It takes more than pliés to lift a ballet company to great heights. From dancers to conductors, teachers to makeup artists, this series features fascinating insight from ABT experts and an intimate look inside America’s National Ballet Company®. Take a spot at the SideBarre to get to know the incredible people behind each bourrée of American Ballet Theatre.
I drove up from Boulder, my hometown, passing much of Colorado’s celebrated scenery. I’ve never seen Colorado so green. Even the burn areas are growing new life. It felt like a good omen as I headed to my first residency and shows with ABT since the pandemic began.
Pulling into Green Mountain Falls we passed a public swimming pool, the Sallie Bush Community Building, and some residences. There’s a small stretch of town down one of the only paved roads. A cafe, two restaurants, and a bar lead to a small lake with a gazebo in the middle. In the winter it freezes over, welcoming ice skaters. It makes me think of my mother who grew up in the small Colorado town of Fairplay. I will always have a soft spot for small Colorado communities.
The Outlook Lodge, where some of the dancers are staying, is an idyllic mountain inn. Built in the 1800s, each room is unique. We spend our mornings sipping coffee in the living room and our nights around the fire pit, customarily roasting marshmallows and catching up.
I feel like my lives are melding together here. Having left home at a young age, “home” is split in two for me: half in New York at 890 Broadway (or sometimes the basement of the Metropolitan Opera House) and half in the mountains of Colorado. With some of my ABT people here with me in Colorado, it feels like a true homecoming.
After our ballet classes on the first day (technique and pointe), a few of us wandered the trails behind the Lodge. The Thomas Trail brought us to a waterfall and some beautiful views. On our attempted descent, we ended up on a trail that brought us to the top of Mount Dewey (lovingly dubbed Mountain Dew). It was one of those happy little accidents that comes when you explore a new place.
I had the pleasure of teaching a ballet class to a wonderful group of people in Colorado Springs on Wednesday afternoon. I love teaching and felt especially connected to this group of Coloradans. They were so generous with their energy in class and their questions in the Q&A afterward. It was very inspiring.
Yesterday we had a photoshoot in various iconic CO Springs locations, including Garden of the Gods. While I’ve been to most of these places before, it was extra special experiencing them again with my colleagues. After lots of laughter, posing, and some sunburns, a few of us explored downtown CO Springs before ending up, as always, around the fire pit.
Next we have a few days to recuperate before starting rehearsals on Tuesday. I am looking forward to seeing Silas Farley, our choreographer, and working with him! Stay tuned…
During Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we are recognizing and celebrating the identities and achievements of ABT’s AAPI artists.
Company Pianist Emily Wong shares her musical talent and reflections on her heritage here on SideBarre.
Emily Wong is an award-winning composer and pianist who has written a large catalogue of works for piano, chamber ensemble, and orchestra. Emily began her professional career as a pianist: she was a First Prize winner of the Hodges International Concerto Competition, the Schubert Competition, and has won numerous other awards as both a soloist and chamber musician. Emily became a pianist for American Ballet Theatre in May of 2009 and has traveled the world with the Company, sharing her artistry with audiences far and wide. In addition to Emily’s role at ABT, she also resides as the Principal Pianist for the Stamford Symphony and the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music.
What is something about your upbringing that you are really proud of?
Growing up in San Francisco, we always talked about being a prime example of “the melting pot” of America. Everyone co-existed so harmoniously in those days in that city. I, of course, was a prime human example, being from a mixed-racial family. I did have a conscious moment in elementary school of realizing I didn’t fit into any of the typical social groups – I wasn’t really like all the other Chinese kids I knew, but I also didn’t look or feel that I was white. Fortunately, I never felt racially singled out, and yet I also felt I didn’t quite belong. And it took me many years to embrace being exactly who I am, and to get comfortable with standing tall in my uniqueness.
Is there something about your culture or heritage that you love or a family tradition that you enjoy celebrating?
To make it even more interesting, my mom was of a Scottish/English blend, but she was an American born in India! She lived there for her first eight years until her father passed and her mom decided to bring her four girls home to the Midwest to be near family. So she had a British/Indian sensibility, with an American identity. She never felt like she totally fit in wherever she was either! Our Christmas dinners were always amazing Indian feasts – that was our normal!
Please enjoy Emily’s performance of “Summer Moon,” “To A Red Rose,” and “To A Yellow Rose” by Florence Price below!
For Women's History Month, SideBarre is highlighting the extraordinary women who have helped to shape ABT through the years.
"It's how we speak to one another and how we respect one another. It’s about how we can all sit down at the table and at least be able to be heard. I think that's the most important thing for all of us.”
