Neoclassical ballet

‘Reframing the Narrative’ at KenCen spotlights black excellence in ballet

The ballet has had a problem with white supremacy since the first steps were codified at the court of Louis XIV. Once a means of spreading power, wealth, and closeness to the King of France, over the years the dances once practiced and performed by courtiers evolved into a professionalized art form that mimicked restrictions and hierarchical structures. of the European judicial system. More than four centuries later, ballet remains an elite and, in many cases, predominantly white form.

Predominantly black ballet companies have been few in the past century – among them was one right here in Washington, the Capitol Ballet Company, founded by the formidable Doris Jones and Claire Haywood of the Jones-Haywood School of dance, who still teaches new generations. of mostly African-American ballet students in her Georgia Avenue NW studio. In the aftermath of the Reverend Martin Luther King’s assassination, a New York City Ballet star and George Balanchine’s first black male principal dancer named Arthur Mitchell founded the now venerable Dance Theater in Harlem, now run by Virginia, Washington native and former DTH ballerina. Johnson.

World premiere commissioned by the Kennedy Center for “From Other Suns” by Donald Byrd. Photo by Shoccara Marus.

But black ballet dancers are not unicorns. And that’s exactly what two mixed-bill ballet programs at the Kennedy Center Opera, plus additional panels, masterclasses, and ancillary events including Reframing the story, intended to demonstrate. The opening night performance began with a narrator invoking the spirit of Sankofa, from the Twi language of Ghana, which means looking back while moving forward, as a way to honor past ‘unicorns’ – black ballet dancers whose successes have not always been recognized and praised to the same extent as their white counterparts”.

Next, a single screen featured a roll call of dancers assembled by former Dance Theater of Harlem dancer Theresa Ruth Howard’s. Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet, an archival project to gather evidence that black bodies matter in ballet and should not be ignored or forgotten. The drop list of 624 names on opening night, just four nights later on Friday June 17, had grown to 650 names.

Reframing the story is intended to illuminate black excellence in the world of ballet, said co-curator Denise Saunders Thompson, president and CEO of the International Association of Black Dancers, in an address to the audience during the program. She was joined on stage by co-curator Howard, who worked on a work commissioned by the Kennedy Center intended to introduce the black ballet voices of selected choreographers to dancers who have been invited by top ballet companies around the world. around the world to participate. Howard then offered the audience a question to ponder in this historic coming-of-age moment for the ballet world: “What does reframing mean to you? She noted that it’s presented as both a provocation and an invitation, but it’s also intentionally a gift “for ourselves and for you,” the audience.

Ballethnic Dance Company in “Sanctity” by Waverly T. Lucas II. Photo by Shoccara Marcus.

The two separate programs included three ballet companies that feature black and brown dancers, choreographers and artistic directors – Dance Theater of Harlem, Atlanta’s Ballethnic Dance Company and Memphis’s Collage Dance Collective, as well as Donald Byrd’s world premiere commission from Seattle with 11 dancers. .

“From Other Suns” was created by Byrd during a two-week residency at the Kennedy Center at REACH this month. Based on Isabel Wilkerson’s 2010 account of the Great Migration, The warmth of other suns, when black Americans moved from the South to the North, to the Midwest and West beginning in the early 20th century. This migratory shift changed the nation. In “From Other Suns,” to a score by Kennedy Center Resident Composer Carlos Simon, the work is a meditation on movement, from the opening when a single man enters the stage to the evolving groups, trios, and pairs that intertwine the dancers in linked chains, swirling vortices and, ultimately, a line traveling in single file across the diagonal and offstage. Byrd, a modern dance choreographer, has an affinity for the clear precision and lines of ballet, but he is not wedded to classicism. Rather, it draws inspiration from the codified vocabulary of ballet while making it its own, allowing dancers to free their torso, hips and arms before reconnecting with their centers. In complex coupled moments, pretzel-shaped lifts support the women in difficult balances, while the dancers find the ground, even when flat on their backs, their toes in the air.

If Byrd has a narrative for “From Other Suns,” it’s neither obvious nor necessary. Instead, the evolving structure of groups moving en masse, or individuals or couples breaking apart, lends a migratory sensibility to the piece, and, with Pamela Hobson’s saturated, shaded lights and the wearing of leotards and from black tights to costumes, the work resonates with a dark tone. In a nod to mid-20th century neoclassicism, a few balanchinisms shine, but in no way make a statement or pay homage to America’s most prominent ballet choreographer. Instead, these previews are simply an acknowledgment that this 21st century American ballet draws from many roots; others include simple vernacular, pedestrian moments tucked into and between multiple pirouettes or separate jumps.

