PNB’s Amanda Morgan Is Raising Her Voice Against Injustice

June 14, 2020

On June 4, Pacific Northwest Ballet corps member Amanda Morgan posted an Instagram video of her impassioned speech at a Seattle protest in response to George Floyd’s death.

After introducing herself to the cheering crowd as the only Black ballerina in her company—an accomplishment, yet an indictment of ballet’s progress in increasing diversity—she championed accountability for action and inaction.

“Society may have tried to silence the voices of the marginalized, but you will never silence me,” she finished, fist raised.

The clip has received over 14,000 views.

Dance Magazine
spoke with Morgan about her activism; her hopes for diversity, equity and inclusion in ballet; and her advice for other dancers who want to speak out against injustice.

You’re the only Black female dancer at PNB. What has that been like?

I started in the school when I was 15 and didn’t see anyone in the company who looked like me. I remember feeling down at times, because other students would say, “I’m like this dancer,” when we were watching the company. I would think, Oh, I’m not like anyone. That was hard, and I didn’t think I’d get into the company because of it. But I really wanted to get in, not just for myself, but so that other little boys and girls wouldn’t have to experience that.

What led to that change in your mindset?

I’ve always been very determined, gone after what I wanted and stood up for what I believed was right. But I had a teacher at PNB named Le Yin who pushed us to do the kinds of turns and jumps that guys did, and didn’t talk to us like we were students. It gave me that confidence to say, “I shouldn’t hold myself back because of what I look like, even though it may be harder.”

You’ve been very vocal about racial injustice, especially in recent weeks, and you’ve protested against racism and police brutality.

In the dance world, we’re realizing that there are injustices within ballet, but it’s so much bigger than ballet. It’s bleeding into every part of Black and brown lives and the Black and brown experience. Part of it was, “I want my ballet company and the ballet world to realize that this is important,” but I also need the world, my government and my country to listen, and realize that we clearly have a system that is not benefiting all communities. It never has. We need a way to dismantle that, because we have the capacity to do so now.

Being the only Black ballerina at PNB, I’ve always been talking about race. I feel like it comes with the job.

On Instagram, you recently posted a video of yourself speaking at a protest, sharing words you’d written in response to George Floyd’s death. And you thanked your arts family for protesting alongside you. Were the artists from PNB?

Some of the artists were from PNB, but the other people came from Seattle Opera, Seattle Symphony and other small arts organizations in the area.

I’ve gone to the protests every day except for about two or three days. The protests and protesters have been peaceful, but the police have not been peaceful. As someone who grew up in Washington state, it’s upsetting to me that the police are not really protecting us.

Another reason I’m protesting is that the brother of the only other Black girl at my old dance studio was murdered by the police in March. His name was Manuel Ellis. It really hit me that anyone that I know could get murdered in that way. So I’m marching for him as well, and hoping that he gets justice.

It’s so important to use our platforms to let people know what is actually happening.

You’ve directly called on leaders in the ballet world to be more vocal about addressing racial injustice. Can you talk about your decision to do that and what you want to happen as a result?

I think a lot of people need to realize that everyone wants to say the right thing, but at the end of the day, you need to just get it out there.

I know that people are doing things outside of social media and behind the scenes. I don’t want to discredit that. But I’m paying attention to who is speaking out and who isn’t, who is highlighting other Black artists and who isn’t and who is using their platform to educate their followers, rather than doing it as a performative act, like just putting up a black box and saying “Blackout Tuesday” with no additional resources.

In an Instagram
, you recommended Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. At one point in the book, Coates writes that he wishes for his son to “feel no need to constrict” himself “to make other people feel comfortable.” That reminded me of your speech, when you said, “I hope for a world in which I will not have to explain to my children how to act in public around police for fear of their lives being taken away.”

As a Black woman in ballet, have you felt a need to constrict yourself?

Before all of this happened, I was working on a piece for Seattle Dance Collective with another Black woman named Nia-Amina Minor. We were making a piece about spatial injustice, and the Black female voice and perspective in the city and in dance. Working on that piece made me realize that, a lot of times, I’ve felt myself shrinking. I’m not just a Black woman, I’m a very tall Black woman. I also have a unique quality of movement, in addition to being able to do ballet.

