Nashville Ballet's New Full-Length Shows What Inclusion in Ballet Could Look Like
Lately, there has been much ado about diversity, equity and inclusion in ballet. While it's clear what increased diversity would look like (having more dancers, teachers, choreographers and administrators of color working in the field), equity and inclusion are a bit more nebulous. Yet Nashville Ballet's new ballet Lucy Negro Redux might give us a glimpse of what inclusion could look like.
Choreographed by artistic director Paul Vasterling, the ballet derives its provocative title from poet Caroline Randell William's book, which explores the woman behind Shakespeare's "Dark Lady" sonnets. Through her research, Williams came to discover that Lucy Negro was in fact an Elizabethan era black brothel owner who enchanted the Bard.
Told through poetry, prose and cultural criticism, Williams' book explores themes of equality and beauty, imagining the love affair between Lucy and "Mr. Whiteness Him Bad Bard Self," aka William Shakespeare.
Vasterling discovered the story when the book was gifted to him, and he became transfixed. He saw its possibility as ballet primarily because he had a dancer to embody the role: Kayla Rowser.
"I wouldn't even be approaching this work if I didn't have her in the company," he says, illustrating the inherent value of having diversity in the room—both your perspective and your possibilities are broadened. You can't tell diverse stories without diversity represented.
Of course, white people telling the stories of people of color is inherently problematic, and this fact was not lost on Vasterling. When he approached Williams, the first question he asked was whether he was the right person to tell this story.
"If he hadn't asked that question I would have been worried," says Williams. "It was important to me that he felt othered some way. When Paul said 'I feel like Lucy is me too,' I was like, Thank god!"
There is an intersectional love triangle in the story that involves two men and a woman, two social taboos—interracial and homosexual love—which makes one third of the story Vasterling's as well.
Caroline Randall Williams and Paul Vasterling
In addition to Williams, who will perform spoken word from her book, 2017 MacArthur award-winning bluegrass musician Rhiannon Giddens composed the original score, and Rowser originated the title role, working closely with Vasterling to bring Lucy to life.
The use of three African American women as collaborators is significant. Seldom are people of color so highly represented on artistic teams outside of historically black companies like Dance Theatre of Harlem or Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.
The black female body in classic literature and art is also a rarity. Where it has been present, it has often been scrubbed, whitewashed or, as Williams says, "othered to the point of grotesqueness." Williams adds, "Kayla, Rhiannon and myself all come from very historically white creative spaces. The idea that the three of us are coming together to create a work of art that engages with all three of our classical forms, that tells an altogether new story set in an historical space, it says that we have been here all along, we are supposed to be in these spaces, we should have always been in these spaces."
Although she has embodied pinnacle roles like Odette/Odile, Aurora, Firebird and Sugarplum, for Rowser, originating Lucy speaks not only to the ballerina in her but the woman as well. "What's been overwhelmingly powerful throughout this process has been doing something I've done my entire life with the addition of the character being based on something I can fully relate to," Rowser says. "Sharing space with Caroline and Rhiannon has been incredible for a project like this."
Williams had studied to be a Shakespearean actress but found herself marginalized within the work, cast in matronly roles or having to be "regarded" as white. Her discovery of Lucy Negro and the Dark Sonnets created a space for inclusion in that world. If Shakespeare could write, "Then will I swear that beauty herself is black" and "Thy black is fairest" to describe a woman who was the object of his affection and desire, it signified to Williams' that Shakespeare (the genre) could love her as well.
Yet, how do we assess whether or not a project like Lucy Negro Redux is simply a marketing ploy? Lauren Wingenroth's article calling out the tokenizing of black dancers pointed out that these artists sometimes feel trotted out to illustrate a company's "good works." This is a natural and warranted reaction. An organization's intentions should be interrogated; they should be held accountable for they ways they present artists of color. Part of equity is creating the terms upon which you agree to participate. During the process of diversification, as more dancers of color get hired, promoted and featured (on stage and in ads), at first it will feel like tokenism until it becomes normalized. Only time will bear out the authenticity of this "progress."
After all, Lucy Negro Redux is premiering during black history month. Yet Vasterling says that wasn't a marketing move; it's just when the company's contemporary series falls.
"It is story that touched me and it is a story I wanted to tell," says Vasterling. "I am not telling it because I want to bring in audiences of color. I am not telling it because I want to put Kayla forward as an African American dancer specifically. I want to put her forward because she is Kayla." (Although Nashville Ballet is an unranked company, Rowser is one of its premier artists.)
The truth is, Lucy Negro Redux is a textbook example of how ballet companies should be thinking in regards to creating inclusion. With this ballet, Vasterling performs as 'ally,' creating a space for the black body, the black voice and the diversity of the black experience (in the vehicle and his collaborators) and he is doing so within the organic, existing context of Nashville Ballet.
Research has shown that diversity changes "the tenor of decision-making" and "benefits the market." Another recent example of this was New York City Ballet's commissioning Kyle Abraham to create The Runaway. Not only was it a critically-acclaimed piece that challenged the audience's perceptions of what ballet could be, it showed what NYCB should look like and present.
Most profoundly, Abraham created an artistic vehicle that showcased the diverse virtuosity of principal Taylor Stanley. The symbiosis between the two was palpable, not just in the movement generated but in the level of ownership that exuded from Stanley. It was deeply personal, intimate, as though he was dancing a love letter written to him. Abraham's offering knitted together aspects of Stanley's talent and experiences as a ballet dancer of color that might never have connected had he not been invited to work on the company.
That collaboration enabled to artistic team to see Stanley in a new light: Shortly after, he was cast in Balanchine's Apollo. The interim artistic team, led by Jonathan Stafford, includes Craig Hall, Rebecca Krohn and Justin Peck. Different eyes see different things, and their inclusive, collaborative casting process is proving to bring forth juicy and delicious fruit.
"The new model of casting did have something to do with Taylor's casting in Apollo, and the casting of the new guys in Cavalier," says Stafford. December's Nutcracker season featured four Cavaliers of color: Stanley and Silas Farley, plus Preston Chamberlee and Daniel Applebaum making their debuts in the role.
Both Nashville Ballet and NYCB are members of The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet. This three-year program (of which I am a part of the design and facilitation team) is a learning cohort where artistic and executive directors can gain the information and tools needed to address diversity, equity and inclusion from an educated place. It challenges the leadership to be courageous in confronting the implicit and explicit biases that exist within themselves, their organizations and the very culture of ballet.
There are great strides happening behind the scenes. When people know better, they do better. Productions like Lucy Negro Redux might just be the evidence that ballet is an old dog that can learn some new tricks.
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
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?
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
As more states legalize cannabis, it seems the sales pitch for cannabidiol—or CBD—gets broader and broader. A quick internet search turns up claims that CBD helps with pain, depression, acne, arthritis, anxiety, insomnia, heart disease, post-traumatic stress, epilepsy and cancer. But the marketplace is unregulated, which makes it tricky to find out what CBD actually does.
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.