Black ballet dancers take center stage in Kennedy Center’s Reframing the Narrative
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Working with Seattle choreographer Donald Byrd, Howard assembled an all-star team of black dancers from mostly white ballet companies from across the country and Europe. They will perform a new work by Byrd commissioned by the arts center and featuring music by resident composer Carlos Simon. This untitled play will be part of the Kennedy Center series, Reframing the Narrative, taking place June 14-19 at the Opera House.
The series, curated by Howard and Denise Saunders Thompson, president and executive director of the International Association of Blacks in Dance, also features three predominantly black companies – Dance Theater of Harlem, Atlanta’s Ballethnic and the Memphis-based Collage Dance Collective of short ballets – in two programs and cutouts.
“It’s a sequel to Ballet Across America,” said Jane Raleigh, director of dance programs at the Kennedy Center, referring to the center’s occasional series that present groups from across the country in joint programs. “It’s similar to this model, but with a specific focus.”
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Speaking over the phone ahead of a rehearsal, Howard said her goal was to ease any self-consciousness some black dancers might feel among their white peers.
“Am I too loud? am i too black Am I constantly switching the code? … As a black ballet dancer in traditional ballet rooms, you’re always negotiating your blackness,” she said. “What if we took you to a place where your blackness isn’t an issue? A space where blackness is centered? I was interested in what kind of conversations and exchanges would bring them together.”
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That sharing is evident on a recent weekday when sunlight fills a dance studio in the Kennedy Center’s Reach complex, where Byrd and Howard watch a walkthrough of the 11-member cast. All are masked, including the dancers, including Precious Adams, a junior soloist with the English National Ballet; her sister Portia of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo; longtime Washington Ballet members Ashley Murphy-Wilson and Gian Carlo Perez; and members of the Atlanta Ballet, Joffrey Ballet and others.
Warming up before rehearsals begin, Katlyn Addison, Ballet West’s first black lead lady in Salt Lake City, spoke about the pressures she feels at home. “There’s an expectation as a woman of color — yes, I try harder.” But her drive is a little different in this studio: “There’s a positive nervous energy,” she said. “I hope to live up to what the other black dancers expect of me.”
You’ll get a taste of it when the rehearsal begins. The music begins with soft, dreamy violins as Addison stretches her limbs in all directions. She is held in the air by four men in turn; They twist their body as if it were a gem catching the light. In a rapid series of spins, she twirls from partner to partner, circling the room in a chain of tight turns and light, alternating footwork.
Suddenly she loses her balance. She stops, her chest rising and falling.
“Could I try again without the music?” asks the ballerina, gasping behind her mask.
They rehearse that opening – the turns, the timing, Addison’s shift of focus from one man to the next, how close they have to be. As Byrd begins working with other dancers on the next section, Addison continues to practice quietly in the background, going over the twists, rhythm, and hand positions with each of her partners.
On the next run, she rushes smoothly from point to point without stopping. There’s a refrain of “Nice, nice, nice!” from the other dancers and cheers of “Yesss!” at the end.
During an intermission, Corey Bourbonniere, a member of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, reiterated Addison’s sense of subtle difference in this setting.
“Back home,” he said, “if you screw up a bit, you might have someone who’s like, ‘Oh, I know [the steps],’ and maybe they’re like, ‘Put me in.’ Whereas here it’s more like, “Oh, let me help you.” If there’s a little partner stumble, everyone goes over to help figure it out.
“That’s not to say it never happens at home,” Bourbonniere continued. “But I have the feeling that there is less competition here. That feels so supportive.”
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Byrd’s ballet is abstract but guided by a vision “of black people migrating off this planet and going to places where there are other suns,” the choreographer said one morning before a rehearsal. The idea came from the music, which composer Simon says was inspired by Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns about the Great Migration.
“I try to represent the dancers as celestial bodies,” Byrd said. “You have a beauty that is otherworldly.”
Howard hopes that the dancers will take a sense of that beauty, enduring and unconditional, from the process and take it with them to their workplaces. As the ballet world shifts toward diversity, dancers of color entering mostly white companies need the support of others who share their reality, she said. Reframing the Narrative offers this, along with opportunities for artists’ personal development and the experience of connecting and sharing through discussions and other public events that are part of the series.
It’s also a chance for audiences to change their perspective – seeing black ballet dancers from around the world, as well as a selection of works by choreographers of colour. Programs include Dance Theater of Harlem in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Balamouk” accompanied by North African music; Collage Dance Collective in a South African-inspired Firebird; and Ballethnic Dance Company in excerpts from The Leopard Tale, a hybrid of ballet and African dance.
“Dancers from all over the world in this room and African American music and choreography,” Howard said. “What does all this mean when you look at the Kennedy Center in terms of who you think should be featured here?
“If we change that lens,” she added, “hopefully we’ll be able to see the opportunities for black dancers that are emerging now.”
reformulation of the narrative June 14-19 at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.