I didn’t necessarily have my voice shrink, but I felt my dancing shrink. I tried to fit in with the corps, I tried to dance smaller, I tried not to move as big because I didn’t want to stand out as much. I think my body naturally adapted to that environment, and shrank.

Ballet is restrictive, but I realized that you can be expansive within these restrictions. I’m looking forward to eventually dancing again and playing around with that idea.

I’ve been choreographing with a contemporary style, but it’s a little bit softer in the way that it’s danced. I’ve never been able to do things that are more soft and vulnerable and elegant, so I want people to do that in my pieces.

We have to base casting on more than how someone fits into a mold. We want to push people to be the best artists they can be, and make a part their own. If we hold onto that idea, then maybe race or gender will not stick as much in people’s minds.

I haven’t been used in a lot of things that choreographers have come and staged, because they’ve already made the piece on another company. They say, “She doesn’t really fit into any of these parts,” but there’s barely anyone I look like in the dance world. That doesn’t mean that I can’t do it just as well, and make it fully my own.

Shortly after you debuted as a choreographer, you
on Instagram, “Life has shown me that if you don’t see what you want to see around you, create it.” Was there a relationship between creating what you want to see through choreography, and pursuing social change as an activist?

Yeah, I think there’s a direct relation. As a choreographer, I don’t want to use my art to deflect, but to reflect on the world around me.

I’ve only had a dance career for four years, but I decided to start choreographing early in my career because of visibility. Even though I stand out due to being the only Black woman, having my voice or narrative heard was not a thing. I had to assert myself in these spaces in a different way. And I realized a way to do that was by being the person at the front of the room, making the piece.

What do you think ballet organizations should do going forward to continue the work of diversity, equity and inclusion?

To create more connectivity within organizations, because that can lead to conversation about more difficult things to talk about, like race or gender.

During the pandemic, I started a mentorship program at PNB with Cecilia Iliesiu, where we spent six hours each week speaking with dancers in the school. The students were all talking about what’s going on in the world. A lot of them are white, but they wanted to know what I was feeling. Everyone at PNB is talking about how we’re going to implement things differently. I’m hoping that happens in other companies.

Organizations need to think critically about, What are we showing as a ballet company? What are we saying, visually, and who are we leaving out? Whose story isn’t being told? In most of our ads, it’s always white people. Black dancers could see that and think, I don’t really want to audition there. It’s the same thing with audience members. We need to serve not just one community, but all communities.

For so long, ballet has just given a white narrative. We need to give different types of people the opportunity to choreograph in ballet companies, because then you’re going to see different stories.

A lot of people say that we need to hire more Black dancers, and yes, that’s important. But we also need to have more Black artistic directors, and Black female executive directors or Black board members. I also think we need to have racial equity coordinators or managers, so that if an institution does step out of bounds or something is a little iffy, that person can speak up about it.

I recently met with over 70 Black dancers from professional companies all over the world via Zoom, which really gave me a sense of our power as Black artists. Even though we can feel so tokenized and alone in our own companies, we’re not alone in this, and we never have been. So many people have paved the way for us, and we’re just continuing that work. We have to pay homage to that as well.

I’ve always stuck by the Nina Simone quote that says it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times. I think if we do that, like with what’s happening right now, people are going to be more inclined to see ballet, and that’s how we’ll keep our relevancy going into the future.

Do you have any advice for other dancers who want to speak out against injustice?

I’ve been reading Audre Lorde lately, and she said that we think of silence as protection, as a way to shelter ourselves from pain. You’re still going to feel that pain and anger regardless of whether you speak out. I hope that people speak out in a constructive way, of course. I don’t think rehashing the past continuously is the best way to do it without having action items in that conversation.

This is a global movement and a pivotal moment that’s happening. If you’re not talking now, but you have in the past, I don’t understand the reason. This is the most important time to do it. Before, some people were paying attention, but now, everyone is. There are no distractions. People have the time to sit down at home and think. So get their attention and say what you need to say now, especially if you have a platform. And vote!