Even contained in a little rectangle on Zoom, Shelley Washington’s vivaciousness and elegance demand attention. Her huge, soulful eyes are mesmerizing, her presence generous. For almost two hours, I had the privilege of interviewing Shelley about her life and her time at American Ballet Theatre.
Shelley was the second Black female Soloist that ABT had ever had, a position she held from 1988-1990. The path to such a coveted position in a ballet company is typically straightforward. Young dancers, with years of training under their belts, fight for coveted apprenticeships. From there, they pay their dues in the corps de ballet and after many more years of hard work, a select few are chosen to become soloists or principal dancers. This was not the case for Shelley. Instead, she took her own uniquely beautiful path.
From a young age, it was obvious that Shelley had a natural gift for dance and performance, and after years of training, with the help of her mother and her teacher, Shelley found herself at Interlochen Arts Academy. At age 14, for the first time, Shelley was with people who were like her, and indeed there is a unique kind of magic that happens when you find your people. You begin to understand yourself in a different way, in the context of a group, not just as an individual.
“Interestingly,” Shelley said of finding this community she so easily fit into, “it wasn’t that they were Black. It was that they all were dancers, artists, musicians, actors. They were me. They were the people that were seeking something different from the curriculum of their high school. They were me because they had parents or mentors who sent them to the school. All of those students looked like me.”
Coming from a small town in Michigan, where Shelley’s family was the first and only Black family, this newfound space allowed her to blossom.
Following her high school years, Shelley moved to New York to attend Juilliard. From there, it took no time for Shelley’s professional career to come to fruition. At the end of her two years at Juilliard, Shelley was asked to audition for the Martha Graham Company. What followed was a whirlwind year of international touring with Martha, who collaborated with great artists such as Halston and Andy Warhol and hosted internationally renowned ballet stars Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. It ended in true fashion, with a gondola ride to Martha’s hotel room in Venice. Shelley had been offered a position in Twyla Tharp Dance, so she traveled the canals to tell Martha. Somebody who had seen Shelley take class in 1973 at American University with Twyla remembered her and asked her to audition. Twyla swiftly asked Shelley to join her ranks.
We now fast forward to 1988. Twyla Tharp was invited by Mikhail Baryshnikov, then Artistic Director of ABT, to begin working with the Company, and in that transition, Twyla brought four of her dancers with her – Shelley among them. Because of her position with Twyla and the amount of money she made, which was more than a corps de ballet member, Shelley became a Soloist. For the ABT dancers who were on the traditional path, this was not received well.
“Now you can imagine, I’m 34 years old, I’m a Soloist at Ballet Theatre, I’m not a classical ballet dancer, and I’m Black. Think about how incredible Misha was to do that and Twyla to have me in there,” Shelley recalls.
The transition was not easy for Shelley, and even Twyla felt that she had let her down, as she later wrote in her book, Push Comes to Shove. Shelley, whom Twyla referred to in her book as one of her “power women,” was at the pinnacle of her career and had been with Twyla for 13 years. As one of the senior dancers in Tharp’s company, Shelley had to rapidly change the course of her career. Even Twyla herself said that Shelley was the only one without pointe shoes in the locker room.
Shelley remembers her first class with ABT as particularly challenging, “I had to walk into a class with all those dancers, and you can imagine what they were all thinking. I can imagine what they were mostly thinking, you know, How is this happening? and How can she be a Soloist? and I’ve been here for all these years. We were in California. I can’t remember who was teaching, maybe Jurgen Schneider, and I went to one barre and as I was standing there, Misha came over and stood next to me. He left his barre and came and stood next to me, as if to say, Okay, we’re in this together. Let’s do this. I’ve got your back.”
The first thing Shelley did at ABT was stage In the Upper Room, a ballet that had been choreographed on her and held a special place in her heart. As one of Twyla’s most experienced company members, Shelley not only came to ABT as a dancer and performed in many of the Company’s works, but also as a regisseur.
Though she was taking on new responsibility and entering into a whole other phase of her career, it was, nevertheless, a huge loss of what she left behind. She didn’t dance as she did before. “I decided that I really couldn’t dance Upper Room because I was so used to dancing every piece every night, seven shows a week, and I couldn’t bear the thought of doing it once every week or so. It was just too much.”
At this point in our interview, Shelley paused and thought for a moment, before taking me back to 1969, “I never told my mother. I never told anyone at the school. I never told my sister. I remember my teacher taking me aside and saying, You know, you have beautiful feet and legs and arms and you’re a beautiful dancer. I really think you should be a modern dancer or go into movies or Broadway, because you’ll never be a ballet dancer because of the color of your skin. And if you got into a company, you would be the gypsy. But I never stopped taking ballet class. I just thought, Okay, well, I don’t want to be a gypsy in a ballet company. I’ll show you.”
