Dancing toward diversity: Louisville Ballet raises its barre

Mar 21, 2018 at 10:20 am
Louisville Ballet School's Spring Showcase. (photo by Sam English)
Louisville Ballet School's Spring Showcase. (photo by Sam English)

“You don’t feel that most of the people in these incidents do not like black people, but simply are a product of their white supremacy and are exercising it on you without caution, care, or thought. Many times the tone just simply says, ‘I do not feel you belong here.’” —Singer Solange Knowles

It was a cold September evening in 2014 when I walked into the “Studio Connections” performance at the Louisville Ballet building on Main Street. My friend Cole and I made a bougie decision to go to the ballet. Cole had a friend who danced with the company, and we wanted to see her perform.

Being “bougie” for us often meant going somewhere, eating, drinking or being in a space that is reserved for privilege — spaces that are, at the same time, historically white.

There is something about being black in white spaces. It’s not that my presence isn’t allowed or even not desired. It’s just that these places, by design, were not created with the person of color in mind.

When black women walk into places that are not traditionally ours — rock concerts, operas or ballets — we are acutely aware of our otherness. We know that the white people in the room, even subconsciously, see us and register that we are out of place. Often without knowing they are displaying their latent biases, they smile and nod. They speak or welcome you. They don’t mean harm, but they realize, as do you, that you are black in a white space. They do not speak and welcome each other in the same way.

They already know they belong.

How comforting it must be to never question where you fit or do not fit.

That night, we dressed up, wore makeup —the trappings of respectability — and planned to make a night of it.

Opening the door to the studio, a brisk fall wind blew in the door behind us. We claimed our tickets and made our way to the bleacher seating provided for in-studio shows. The dancers would be mere inches away at times. As is the nature of bleachers, the audience members sit close to each other.

Cole and I were aware that we were the black folks in the space, the only ones I can recall, until the sole African-American male dancer of the company, Brandon Ragland, stood in the center of the room and performed the pas de deux “Diana and Acteon” from “Le Roi Candaule,” with fellow dancer Natalia Ashikhmina.

An older, white woman was seated in front of me, with dirty blonde, stick-straight, center-parted hair and an odd purple and black nylon band tied at her waist, looked back at us. She smiled, as is the course.

“Are you related?” she asked in a whisper, gesturing toward Ragland.

Louisville Ballet School's Spring Showcase, with Nadia Sougoufara (left) and Lily Butler. - Sam English
Sam English
Louisville Ballet School's Spring Showcase, with Nadia Sougoufara (left) and Lily Butler.

Welcome Back

There is an old TV commercial in which a black family walks into a breakfast restaurant as the voice-over says, “Welcome Back.” The commercial was released at a time when these restaurants, like Denny’s and Shoney’s, were being sued by African-Americans who had been subjected to racist treatment there. Let me be clear, the ballet has never been a Denny’s or a Shoney’s, not even close, but after a racist incident, sometimes going back into a space can be difficult. The “do I belong” question arises and, for some, it raises the specter of a repeat offense.

I told my ballet story in October 2014 in LEO Weekly, and two years after, I got an email from the ballet’s new marketing director, Cherie Perez. We met for lunch and talked about the ballet, about Erykah Badu and about our cultural backgrounds. She is Latina, Cuban specifically.

She mentioned the article and that she was concerned my experience had driven me away from the ballet. She wanted to bring me back. The Louisville Ballet, she told me, was under transition, and she was positive that I’d appreciate its new works. As I assured her that one racist was not enough to keep me away, we sighed about the state of racism in the country and had a fine lunch.

Perez invited me to the next show, “Sleeping Beauty,” at The Kentucky Center.

After “Sleeping Beauty,” Perez extended another invite, this one to the performance of Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” reimagined as a conversation about the refugee crises we see around the globe. It is a bare-bones and riveting performance. The stage is simple, outfitted with a large ramp. The dancers are dressed in street clothing. There are young dancers who in the story represent hope and “speak” to the audience as the emblems of a future at risk.

I can’t breathe during the performance. I scan the crowd, and I’m not alone. Eyes are glued to the stage. Some have their hands across their chests and some are wiping tears from their faces.

Nothing about this feels out of place.

‘I can do that’

The Louisville Ballet has been a part of the city since 1952. During the tenure of Director Bruce Simpson, the Ballet began to look at its future and how it could become sustainable. Simpson helped guide the organization to solvency and a budget in the black. Over the last 16 years, the company has undergone important transformations. When Simpson announced his retirement in 2012, he was certain the search for his replacement would focus on the future and the continuation of its metamorphosis.

