Major ballet companies are banding together for The Equity Project, to increase the presence of black dancers in ballet. Photo by Joseph Rodman, Courtesy DTH.

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.

Who's Involved

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.

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That was many years ago, but it's still the same today: It's a belief in and passion for the mission of the theater, which is to support dance in all of its forms and varieties—every kind of dance that you could imagine.

Diversity is so important in dance leadership today. How do you approach this at The Joyce?

Darren Walker said something interesting at a Dance/NYC Symposium, which was that The Joyce is a disruptor. It was nice to hear in that context, because we don't think of it as something new. We didn't have to change our mission statement to be more diverse. We've been doing this since day one.

Is drawing in new audiences and maintaining longtime supporters ever in conflict?

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We've tried a "pay what you decide" ticket the past couple of seasons with some of our more adventurous programming. You would reserve your seat for a dollar and after seeing the show pay what you decide is right for you.

Do you have advice for other dance presenters?

Find opportunities to sit with colleagues from around the country. At Dance/USA there's a presenters' council where we come together and talk about what we're putting in our seasons and what we're passionate about. Maybe there are enough presenters to collaborate and make it possible to bring a company to New York or to do a tour around the country.

Also, remember what it's all about: making that connection between what's onstage and the audience. If we can do that, despite every visa issue and missed flight and injury and changed program and whatever else comes our way, then we should feel good about the job we're doing.

To purchase tickets to the Dance Magazine Awards or become a sponsor, visit dancemediafoundation.org.

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