And show him, she did. She came full circle, ending her career after a few years at ABT with one of the biggest roles she had ever performed: Madge in La Sylphide. Fondly remembering her final curtain call at the Met, she said wistfully, “It was pretty wonderful.”
Shelley didn’t stay a Soloist for very long. It wasn’t something she had strived for her whole life. She had already had a prolific career with Twyla. She understood that there could be only so many Soloists at ABT and that there was a corps de ballet full of beautiful dancers who had been working to move up the ranks their whole lives. She decided to retire and became a full-time regisseur.
“You know, I love dance. I love ballet. I loved my time there, but it was not easy. It was not easy in the beginning, but then for me, nothing really ever has been.”
Shelley was so used to changing schools in the middle of the school year from such a young age because her father’s job was constantly moving. She was so used to being the only one who looked a certain way, whether in junior high in Michigan or in Germany.
Coming to ABT, Shelley said, was the same thing. And throughout these experiences, she kept returning to the wisdom of her grandmother—do your work, keep your focus, be a good girl, be honest, and it will work. Above all, Shelley’s grandmother told her she believed in her, and it is evident that she carries those words and the faith, strength, love, and support from her family with her today.
Shelley respected the dancers at ABT greatly, but they also respected her—her work ethic, her insight, and her determination. A true pioneer, she respects her own bravery in coming to ABT, and the bravery of others to welcome the Tharp dancers when it could have been so easy to reject them.
I want to end this interview with Shelley’s own words. In our few hours together, I had already learned so much from Shelley. I was awestruck of the strength and grace in her words and in her heart. With so much change in the world, so much that has come to the surface, I was curious to hear what she thought the future might hold for the ballet world:
“I don’t know what the future is. I know that it can only get better because we are talking, we are dealing, we are listening. We are listening. So perhaps that’s the biggest thing—maybe we’ve always talked, but no one has listened. We can’t go back and fix things from the past, but we can acknowledge them and know that they’re true and that hurt and pain and suffering are there. It’s there and now maybe we can move past that.”
“That teacher could have said, You’ll never be a ballet dancer because of the structure of your hips, as opposed to, because of the color of your skin, but if I’m going to stay positive, I was a Soloist at ABT. I can say I proved you wrong, as opposed to, I’m going to get that person in trouble. Even at 14, I knew it was heavy. I think the first time I ever talked about it was last year.
“Then you start hearing other dancers’ stories, and you’re just like, whoa. I think it was easy to live in our own little bubbles and now they’ve been broken. So, perhaps it’s not only listening. It’s how we speak to one another and how we respect one another. It’s about how we can all sit down at the table and at least be able to be heard. I think that’s the most important thing for all of us.”
Shelley Washington, I hear you. Thank you for allowing me to listen.
The writer, Bethany Beacham, joined ABT as Marketing Coordinator in January 2020.
For Women's History Month, SideBarre is highlighting the extraordinary women who have helped to shape ABT through the years.
"American Ballet Theatre honors one senior female corps dancer each year for her professionalism, dedication, and perseverance with the title of Jennifer Alexander Dancer."
As any ballet dancer will tell you, the corps de ballet is the “backbone” of the performance. The corps anchors classical performances as flocks of swans, sylphs, and shades. They frame the stage and often move – even breathe! – in unison. And from within the corps are shining examples of leadership, exuding not only beauty and grace, but also exhibiting strength and resilience on stage and in the studio.
Since 2008, American Ballet Theatre honors one senior female corps dancer each year for her professionalism, dedication, and perseverance with the title of Jennifer Alexander Dancer.
The designation is named after Jennifer Alexander, a deeply respected and beloved former member of ABT’s corps de ballet. In December of 2007, Jennifer tragically passed away in an automobile accident, leaving a hole in the tight-knit corps and in the larger ballet community. ABT honors Jennifer for her 13 years of dedication to the Company and her lasting impact on the corps de ballet as a friend and mentor to those around her.
“Jennifer is known for not only being a beautiful dancer and artist but a perfect example of professionalism and focus. I was so honored to have received the Jennifer Alexander award and will strive to uphold her exemplary qualities.”
2019 recipient Brittany DeGrofft agrees, “Though I never personally knew or worked with Jennifer, her legacy of professionalism, perseverance, and generosity is something we all hope to embody as dancers.” She adds:
“It was an honor to be recognized as someone who represents some of the same qualities that were greatly admired in her. I was incredibly grateful and proud to carry her title for the year of 2019.”