With DTH’s long history as a regular visitor to the Kennedy Center, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, and later providing annual pre-professional summer ballet training for aspiring dancers, the Cropping The week opened with the company’s “Balamouk”, a bright, jazzy and folkloric romp by Belgian-born, Amsterdam-based Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, which allowed the company to display its personality and poise. . The troupe, known for their classic and neoclassical chops, also shared the “Odalisques” variation for the classic work. The Corsaira study of solid balances, turns and pointe work by Amanda Smith, Alexandra Hutchison and Ingrid Silva.

Collage Dance Collective in Kevin Thomas’ “Firebird” with Rickey Flagg II as Prince and Precious Adams as Princess of Unreal Beauty. Photo by Shoccara Marcus.

Opening the second program on Friday night, DTH nodded to its lineage with resident choreographer Robert Garland’s “Gloria,” featuring part of Francis Poulenc’s Catholic Mass. The curtain opened to reveal a septet of girls, smiling and displaying their youth wearing a bra — coordination of the arms. Garland frequently draws inspiration from street and club dances, easily renaming them in the ballet vernacular. “Gloria” alludes to this on occasion, with eccentric elbows and folksy vine steps, but the piece emulates both luminous reverence and spiritual strength, especially when a woman is carried above. the head in a crossed position.

On Tuesday’s opening night program, the Ballethnic Dance Company also presented a work based on spirituality. “Sanctity,” choreographed by company co-director Waverly Lucas, with live percussion and a jazz score by L. Gerard Reid, taps into the African roots evident in the score and in the physicality. Each dancer contributed both poetic statements, which were voiced (though hard to hear on live drums), and talisman-like objects. These were carried and placed on an altar-like structure while the performers, dressed in white, danced. Cultural connections to root African forms and structures remained evident even with the one-off ball-based work in the foreground. On Friday, the company premiered clips from its feature film “The Leopard Tale,” an entertaining and imaginative journey through the African jungle and plain featuring swaying snake-like creatures and a pair of playful, predatory leopards. This crowd pleaser featured plenty of splits, high kicks and stunts throughout the adventure.

Muddy Waters, BB King, Koko Taylor and Bobby “Blue” Bland put the artists of the Collage Dance Collective in a bluesy mood. With slide guitar tremor and twang, “Bluff City Blues,” a jazzy, hip take on the blues, features its earthy moments from choreographer Amy Hall Garner, but sometimes even with fan kicks, hip switches and the rolls, it gets a little stuffy, and the men’s blue polo shirts don’t quite feel right. But the company does a great job of getting the audience to applaud – a feat in a ballet-focused program.

Ballethnic Dance Company in “The Leopard Tale” by Waverly T. Lucas II. Photo by Shoccara Marcus.

Collage completed the Friday evening program with its new production of “Firebird”, featuring the famous score by Igor Stravinsky. Canadian-educated founding artistic director Kevin Thomas choreographed this fairy tale of a prince – Ricky Flagg II Friday – searching for his soul mate who collides with an enchanted firebird – Chrystyn Fentroy – in the forest who offers him a magic feather. The cast is rounded out by English National Ballet’s Precious Adams as the princess of unreal beauty and various wizards, maidens and monsters. The colorful ballet had sets by Alexander Woodward and costumes by Gabriela Moros Diaz. Originally a 1910 Ballets Russes play, this 2021 version retains the plot and vision of the ballet and reflects a contemporary attitude in performance.

Reframing the storyDenise Saunders Thompson’s co-curator shared with the audience that by viewing these programs she wanted to create a “breakdown”. In high school pep rally parlance, this means a team’s fans wear all black to a nighttime game. But here at the Kennedy Center Opera House and in the rehearsal studios for a fortnight in June, that outage was much bigger. Stage performance was a no-brainer, but Thompson went a step further, ensuring that the conductors, stage managers, lighting designers and others working behind the scenes were also Black- or Maroon-identifying performers. For centuries, ballet has been a white art form, from its tutus and tights to its choreographers and dancers. Reframing the narrative is another step in paving the way towards a more equitable and representative art form for all.

Duration: 2h20 including 2 intermissions of 15 minutes.

Reframing the story performed June 14-19, 2022 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Opera House, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC.

The program for Reframing the story is online here.

COVID safety: Masks are required for all patrons inside all theaters during performances at the Kennedy Center unless actively eating or drinking. See the Kennedy Center’s full COVID safety plan here.