The International Association of Blacks in Dance's annual audition for ballet dancers of color. Photo by E. Mesiyah McGinnis, Courtesy IABD
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
Ronald K. Brown tells the stories of those who don't typically see themselves reflected onstage. Photo by Jeff Strout, courtesy Evidence
Choreographer Ronald K. Brown sees himself as a weaver—of movement, but more importantly, of stories. "When I started my company Evidence 33 years ago, I needed to make a space for what I thought of as evidence—work that tells stories, so that when people saw the work, they would see a reflection or evidence of themselves onstage," says Brown, now 51. "That was my mission, my purpose."
Fast-forward to today: Evidence has become a mainstay in the modern dance world and Brown is now considered a vanguard among choreographers fusing Western contemporary dance with movement from the African diaspora, including popular dance and traditions from West African cultures like Senegalese sabar.
Choreographer Camille A. Brown’s socially conscious work has resulted in major recognition
Fana Fraser and Beatrice Capote in Brown’s BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play. Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Camille A. Brown.
Camille A. Brown has always been an artist whose work is based on truth telling—about African-American culture, about racism past and present and how those issues intersect with being a woman. Now, Brown’s Black Girl Spectrum initiative, in which she spearheads workshops talking about these issues, and her newest major work, BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play, have earned Brown critical acclaim and a slew of accolades.
In the spring, Brown was the recipient of three major awards—the Jacob’s Pillow Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Princess Grace Statue Award.
For Brown, these most recent honors, in addition to another set of prestigious awards in 2015, including a Doris Duke Artist Award, are much appreciated icing on the cake. But Brown says she doesn’t necessarily see these awards as validation.
“I’m just doing me. You have to just speak from your heart and do what you’re doing,” Brown says. “There are so many people out there who tell you what you can and cannot do: ‘You have to be just this. You can’t do this. Don’t do it this way.’ So I feel that this is really about people supporting and encouraging me.”
When asked why she believes she is receiving so many accolades in such a short time, Brown points to the relevance and timeliness of the issues she’s been raising in her work. “I think people are maybe hearing me now or maybe listening more,” she says. “Now that I have this acknowledgement behind me, I can say it even louder. I can say it in different arenas.”
Her upcoming projects include a TED-Ed lesson and a new dance work called ink that will be shown as a work in progress this season. She will also be exploring the possibility of turning BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play into a theater piece. “I feel like my work in musical theater has been where I’ve learned about being a choreographer the most,” she says. “I want to figure out what BLACK GIRL would look like outside of the concert dance world.”