Most recently, Lauren Bonfiglio was named as the 2021 Jennifer Alexander Dancer. Lauren embodies Jennifer’s positive influences on ABT and works to further her legacy as a leader within the corps de ballet and her local community.
Lauren began her ABT journey as a student in both the Young Dancer Summer Workshop and New York Summer Intensive, and was accepted to the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in 2009. She first performed with the Company while she was still a student, landing the role of Clara in The Nutcracker in 2010. She joined ABT Studio Company in 2013 and became a member of ABT’s corps de ballet in January 2015.
Lauren continues to serve as an inspiration for her fellow corps dancers and students in the ABT JKO School. She also works to lift up her community through volunteer work with Brooklyn Book Bodega and as a Guest Teacher, leading master classes for local students on off-days during ABT’s annual national tour.
On receiving the Jennifer Alexander Dancer designation, Lauren says, “to be joining the group of women who have been previously recognized with this honor is deeply meaningful to me.” She continues:
“I have tremendous respect for the past recipients of this award and I’m proud to carry on Jennifer’s legacy at ABT by emulating her exemplary qualities. Working in an environment where professionalism, generosity, and dedication are highly valued raises the level of performance for everyone in the rehearsal studio. I’m very grateful.”
The writer, Samantha Aaronson, is the Press Intern for Spring 2021.
On March 13, 2020, ABT’s Manhattan studios were shuttered due to the threat of COVID-19. While months of planned rehearsals and performances were canceled, the ritual of morning ballet class continued on, thanks to Carlos Lopez, Director of Repertoire. He began leading daily Company class over Zoom immediately upon lockdown. One year later, Carlos shares his experience in photos and thoughtful reflection.
"I’m still teaching by myself from a studio or from my living room, understanding that I cannot control what life is going to give me, but I can control what I want to do with my life."
It is hard to believe that a year has gone by, when on March 13 of last year, we were all sent home, not knowing that our lives were about to change forever. Who knew that the idea of teaching a class over Zoom the next day would reinforce in me the values of reconnecting, empathizing, and sharing with the dancers what we were all experiencing at the time? Every day, for one hour and a half, we supported each other by showing up. As I said many times to them and to myself, “Just keep swimming.”
In October, after many quarantines, I ventured into the first ABT “Ballet Bubble” with uncertainty and cautiousness of what was going to happen. There were tests, masks, distancing, and protocols to grapple with, but the power of unity soon made us calmer, and we realized that we were the lucky ones! We were in a beautiful place, able to create, work again with people that we care about, and do what we enjoy as if our lives were back to normal. I will cherish every moment we had.
Last year, I was fortunate to spend more time with my family and friends and even do a project on the streets of New York. I used the time to reflect on myself, on life, on what’s important, and what’s not. We witnessed discrimination in our society and learned how to take action.
Now, a year has passed and although the situation has improved, there are still many people suffering all over the world. I’m still teaching by myself from a studio or from my living room, understanding that I cannot control what life is going to give me, but I can control what I want to do with my life. Each day, I’m hoping for things to get better, and, as someone recently said to me, I’m being a team player.
Carlos Lopez joined American Ballet Theatre in 2001 and was promoted to Soloist in 2003. After retiring from the stage, he joined the faculty of ABT Studio Company. He was appointed Director of Repertoire at ABT in August 2016.
International Women's Day 2021: ABT dancers #ChooseToChallenge gender bias and inequality by cracking the ceiling.
"Today, we celebrate women across the country and across the world who continue to challenge the status quo, chip away at the glass ceiling, and assert their place in boardrooms and in front of rehearsal rooms."
International Women’s Day has been celebrated for well over a century, with roots in the early 1900’s as women organized and campaigned for the right to vote. As the years went on, women’s advocacy efforts expanded to labor relations, healthcare, and more. And although there is still much work to be done in this space, the inclusion of all women, regardless of race, in the fight for gender equality came years later still.
Today, we celebrate women across the country and across the world who continue to challenge the status quo, chip away at the glass ceiling, and assert their place in boardrooms and in the front of the rehearsal room.
In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, we take a look at where seven former ABT dancers are now – at the top of their fields, exercising excellence, grace and humility, continuing to be prime examples of female empowerment.
Currently serving as the Artistic Director of the American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, Cynthia Harvey began her career with ABT in 1974, was promoted to Soloist in 1987, and became a Principal Dancer in 1982. After a brief stint as a principal dancer at The Royal Ballet, Harvey rejoined ABT in 1988 before retiring from the stage in 1996.
For Harvey, being Artistic Director at the ABT JKO School, means “being a small cog in the wheel” of nurturing the best and brightest dancers of years to come. Harvey’s work and influence, however, cuts far beyond ABT; she is a sought-after teacher, jury member, board member, and founder of “En Avant Foundation,” a non-profit foundation for mentoring and coaching ballet for prodigious young dancers.
