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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.

Posts in: Black History MonthView All Posts
Shelley Washington.
Posted In
Black History MonthWomen's History Month
March 26, 2021
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.

Shelley Washington at a tech rehearsal for Twyla Tharp's <i>Brief Fling</i>. Photo courtesy Washington.
Shelley Washington at a tech rehearsal for Twyla Tharp's Brief Fling. Photo courtesy Washington.

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.

Shelley Washington and Kathleen Moore in Twyla Tharp's <i>Everlast</i>. Photo courtesy Washington.
Shelley Washington and Kathleen Moore in Twyla Tharp's Everlast. Photo courtesy Washington.

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 Washington overseeing rehearsal at ABT. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.
Shelley Washington overseeing rehearsal at ABT. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.

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:

Shelley Washington taking a bow with the cast of <i>In the Upper Room</i> during ABT's Fall 2018 season. Photo courtesy Washington.
Shelley Washington taking a bow with the cast of In the Upper Room during ABT's Fall 2018 season. Photo courtesy Washington.

“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.

Lawaune Kennard and an unnamed dancer in Agnes de Mille’s Black Ritual, 1940. Photo: Carl Van Vechten.
Posted In
A Look Back at 80 YearsBlack History Month
February 28, 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.

Lawaune Kennard, Lavinia Williams, Ann Jones, Dorothy Williams, Elizabeth Thompson, Evelyn Pilcher, Edith Ross, Valerie Black, Leonore Cox, Edith Hurd, Mabel Hart, Moudelle Bass, Clementine Collinwood, Carroll Ash, Bernice Willis, and Muriel Cook. 

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.

Dorothy Williams, Maudelle Bass, Muriel Cook, and Lawaune Kennard in Agnes de Mille’s <i>Black Ritual</i>, 1940. Photo: Carl Van Vechten.
Dorothy Williams, Maudelle Bass, Muriel Cook, and Lawaune Kennard in Agnes de Mille’s Black Ritual, 1940. Photo: Carl Van Vechten.

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.”

Dorothy Williams, Maudelle Bass, and Muriel Cook in Agnes de Mille’s <i>Black Ritual</i>, 1940. Photo: Carl Van Vechten.
Dorothy Williams, Maudelle Bass, and Muriel Cook in Agnes de Mille’s Black Ritual, 1940. Photo: Carl Van Vechten.

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.