A SPACE FOR UNAPOLOGETIC BLACKNESS IN BALLET

Where does the Black Lives Matter movement show up in ballet? For Black ballet dancers, their mere presence in this art form is a powerful act of resistance, says Theresa Ruth Howard, a ballerina, equity consultant, and founder of Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet. “⁠Our bodies, occupying white spaces, mastering and excelling in forms we were barred from, is resistance. Because in truth our very existence is the greatest resistance there is.” This August, Howard’s racial justice work continues with the creation of a space that unapologetically centers Blackness in ballet: The MobBallet digital symposium, August 14, 15, 21, 22 & 28, 2020. The online conference brings together artists, as well as leadership from companies such as New York City Ballet, Boston Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, as well as Seattle’s own Pacific Northwest Ballet and Spectrum Dance Theater. In their own words, three speakers from the symposium share their thoughts on the ongoing work for racial justice in ballet. In addition to Theresa Ruth Howard, speakers include Kiyon Gaines Ross, former dancer and now Director of Operations, at Pacific Northwest Ballet, and Donald Byrd, Artistic Director of Spectrum Dance Theater.   

Photo courtesy of Collage Dance Collective. Dancer: Paunika Jones. Photo: Melissa Sweazy.

Why is it crucial for Black dancers to have a space that’s specifically for them?

Theresa Ruth Howard: We live in a world where whiteness is the default, the measure, and the standard for almost everything. When you are outside of whiteness, it means you will always fall short. Having a space where you can be fully seen and authentically yourself, a space where you are not simply enough—you are celebrated—that’s transformative. It’s invaluable. I also think for non-Black people, especially White people, to be in such a space is integral to creating an anti-racist culture. What I think is important is that White people learn to be in spaces where they are not centered, so that it becomes normalized for all.

Let’s talk about some of the other roles dancers can have in ballet after they retire from the stage. Why should dancers consider choreography, teaching, arts administration or leadership?

Kiyon Gaines Ross:  As a dancer I experienced hurtful things that could have completely obliterated my joy and love of dance. As a teacher, my aim was to be better; giving back through PNB’s DanceChance program, for example, was a way for me to represent a different ideal of ballet and ballet dancers. Having a teacher who looks like you is something I wholeheartedly believe in. As a choreographer, making work and mentoring new voices was very important to me. I wasn’t seeing the type of work that I wanted to dance, so I decided to create it. Each career move has been a stepping stone to being able to have the greatest impact in a company setting. My goal remains fixed, so that one day when I am sitting in an Artistic Director chair, where I can have the most influence, I can put all of my experience and knowledge into being better, making better, and doing better in our industry so that we can continue to evolve.

Would anti-racist conversations (such as the recent dialogue between Spectrum Dance Theater and Pacific Northwest Ballet), been able to happen prior to the murders of George Floyd and others?

Donald Byrd: It’s possible, but I don’t think there would have been such a willingness. These conversations are very much a product of the time we’re living in. When I approached Peter Boal about having this dialogue on behalf of Spectrum and PNB, I explained that I wanted it to be as candid as possible; it was important to me to preserve the discomfort—not to simply show something carefully curated or PR-friendly from the two companies. I wanted to just let the conversation be what it is: raw and earnest. I care a great deal about Peter, and I know he feels like he hasn’t done enough when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion. For me, that’s really courageous to admit. I want to support him. 

Sometimes—for me at least—it feels like there is a distinction between ballet, a Eurocentric art form originally created for white people, and art that is more centering of BIPOC audiences, experiences, and communities. What are your thoughts?

Theresa Ruth Howard: In a way, the question represents implicit bias, as it assumes that ballet is not for BIPOC. I am of the ballet, and I feel that this art form is specifically for me especially because I come out of Dance Theatre of Harlem where I was able to inhabit a space that was allowing and accepting of me. Because of this, I am able to separate the art from its European aesthetic. I will also note that contemporary dance may have a broader aesthetic, but there are racial biases in that genre, as well in something like tap. I think the goal should be that people, regardless of color, culture, and even class, should be able to engage in whatever art form that resonates with them, and feel a sense of belonging. When the classical forms have enough diversity to tell stories that span the human spectrum, when they can be commissioned, created, produced and marketed by that same spectrum, we will be closer. We have a ways to go, but we are taking our first steps to getting there, together.

The global pandemic represents an overwhelming setback for the arts. Rather than simply being negative, however, in what ways is this moment an opportunity? 

Donald Byrd: Right now is an opportunity to question what was, to reassess or reset, to reimagine what is possible. It’s not about trying to get back to where we were. From an organizational standpoint, the questions are, how do we do this art form in our new reality? How do we create and perform? Obviously, social distancing is not possible in many aspects of dancing. On the choreography side, how is movement generated and taught now? How does the creative process look? I am not depressed by our situation. In reality, there were a lot of things in dance that weren’t working before. Of course, I don’t love that I’m sitting in my apartment right now; I would rather be doing other things. But in terms of the possibilities of what the future might hold, I’m excited to come up with solutions for the future—and to bring them into existence. I actually have been able to do some creation during this time, including a new work as part of the Works & Process at the Guggenheim Virtual Commissions.

What can anti-racist ballet fans do to help push/support the ballet world in “doing the work”?

Kiyon Gaines Ross: Ask questions of the organizations that you love and support. If there is something that you want to see—or are not seeing—say something. Many organizations run on the assumption that “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If you continue to show up and donate, you are telling the organization that what they produce is in line with your values. Also, anti-racist ballet fans can educate themselves on the disparity and inequities that exist in our industry, and then challenge those inequities. This is hard work and we will need everyone, including ballet fans, to be active participants if we wish to see change.

What’s giving you hope right now about the future for ballet?

Theresa Ruth Howard: Taken individually, what’s giving me hope may seem insignificant, but the sum of their parts will amount to change. What makes me hopeful is that ballet is beginning—possibly for the first time—to be reflective and question itself: its traditions, heritage, and its aesthetics, realizing that the form is, and always has been mutable. The many artistic leaders and executive directors who are engaging in difficult conversations about race and problematic repertory gives me hope. It gives me hope that amid the Black Lives Matter uprisings, dancers’ voices have been lifted up and are being heard. When I see the next generation of young dancers, their talent makes me hopeful. Institutionalized racism was built and refined over centuries. It will not be undone in five, ten, or even fifteen years. It’s a constant process of chipping away and reprogramming. Some changes will happen swiftly. Some changes will take a generation or two. The point is to make certain that whatever changes we make, that they are sustainable and irrevocably moving forward.

The MobBallet Symposium runs August 14, 15, 21, 22 & 28, 2020. Sessions range between free to $12. For more information and to sign up, go to mobballet.org.