Holding the title of longest-serving ballerina at American Ballet Theatre, Julie Kent joined the ranks of ABT as an apprentice in 1985, making her way to Principal Dancer in 1993. Over the course of her performing career, Kent amassed a repertoire of over 100 ballets and helped define and refine the image of the American ballerina.
Now, as the Artistic Director of The Washington Ballet, Kent focuses on creativity, expression, and championing her artists, choreographers, and the art form of ballet itself through various arts education programs throughout the Washington D.C. area.
Maria Riccetto grew up studying ballet at the National Ballet School in Montevideo, Uruguay. In 1999 she was offered a position as a corps de ballet dancer with American Ballet Theatre. Riccetto was an ABT Soloist for 10 years before returning to her hometown of Montevideo to continue and progress her ballet career.
In her current position as Artistic Director of Ballet Nacional de Sodre in Uruguay, Riccetto aims to expand the repertoire of Ballet Nacional de Sodre, tour when it is safe to do so, and collaborate with the dancers to create new works. Riccetto is admired in Uruguay as a “national treasure.”
Michele Wiles joined American Ballet Theatre Studio Company in 1997, was promoted to Soloist in 2000, and to the role of Principal Dancer in 2005. During her time with ABT, Wiles was a Princess Grace Foundation-USA Dance Fellowship recipient and won the Erik Bruhn Prize.
Wiles left ABT in 2011 to start BalletNext, a dance organization that pairs classically trained dancers with live musicians, emphasizing collaboration, risk taking, and the process of creating. With Wiles at the head, BalletNext’s NextGeneration program offers young dancers the opportunity to learn ballet technique and blended styles alike, as well as receive professional development in the form of personal branding, networking, and application tips.
Hailing from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Paloma Herrera made history as the youngest Principal Dancer at American Ballet Theatre at the age of 19. Throughout her tenure with ABT, Herrera traveled the globe, appeared as a guest artist with various companies, and originated leading roles choreographed just for her.
After leaving ABT in May 2015, Herrera was appointed Artistic Director of the Ballet Estable del Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She additionally has served as a member of the Artist Committee for The Kennedy Center Honorees, was chosen as one of “the top 10 dancers of the century” by Dance Magazine, and was given the Bicentennial Medal by the City of Buenos Aires.
Stella Abrera joined American Ballet Theatre as a member of the corps de ballet in 1996 before being appointed a Soloist in 2001, and Principal Dancer in 2015. Abrera frequently works with non-profits including starting Steps Forward for the Philippines, cofounding Artists for Aveni, and participating in a series of galas held in Manila, which resulted in the building of the Stella Abrera Dance and Music Hall in Batangas.
Abrera is currently the Artistic Director of Kaatsbaan Cultural Park, where she has hosted numerous ballet companies for performances and residencies, bringing the best of the arts and culture to the Hudson Valley.
In her current appointment as Artistic Director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Susan Jaffe is only the second woman to hold her position. Jaffe began her dance career with ABT at the age of 16, joined the corps de ballet two years later in 1980, and was promoted to Principal Dancer in 1983.
Years later, Jaffe became the Dean of Dance at North Carolina School of the Arts, a position she served in for eight years until July 2020 when she became Artistic Director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
Now, in addition to her more traditional duties as an Artistic Director, Jaffe focuses on giving her dancers a wide breadth of physical and mental health resources, including Pilates, Gyrotonics, cardio, and meditation. Her work with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre compliments her independent, newly established series of positive mindset workshops that provide live and online wellness workshops and audio meditations.
The writer, Samantha Aaronson, is the ABT Press Intern for Spring 2021.
"My hope is that ABT will try to rebuild the oppressive structures of those that came before us into something new, something better."
The Beginning: The Negro Unit of Ballet Theatre and Agnes de Mille’s Black Ritual
Last year, more so than ever before, ballet’s hard shell around its humanness cracked and revealed the other side to its elusive beauty. Whimsy became relatable, excellence became humble, and one-by-one, our performances were dismantled by a global pandemic. Most importantly, ballet had a wake-up call. Racial injustice hit a national breaking point and became something we could no longer ignore as people or as an art form.
We are coming to the end of Black History Month where we have celebrated and highlighted the Company’s beautiful, powerful Black artists of the past, present, and future. ABT is making strides internally to foster an environment of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The organization is identifying changes that need to be made and is actively committing to eradicating the long-standing racial oppression that has always permeated classical ballet.
