Black in Ballet: Coming Together After Trying to ‘Blend Into the Corps’

Last year, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the protests that followed, American ballet companies started talking a lot more about race. About the issues of diversity, equity and inclusion that organizations of all kinds were addressing, but also aesthetic assumptions, implicit biases and longstanding practices particular to ballet and its history.

“There were innumerable panel discussions,” said Robert Garland, the resident choreographer of Dance Theater of Harlem. “But I felt that for the younger Black dancers, it was a heavy burden to be responsible for all of that.”

Garland wanted to help them, and in the way that he knows best: by making a dance for them. That work, “Stare Decisis (To Stand by Things Decided),” has its debut on Wednesday as part of “NYC Free,” a monthlong festival at Little Island, the new public park on the Hudson River.

The most significant feature of “Stare Decisis” is its eight-member cast: an extraordinarily rare gathering of Black dancers from New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theater and Dance Theater of Harlem. Misty Copeland — Ballet Theater’s first Black female principal dancer and one of the most famous ballerinas in the United States — is among them. (Little Island asked her to present a program.)

She isn’t dancing, though. Instead, she is a narrator, reciting a collection of quotations about democracy and the effort of defending the common good, drawn from the Declaration of Independence and the likes of Thurgood Marshall, John Lewis and Barbara Jordan.

“I’m at a point in my career when I feel the opportunity to pass the torch,” Copeland said after a rehearsal in a Dance Theater of Harlem studio on Sunday. “Anytime I can give a Black dancer an opportunity and bring Black dancers together, that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Recalling her own experience of being the only Black dancer during her first years with Ballet Theater, she added: “Anytime I got the chance to be around people who looked like me, I jumped at it. It’s important for us to be around each other, supporting one another.”

That’s what the cast seemed to be doing at the Sunday rehearsal — relaxing in one another’s company, trading stories. Rachel Hutsell, a City Ballet corps member, likened the whole experience to therapy. Kennard Henson, also with City Ballet, called the environment “crazy,” because this kind of cross-company collaboration “doesn’t happen” and “just being around people you can relate to makes a big difference.”

But it isn’t only the people who make a difference. It’s also Garland’s choreography, which deftly mixes classical ballet steps with moves and attitude from at least a century of Black popular dance.

Keeping the classical vocabulary high in the mix is important to Garland, who said that classically trained Black dancers are too often seen as suited only for contemporary works. But it’s also important to Garland that the young dancers know their Black history, which is why he asked Preston Dugger, a Dance Theater of Harlem alumnus who is serving as D.J., to layer some Gil Scott-Heron and Aretha Franklin over more up-to-date hip-hop beats.

“In Mr. Garland’s work, we get to show who we are through our movement,” said Alexandra Hutchinson, a Dance Theater of Harlem member. “It’s so freeing to be able to do that onstage, because oftentimes we’re told to tone it down.”

Because of the pandemic, the dancers have been rehearsing mainly with members of the same company. That’s reflected in the work’s structure, with representatives of each troupe performing as separate units before everyone mingles in the finale. Then, as the Ballet Theater corps member Erica Lall put it, “We get to groove together.”

On Sunday, that grooving was glorious — joyful, buoyant, liberated. Afterward, Garland, Copeland,Hutsell, Lall, Hutchinson, Henson, Kouadio Davis (Dance Theater of Harlem) and India Bradley (New York City Ballet) all sat down to discuss the experience of making “Stare Decisis” and the meaning of dancing together. (Another cast member, Melvin Lawovi of Ballet Theater, was absent.) It was a conversation that quickly became a wide-ranging discussion of being Black in ballet. Here are edited excerpts.

KOUADIO DAVIS I feel like maybe we’re entering a new era as Black dancers. I’ve often felt competitive with the other Black people in the room, because there’s so little space [for us]. But this has been an opportunity for me to get it into my body and mind that I need to root for the other Black and brown people in my community.

INDIA BRADLEY Growing up, I was always in a class that was completely white. And I never really thought about it. I feel like you go through that phase where you don’t really think about it, and then you have a moment where you realize it. And it’s usually not because of you realizing it. It’s somebody showing you.

RACHEL HUTSELL Working with Mr. Garland has been especially fun because he’s trying to draw more out of me. I’ve been told before — even fairly recently — that my excitement takes away from my technique.

MISTY COPELAND A lot to unpack there.

HUTSELL It has to do with literally looking different onstage and “try not to draw too much attention to yourself because you look different.” So it’s taking me a mental minute to realize that I can actually go for it, because my excitement adds to my technique and it’s being asked for and it’s needed.

COPELAND There’s so much disguised language that we’re left to decipher. Nowadays we’re in a place where we can step back from ourselves and see that we don’t have to take it personally. But it’s about something you can’t control: your skin, your personality, “excitement.” To me, it’s like they’re saying, “Don’t be you.”

BRADLEY You look different, but we’ll put you in the brochure.

HUTSELL Oh my gosh, yes. They won’t cast you in anything, but you can be on the billboard.

BRADLEY For a lot of people in charge of ballet companies, white is the classical beauty standard.

HUTSELL My sister, who just got into the Birmingham Royal Ballet, sent me a meme that said, “When did you realize you weren’t ugly, you just weren’t white?” That explains it perfectly.

ALEXANDRA HUTCHINSON I feel we had a lot of time this year to reflect because we were stuck at home. I had time to think, “Oh, it was because I was Black that I had that experience in the studio.” I’m not the type of person that says it was because of the color of my skin. But sometimes you have to realize, no, it was because I’m Black that I was treated that way, and it’s not OK.

HUTSELL And nobody comes up to you when you are 14 and says: “At a certain point, you’re going to be every little Black girl’s idol. Get ready. You now have to carry the weight of all that on your shoulders.” You have to take the responsibility of making sure people coming up after you are OK, and you’re not OK.

BRADLEY We could talk about this topic for weeks and still not get to the bottom of it.

ERICA LALL But I think it’s important for audience members to see all of us onstage together, in the spotlight, and not just trying to quote-unquote blend into the corps.

HUTCHINSON It’s definitely nice just to be yourself.

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