died. He was 84 years old and, though vibrant and tenacious as ever, this past year the toll that illness and age were taking on him was visible.
In October when he hosted "An Informal Performance on the Art of Dance" to celebrate the donation of his archives to Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library and the upcoming Wallach Art Gallery Exhibition, he shared that his recent hip surgery left him requiring a shoe with a lift. He acknowledged his "altered state" with panache, that side-eyed smirk catching the light with a cheek bone, and ending with a chuckle that broadened to a dazzling open-mouthed smile.
Mr. Mitchell's acute awareness of his pulchritude and charm, and the adroit manner in which he wielded them, have always been key factors of his influence.
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
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.
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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.
Finding the right person to take the mantle of a 40-year-old American dance institution is no easy feat. But when Dallas-native choreographer Bridget L. Moore agreed to succeed Dallas Black Dance Theatre's founding artistic director, Ann Williams, the company knew it was a perfect fit.
Hiplet is sweeping the nation. Between TedX, Refinery29, Desigual campaigns, Anna Wintour's #madeforher fundraiser and the plethora of morning show spots, the hybrid dance craze—known for its sassy runway-style walks on pointe and crab-like bent-knee jazzy chassés—has gone viral.
Hiplet is the brain child of Homer Hans Bryant, a former Dance Theatre of Harlem principal who, in 1981, founded Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center (then called Bryant Ballet), aka the studio where young Sasha and Malia Obama studied before moving to the White House. Bryant started putting hip hop movement on pointe in 1994 with a piece he choreographed for his students, called The Rap Ballet. That evolved into what became hiplet (a portmanteau of hip hop and ballet), which is now a regular class at his school.
But his curious blend of hip hop sur la pointe has proven to be quite provocative. Some see the blending of the urban and European dance vernaculars as a positive by-product of the black ballerina movement. For me and many others, it sets our teeth on edge.
Janet Collins, Raven Wilkinson, Debra Austin, Nora Kimball, Misty Copeland, Francesca Hayward. All of these successful black ballet dancers have something in common: they skew toward the fairer end of the sepia spectrum.
Onstage, the duskiness of their complexions can be all but washed out, bleached by the lights. From the audience, they could present as a white girl back from a beachside vacation, or be perceived as Latina.
This observation is in no way meant to challenge these women's "blackness," or their talent. It's to highlight a long-overlooked fact that, historically, artistic directors have shown a predilection towards black ballerinas with lighter skin tones.
Misty Copeland in Swan Lake. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy ABT
Like other little girls, you fall in love with ballet in a dark theater, and lean over to your mother to ask, “Can I do that?" But then you step into a world where no one resembles you—not the receptionist, your teacher, your classmates or the people in the posters on the wall. You feel uneasy. The pink tights and shoes you wear for class bear no resemblance to your dark-colored legs. You would like to blend in, but your skin, your hair, your body make it impossible.
When you ask black dancers today about their experiences studying ballet, many are conflicted. Most loved learning the technique, but they found the world of sylphs and tutus daunting to navigate. Ballet is a rarefied career and its icon—a ballerina—is petite, lithe, fragile, ethereal and white. Some call it tradition, others call it the classical aesthetic. What it can feel like to black dancers is a commitment to whiteness.
It’s hard to talk about racial issues without sounding like an angry black woman. Though I have been accused of being black, I am not angry—annoyed maybe. Modern racial prejudice has been subtly refined to a degree that it can be inflicted without evidence, making it hard to prove, and often quite plausibly explained away. When you live on the darker side of the issue, if something’s not right you can feel it even though you can’t prove it—which may make you look paranoid, but doesn’t necessarily make you wrong.
For instance, it’s 2010 and though it bears the moniker of one of the most diverse cities on the planet, New York City Ballet still looks like an episode of Friends in tights and tutus. There’s something racially hinky about it, but I can’t prove it. It doesn’t come close to representing Balanchine’s original vision of creating an integrated company that was perhaps impossible in 1935, but today… A plausible reason for the whiteout is the inability to find a suitable black swan. Really? We can find a black man qualified to be the President of the United States but we can’t find a black woman to be a principal in NYCB?
Ballet has always been akin to the private country clubs of old, but modern dance is not without fault, either. For instance, back in the 1920s Ruth St. Denis admitted Edna Guy (“colored girl”) to her school and company, Denishawn, but permitted her to dance only at school performances. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company is the NYCB of modern dance. Where black men have been able to puncture the exclusionary membrane, their female counterparts have not; again, I can’t prove the why.… Two common excuses are that black dancers “aren’t interested in moving that way” or they don’t show up to auditions. There may be truth to the latter, but some folks don’t need a book to tell them “He’s just not that into you.” You start to learn where you are not wanted. It’s exhausting being a pioneer, sometimes you just want to dance, not be Sojourner Truth at an audition. It could come down to “You’re just not what we were looking for,” which could also mean “We aren’t looking for black people.” But you can’t prove that.