However, we cannot look forward without looking at our past, and I was asked to delve deeper into ABT’s = history. Remembering, seeking answers: this is how we make sense of who we are and inform who we want to be. I realized that I was entering into a negotiation with ABT’s past—recognizing achievements and triumphs, whilst acknowledging what went wrong.
So, I went back to the very beginning, to the infancy of Ballet Theatre, to understand how the organization played a part in perpetuating the marginalization and oppression of Black artists. I sought the untold stories of our failures – not to foster shame, not to damage ABT, but because it was the very least I could do.
These are the names of the sixteen Black female dancers who starred in the Ballet Theatre Negro Unit’s only ballet, Black Ritual (Obeah). If you have never heard of the Ballet Theatre Negro Unit, you are not alone.
On the tail end of the Great Depression and the precipice of World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), a component of his New Deal to subsidize the creation of live art across the United States. Its purpose was not necessarily an attempt to save the suffering arts, but to provide economic relief and jobs to artists and theatre workers. The result produced The Negro Theatre Project, also known as a series of Negro Units, in 32 cities across the United States, including New York City, at a blossoming new company called Ballet Theatre.
At the inception of the company, Agnes de Mille was recruited by Richard Pleasant to choreograph for Ballet Theatre, but only under the condition that she could not perform in any of her ballets. De Mille agreed to climb on board, but she was not happy with the constraint. This inspired what would become the only ballet produced under the Negro Unit of Ballet Theatre: “Since I was not permitted to perform myself, I avoided comedy altogether in an impulse of stubborn negation and sought to do something as uncharacteristic and surprising as possible—an exotic work for Negroes.”
The ballet, Black Ritual, was choreographed on 16 new Black dancers who had professional and educational experience in dance, despite later claims that they were “unschooled” and “untrained.” De Mille’s frustration that she could not perform in her own ballet turned a choreographic project into something slightly more sinister in her objectification of the dancers and the ominous plot of the ballet, creating a division that formed the “other.”
The plot of Black Ritual was centered around a group of “primitive” women who had congregated to put to death one of the women amongst them, who would carry their collective sorrows and troubles to Hell. In the ballet, they dance to the hills where they have their private ceremony. There the sacrificial girl dances herself into a frenzy in the midst of her executioners, who finally take her down before they rush back into their dark and mysterious forest.
The ballet’s subtitle (Obeah) refers to a type of Afro-Caribbean religious practice, but in presenting the ballet to the public, the company did not go further into specific cultural detail. The evening’s program, which did not name any of the Negro Unit’s dancers, read:
“Every primitive religion contains the ritual of blood sacrifice, such as the killing of the god, or the sanctified victim in proxy for the god. This annual destruction and rebirth compasses the regeneration of Man and Earth…This ritual scene makes no claim to authenticity. Set vaguely somewhere in the West Indies, it attempts only to project the psychological atmosphere of a primitive community during the performance of austere and vital ceremonies.”
Usually, and most evident in this case, the word “primitive” is not assumed to indicate a distance in time between the performance and the audience. The concept is not considered to mean “ancient” or “original”. In this context it defines the cultural “other” through the audience’s understanding that what they were meant to see was something barbaric and crude.
First performed one week into Ballet Theatre’s inaugural season on January 22, 1940, it was the first time Black dancers had appeared in a large-scale production from what was a typically all-white ballet company. Though some may have seen that as a bold move for a new, very different kind of ballet company, it did not stray from what Ballet Theatre was all about. In a letter to the World-Telegram of New York, publicists for Ballet Theatre singled out Black Ritual as an example of Ballet Theatre’s emerging identity: “This is a far cry from some of the traditional ballets being presented in the Ballet Theatre repertoire. But this was how the Ballet Theatre was meant to be—a combination of tradition and ultra-modernity.”
Unsurprisingly, the ballet was received with a wide variety of reviews. Black critics felt it was a meaningful accomplishment, but white critics were more inclined to see it as a novel anomaly in the ballet world, viewing it through the marginalizing lens that classical ballet was not appropriate for “the Negro.” Nevertheless, first-hand accounts, such as one featured in the Chicago Defender, spoke of a triumphant evening:
“When the Ballet Theatre opened its doors for the first time at Rockefeller Center last Monday evening, little did it realize its occupants would behold one of the greatest performances in the history of the ballet—little did it realize that they would really know what it meant to be spell-bound—little did it realize the curtains of its theatre would rise and fall once, twice, ten or even more times, amid shouts of “bravo” and deafening sounds of handclaps while a group of Race girls stood to receive the applause – but that is just what happened.”
Black Ritual was performed only three times over the course of the season, and when the curtain closed on Ballet Theatre’s three-week run at Radio City, the Negro Unit was disbanded. Some say that the Unit lacked a singular artistic vision that would carry it forward. Others say it was to save money.
