These 21 Organizations Are Banding Together to Increase the Presence of Black Dancers in Ballet
Twenty-one ballet organizations have come together to support the advancement of racial equity in professional ballet. They're all part of The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet, a new effort being led by Dance Theatre of Harlem, The International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
Continuing What Arthur Mitchell Started
While representatives from each organization first met during the summer at Dance/USA's Los Angeles conference, news of The Equity Project remained quiet until a formal announcement in late September. The news comes at an especially poignant time, shortly after the death of Arthur Mitchell, DTH co-founder and trailblazer for black ballet dancers.
In a press release for The Equity Project, current DTH artistic director Virginia Johnson remarked that "...Arthur Mitchell created Dance Theatre of Harlem 50 years ago with the intention of dispelling the myth that black people did not have the ability to succeed in the art form of classical ballet. In the years since its founding, Dance Theatre of Harlem has become a beacon of opportunity for black dancers to not only succeed in classical ballet, but to excel." Now, The Equity Project gives ballet companies across the country the chance to continue the "work that Mr. Mitchell began in 1968," said Johnson.
Photo courtesy MoBBallet.
The participating cohort organizations are 20 major ballet companies and one school: American Ballet Theatre, Atlanta Ballet, Ballet Austin, Ballet Memphis, Boston Ballet, Charlotte Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Miami City Ballet, Nashville Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, New York City Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Richmond Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, School of American Ballet, Texas Ballet Theater and The Joffrey Ballet.
Artistic and executive staff from each company will gather for a second meeting at IABD's conference and festival in Dayton, Ohio, this January, and the last meeting will be hosted by DTH in Harlem, New York during 2020.
Experts on Board
The Equity Project seems to differ from American Ballet Theatre's Project Plié initiative, which launched in 2013 as an outreach program to train students, teachers and arts administrators from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. (However, a handful of The Equity Project's cohorts are also partner companies in Project Plié.)
The Equity Project has established a unique consulting team to coach and educate ballet companies about topics like undoing racism, the intersection of history and ballet, discussing systems of power and privilege, and determining concrete ways companies can change.
The consulting team includes frequent Dance Magazine contributor and founder of MoBBallet (Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet) Theresa Ruth Howard, as well as Tammy Bormann, principal with The TLB Collective; Joselli Audain Deans, EdD, dancer, educator and independent dance scholar; and P. Kimberleigh Jordan, PhD, educator, former dancer, and assistant professor at Drew University.
We're excited to see the positive changes initiated by The Equity Project. Hopefully this means that the ballet world will someday more closely mirror the diverse world in which we live.
Michele Byrd-McPhee's uncle was a DJ for the local black radio station in Philadelphia, where she was born. As a kid she was always dancing to the latest music, including a new form of powerful poetry laid over pulsing beats that was the beginning of what we now call hip hop.
Byrd-McPhee became enamored of the form and went on to a career as a hip-hop dancer and choreographer, eventually founding the Ladies of Hip-Hop Festival and directing the New York City chapter of Everybody Dance Now!. Over the decades, she has experienced hip hop's growth from its roots in the black community into a global phenomenon—a trajectory she views with both pride and caution.
On one hand, the popularity of hip hop has "made a global impact," says Byrd-McPhee. "It's provided a voice for so many people around the world." The downside is "it's used globally in ways that the people who made the culture don't benefit from it."
Just four years ago, the University of Southern California's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance welcomed its first class of BFA students. The program—which boasts world-class faculty and a revolutionary approach to training focused on collaboration and hybridity—immediately established itself as one of the country's most prestigious and most innovative.
Now, the first graduating class is entering the dance field. Here, six of the 33 graduates share what they're doing post-grad, what made their experience at USC Kaufman so meaningful and how it prepared them for their next steps:
Every dancer knows there's as much magic taking place backstage as there is in what the audience sees onstage. Behind the scenes, it takes a village, says American Ballet Theatre's wig and makeup supervisor, Rena Most. With wig and makeup preparations happening in a studio of their own as the dancers rehearse, Most and her team work to make sure not a single detail is lost.
Dance Magazine recently spoke to Most to find out what actually goes into the hair and makeup looks audiences see on the ABT stage.