On the lighter side of the issue it could seem like excuses: Maybe black dancers aren’t making the cut or every “fierce” black dancer only wants to dance for Ailey (do we really think that?). Though an African American organization, Ailey is, and has almost always been, diverse both onstage and off. Oddly, dance organizations founded by non-whites historically have had a “curriculum of inclusion,” but it’s not just about headcount. If New York City Ballet were a corporation and not an arts organization, Peter Martins would have some ’splaining to do. Affirmative action is a slippery question in the arts.
True diversity is when a person’s differences are welcomed, desired, and integral to the environment such that their absence would diminish the product. Exhibit A: New York. So many different races and cultures in one place create a singular energy and flavor. That’s its beauty. We may get on each other’s nerves, but we all have to be here to make it magical. We have made progress, it’s inevitable when we are living the “browning of America.” But sometimes it’s not where you are but where you are not that speaks volumes. It’s a black thing, but I think you can understand.
Theresa Ruth Howard, who teaches at The Ailey School, has danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem and Karole Armitage.
Photo by Ken Kobiashi, courtesy Howard
Auditions end in one of two ways: Either the dancer gets the job, or she doesn’t. But the actual why is harder to pinpoint. A fierce technician might get cut right away; the fastest learner in the room might go home after round one. Getting hired often comes down to a delicate combination of what a dancer has to offer and what a director happens to be looking for—from technique to versatility, from attitude to the indescribable “it factor.” To find out what goes into that dancer/director alchemy, we talked to both sides. Here three dancers reflect on the fateful audition that got them hired, and their directors tell us what they saw.
The dancer: Odara N. Jabali-Nash of Philadanco
I didn’t pay much attention to artistic director Joan Myers Brown while I was auditioning. I remember her stating that she was looking for the “it factor” in a dancer, the thing that would set them apart from the rest. But I focused on what was being asked of me, and just hoped that she was seeing something in me. When I audition I never focus on the panel in the front. I stay in the zone and focus on getting the job.
The director: Joan Myers Brown
Odara attracted my attention with her aloofness. She was there to audition, and it was (and still is) all business, no foolishness. She was well-groomed, appropriately dressed, and well-trained. I remember thinking she was subdued—holding back—but we felt that we could pull something out of her.
The dancer: Stephanie Guilland-Brown, NYC dancer; formerly of Donald Byrd/The Group
Donald gives a good poker face. In hindsight, now that I know him so well and have seen how he focuses on the dancers he likes, I guess he did watch me quite a bit. But all I remember is hearing him say, ‘Use your through line.’ Up until that moment, I had never heard this—not at the ballet barre, not in the center of a jazz class. I felt so silly, but I used the opportunity to learn and apply the note. Having his company members there in the front of the room stressed me out, but it pushed me to really commit.
The director: Donald Byrd
At the time I was looking for a whole company of Ruthlyn Salomons. She was petite and waiflike and could really move. When Stephanie auditioned, she wasn’t what I thought I wanted—a short powerhouse. But I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. That was telling me something. At a certain point I had to rethink what my aesthetic was. I thought, I have to work with people who are interesting and who I am interested in. After the audition I couldn’t remember anyone but her.
The dancer: William Isaac of Armitage Gone! Dance
We began working on two phrases that were contemporary in style, and Karole Armitage was very pleased with my movement quality. But most importantly I was a tall man. She had seen other men, but most of them were on the shorter side. She explained to me the concept of her ballet, Time is the echo of an axe within a wood, and how it had all of these different styles from yoga to martial arts ballet, and modern, of course. Then she said “vogueing,” to which I said “I vogue.” I used to be part of the ballroom scene. Well, after that she offered me the job, so I guess all those years of vogueing in clubs paid off!
The director: Karole Armitage
I want each dancer to have a different flavor, so that the whole group is unique and full of spice. I want to see if they can break the habits of a lifetime of training and reconfigure the geometry of the shapes with a new approach. William could move in so many different ways, and that is exactly what the piece required. He just understood the movement and concept. I also needed a man who was a good partner both classically and contemporarily, and he was strong in both areas.
Photo of Odara N. Jabali-Nash of Philadanco by Lois Greenfield, courtesy Philadanco