True, a ballet company in its infancy would always face financial struggles as it wobbled onto its feet, but the dancers in the Negro Unit were paid only a fraction of what their white corps de ballet counterparts were paid—a mere $10 to the latter’s $40. The only certainty of the Negro Unit’s disbandment, however, is that it has disappeared into the forgotten corners of the company’s history with a glaring truth: there was a limit to how progressive and inclusive the company was willing to be.
A confidential, unsigned letter at Ballet Theatre from October 1940 revealed evidence that there were plans to redo Black Ritual with an all-white cast. Although the correspondence petered out six months later with nothing coming to fruition, the messages passed back and forth showed no sign of concern about this casting switch. De Mille was adamant that the ballet should remain in the company’s repertory despite the injudicious changes that would dismantle the ballet’s core.
Along with the rest of the world, each and every one of us shoulder the responsibility of the past—the responsibility to not just recognize and verbalize our history, but the responsibility to do something with the knowledge we gain through self-examination. While learning this story, I sought honesty. I sought the mistakes Ballet Theatre made many years ago. My hope is that ABT will try to rebuild the oppressive structures of those that came before us into something new, something better.
I could never give these dancers and their story the level of justice they deserve. I learned how Ballet Theatre failed the talented, valuable dancers in the Negro Unit. From being left out of the performance’s program to being grossly underpaid, to disbarring the Negro Unit and not giving any of the dancers company contracts, Ballet Theatre failed. It should not have been that way. I can only give these women today, this moment in history, a space to be heard, to be seen, and to be celebrated, but there is more to be done. There is more space to be given, more voices to amplify, more reckoning to grapple with.
We must all remember that change is not finite. It is a journey, a process. Black History Month may only be a small portion of the year, but this is just the beginning.
The writer, Bethany Beacham, joined ABT as Marketing Coordinator in January 2020.
Christmas of 2008, when I was nine years old, my school in Madrid organized a competition for students to submit Christmas cards with original holiday-themed drawings on them. On a whim, I decided to give it a go. Being a Disney fanatic, I submitted a drawing of Tinker Bell donning a custom Santa outfit. The school loved my work and chose it as the winner.
With a newly discovered talent and a spark of motivation, I began drawing and doodling more often and even started entering other art competitions. However, upon deciding to become more serious about ballet as a career, my passion for drawing was put on the back-burner.
Fast forward to 2019: I am living in New York City, on my own, with a job as a corps de ballet member with American Ballet Theatre. During a visit with one of my old friends from Madrid, who was working as an apprentice with Pennsylvania Ballet, I met another PA Ballet dancer, Jack, who would soon become my boyfriend. During our first week getting to know each other, we decided it might be fun to use a spare canvas and create a painting together.
I showed him some of the drawings I had made, and he encouraged me to continue honing a skill I had almost forgotten I loved so much. I started working with different media and studying new techniques in an attempt to develop a personal style that I liked.
Fast forward another year and we find ourselves in a global pandemic with lots and LOTS of time on our hands. Now motivated by boredom, I decided to purchase a new iPad and iPencil to try my hand at creating drawings and illustrations virtually. Since ballet is my first passion, and I am lucky enough to have a job where I am surrounded by constant inspiration, I decided to start drawing my dancing peers. I even created a separate Instagram account to show all my art to friends, co-workers, and potential buyers.
My goal for the future is to continue to perfect a unique style that sets me apart and create works that everyone can enjoy. I am so grateful for all the positive feedback I have been getting, and I am excited to see where this new adventure takes me.
Posting on social media can feel kind of daunting sometimes, especially if it is something so personal. Sometimes this leads me to undervalue my work and experience lower self-esteem. Since deciding to be more open and to share with the world a new part of myself, my confidence has grown, and I have become a happier and more fulfilled person.
Javier has been a member of the corps de ballet since 2018.
Javier’s illustrations are featured in ABT Kitchen, our new digital cookbook featuring recipes from individuals in the ABT community!
In August 2020, Amy Hall Garner created a new virtual work for ABT Studio Company, Visceral Harmonies, with music by the students of Collective Conservatory. The collaborative work recently premiered online.
"The virtual choreographic process was an eye-opening experience and something new to all of us."
In August, ABT Studio Company had the opportunity to create a virtual ballet with choreographer Amy Hall Garner, set to music composed by musicians from The Collective Conservatory. This virtual choreographic process was an eye-opening experience and something new to all of us.
During this unusual time, we are extremely fortunate to keep up our ballet training through Zoom technique classes, but it was vastly rewarding to be able to create a piece together again. Participating in a virtual piece is something we never could have imagined pre-pandemic, but we were so grateful for the opportunity.
