American Ballet Theater Launches Project Plie

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Project Plie - black ballerina dancing American Ballet Theater (ABT) has recently launched a new program geared towards promoting diversity in the classical ballet arena.

“Project Plie is our effort to diversify America’s ballet companies. Key to the process is a series of partnerships in addition to providing scholarships for students of color who are talented and providing scholarships for teachers of color or teachers who work in communities of color,” Rachel Moore, CEO of ABT, told The Network Journal.

The first scholarship recipient is Erica Lall. She will receive the Josephine Premice Fales award, which is given to one outstanding dancer of color each year.

Moore says the company has partnered with the Boys and Girls Club of America to travel to its locations around the country and introduce ballet via ballet videos and classes. “If we identify kids who seem to be exceptionally gifted, we will confer with their parents and connect them with a dance teacher in their community who will train them. The hope is that through that connection, they’ll be able to get good dance training. Ultimately, if they continue with their training they can come to NY on scholarship to one of ABT’s programs,” she says.

The other partnership arrangement is with seven other dance companies around the country to have a dialogue about the barriers of participation regarding dancers of color. “We plan to discuss how we, as a group, can eliminate those barriers and encourage young dancers of color to participate,” says Moore.

This all sounds like good news for minority youngsters who are interested in ballet, but have little access, training and funding needed for proper ballet instruction. Whether or not this will translate to more dancers of color, especially African American dancers, getting hired at ABT and other major companies remains to be seen.

While other minorities have been able to break through the racial divide at ballet companies, there has been an inequity when it comes to Black women. Neither ABT nor New York City Ballet has ever had a Black ballerina as a principal. To date, there are several Asian and Hispanic dancers at ABT, but just one African American. That dancer, Misty Copeland, is the company’s first Black soloist in 20 years.

And when the company had the chance to hire “an exceptionally gifted” dancer of color, Alicia Graf Mack, it passed on the opportunity. City Ballet also passed.

When Graf Mack auditioned for ABT, she was told there were no openings. As a young dancer, she studied with the Maryland Royal Ballet and did summer intensives with both ABT and the School of American Ballet. Described as “a through-and-through ballerina” by Claudia La Rocco of the New York Times, she was a principal dancer with the Dance Theater of Harlem and received the award of excellence from Columbia University. Many insiders in NY’s ballet circle thought she would be a shoe-in for a spot at ABT. She later auditioned for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and was accepted.

In the article, “Where Are All the Black Swans”, published in The New York Times in 2007, Gia Kourlas writes:

To Ms. Johnson of Pointe magazine, Ms. Graf’s inability to secure a job with either New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theater was disappointing. “Alicia would be amazing at either one of those companies.” Ms. Johnson said the reluctance of ballet companies to recruit black ballerinas of Ms. Graf’s caliber had more to do with vision than with talent. “On one side of the marketing issue it’s tremendously fantastic what they could do with having Alicia as a ballerina,” she said. “But on another side, the side that they’re much more afraid of, is their whole subscriber base and their whole history of being a ballet company the way you thought ballet was. It means that you have to create a kind of trust, and they’ve never challenged their audiences to move forward.” In Ms. Graf’s case, “the timing wasn’t right for them to say, ‘Here’s our chance,’ ” she continued. “Of course I regret that they didn’t. She’s fabulous at Ailey, but she’s also wasted at Ailey. She’s bigger than Ailey.”

(Note: Ms. Virginia Johnson is a former dancer and the current artistic director of Dance Theater of Harlem.)

Moore says the reason for the lack of dancers of color at ABT is because few are competitive enough to dance at ABT’s level. “There are approximately five million kids around the country taking ballet class. The vast majority of them are white, so the numbers of minority kids who are going to rise up through the ranks to be competitive is very, very small. So if you start out with a small number, you’re going to end up with an even smaller number. The training ladder is very limited for students of color,” she explains.

Later on in the Swans article, Kourlas goes on to write: “What’s confusing about the rejection of Ms. Graf by City Ballet is that she is a Balanchine archetype: long legs, with a silky, harmonious line and plasticity.”

Yes, it’s confusing.

(Photo: Rosalie O’Connor)