Most of us in ABT Studio Company have previously worked with choreographer Amy Hall Garner. In the beginning of our 2019-2020 season, she created the ballet Escapades on us during our residency at Kaatsbaan Cultural Park, in upstate New York.
Amy is a very detail-oriented choreographer who always strives to make us better artists. Personally, working with Amy has been very beneficial because she pushes me out of my comfort zone. It was amazing to reunite with her.
In addition to working with an outstanding choreographer, we had the opportunity to collaborate with talented young musicians from The Collective Conservatory, who composed original music to complement our virtual ballet. This was my first time dancing to music that was commissioned specifically to accompany our choreography.
The final cut of music was unique and paired well with the movement. It was fascinating to hear the progression of drafts from first to final cut.
We began the virtual piece in August and created the choreography in a span of two weeks. We had rehearsal during the week Monday through Friday for three hours each day. Amy then split these three-hour blocks into rehearsals for small groups and individuals before reconvening us all back together again. This process was similar to how we normally rehearse.
The recording process was new to me, although since the beginning of the pandemic, I have gained more experience filming myself. Because I do not have a mirror in my makeshift home studio, filming has been crucial for me to be able to self-correct. For the filming process, we were given the option to record inside of a studio and/or outdoors. I recorded my sections both in my home studio and outside.
My mom helped me with the recording in my house. It was especially tricky finding ways to film in a smaller area. For the second part of my filming, I filmed outside.
I was on a road trip in Colorado with two of my best friends, so I had plenty of gorgeous spaces to film in. One of the places where I filmed was Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs.
There were many people throughout the nature park, so it was challenging finding moments to film without others in the shot.
The experience of working on this virtual ballet was one of the silver linings to an uncertain time.
ABT Studio Company formed a ballet bubble in East Haddam, Connecticut to rehearse existing repertoire and create new works to be filmed at Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli, New York. Highlights from ABT Studio Company’s ballet bubble can be seen in ABT Today: The Future Starts Now on YouTube. Stay tuned for a full virtual program of filmed performances from the ABT Studio Company ballet bubble in 2021!
SideBarre asked ABT Studio Company member Teresa D’Ortone to tell us about her bubble experience.
Remember the feeling the first time you were away from home, leaving your loved ones and all that was familiar? Then finally returning home, and feeling as if you had never left? This was exactly how it felt when ABT Studio Company finally had the opportunity to reunite at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Connecticut this September.
The chance to spend seven weeks together was something none of us could have imagined possible a few months back. Arriving at the residency was the beginning of something new. We were so grateful for the opportunity to dance together once again.
Spending the remainder of our spring season at home, though tough at times, helped push a different kind of motivation to the surface.
I soon realized just how much of a privilege it is to dance in a studio every day. Preparing to get back into the studio was a challenge most dancers in our group were quick to accept. We worked virtually with choreographers and learned from all sorts of influential artists. Although we were in different places and different countries, each with our own challenges, our time in virtual class felt like home.
Upon arriving in East Haddam, we followed a strict protocol and quarantined for two weeks. We continued virtual classes, including technique, strength, and Pilates, all from our individual bedrooms. We had no contact with anyone outside of our Studio Company “bubble.”
The hardest part of the quarantine process was knowing that we were so close to our group, all in the same place and doing the same things, but unable to do those things together.
Those two weeks went by very quickly, and we were so fortunate to begin classes and rehearsals in the studio as a group once again. The very first step in the studio was an absolute relief! After imagining what that first day back would look like for so long, it is hard now to put those feelings into words.
It felt surreal to finally be back working with everyone in the same room, doing what we love.
The adjustment from dancing in our bedrooms to the studio came naturally for all of us. Of course, we were all a bit nervous the first few days, but we were quick to ease into our daily routine.
We had a variety of repertoire from last season that we were happy to begin working on again, as well as some new works we have yet to perform. The repertoire is a mix between classical and neo-classical/contemporary – taking on such diverse movement is one of the things I missed most while away.
We are putting together all of these pieces to film over the next two weeks while at Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in upstate New York. More than anything, I am excited for the opportunity to get back in a theater and perform, even without a live audience.
One of our pieces, choreographed by Lauren Lovette, was completed on the very last day before we were all sent home for COVID-19 lockdown in March. Working on this ballet now is particularly special and represents all the hard work that went into the last couple of months. Seeing everyone with newfound levels of motivation and energy has been well worth the wait, and I am trying to take in as much of this experience as possible. I know that looking to the future of ABT will continue to motivate us all!
Teresa D’Ortone joined ABT Studio Company in Fall of 2018.