“The Louisville Ballet is in a really strong position now to get someone who will take care of its heritage, who will take care of its 63-year history and, at the same time, have a different generational view of what dance is about,” Simpson said in a 2014 interview for art-louisville.com.

That person is Robert Curran.

Hired in 2014, Curran was trained in Australia and danced for 16 years with the Australian Ballet. He spent 10 of those years as a principal dancer.

The Louisville Ballet is part of a wider arts conversation in the United States about how to create a sustainable future and, with that, a diverse audience. Getting there has not been without bumps, but recent conversations have shifted to actions. Part of tackling the issue of diversity and/or inclusion is creating a space where everyone feels welcome.

In a 2016 conversation in the New York Amsterdam News, American Ballet Theatre Principal Dancer Misty Copeland paid reverence to Dance Theatre of Harlem founding member and Principal Dancer Virginia Johnson, whose work created a space where young black girls could see themselves as ballet dancers.

“It is so special to be part of dance at this time with everything that’s happening with the discussion of this topic of diversity.” Copeland said. “You pushed that conversation so much when you created DTH and gave the dance world this vision of what Black dancers are capable of.”

That sentiment also surfaces when Curran spoke with me about The Louisville Ballet.

“We’re constantly working on how we can speak to our community, even just to get them to experience a performance,” he said. “Just to be sitting there and have a 4- or 5-year-old, no matter where they come from, say, ‘I can do that.’ And then believe it and have their families believe and the opportunities made available to them.”

“We see some fantastic diversity in our school and in our pre-professional company. I love when that connection is really strong and that becomes the way that we staff the company. I’m proud of the diversity that’s in the school.”

Growing diversity in the school is one element of shifting the color of the ballet.

A new shade of the Ballet

Theresa Ruth Howard of Dance Theatre of Harlem said in her essay for Dance Magazine, “Diversity is the New Black,” that if ballets wanted to change their stages and their students, they needed to change their educators.

“Until organizations design programs that include black ballet teachers, mentoring, diversity training for faculty and staff and take dancers’ psychological hurdles into consideration, the numbers of black dancers rising to the professional level will remain low,” she wrote.

“When you ask black dancers today about their experiences studying ballet, many are conflicted. Most loved learning the technique, but they found the world of sylphs and tutus daunting to navigate. Ballet is a rarefied career, and its icon — a ballerina — is petite, lithe, fragile, ethereal and white. Some call it tradition, others call it the classical aesthetic. What it can feel like to black dancers is a commitment to whiteness.”

Featuring dancers who look different — who are more muscular, taller or shorter and not always white — will change ballet’s narrative. That, in turn, will help broaden the audiences and reflect the community’s and nation’s growing diversity.

Certainly ballerinas including Copeland, Evelyn Cisneros and Yuan Yuan Tan and the work of companies such as Alvin Ailey and Dance Theatre of Harlem have challenged notions of how a dancer should and can look. Organizations such as Brown Girls Do Ballet® are continuing this work, which smartly includes advocating for “nude” costumes and shoes, to have more than one flesh tone available.

Out of Louisville Ballet’s 23 dancers, three dancers are of color, one of them Ragland. It has at times had more and less at other times.

The number of dancers of color is important, but it is the use of those bodies that makes the biggest difference. The ballet could have 30 dancers of color, but if those dancers are kept out of important roles, then their bodies are simply decoration, and that is not progress.

The Louisville Ballet school, which is set to become a feeder for the company, has sent students to festivals such as the 2017 Regional Dance America Festival in Phoenix, Arizona, where young dancers were able to take clinics with teachers including Lauren Anderson, who was the first black ballerina in a major company at the Houston Ballet. It has also invited and hired diverse instructors in-house and is working on a promotion with a Brown Girls Do Ballet® junior ambassador who is attending the school.

Curran knows true diversity and inclusion must include all levels of the Ballet, and not just the bodies on the stage.

“It’s what they’re doing when they are on the stage that is the most important thing. They need to coexist. Trying to create new work or new opportunities for people to express themselves is at the forefront of what I feel will contribute to our diversity. It’s not just folks on the stage. It’s who’s coming to experience the art. It’s who’s working behind the scenes.

Behind the scenes...

This is where many organizations that claim to seek diversity and inclusion tend to fall short. They may put ethnic artists on the walls, on the stage and perhaps even on the front-end staff, but at the core of these organizations, the board space, it is still overwhelmingly white, and while it is still true of the ballet’s board space they are working actively to shift that. The 23-member board has one African-American member and more than half is female. And of 24 staff members, five are people of color, with eight born outside of the U.S.

Louisville Ballet Board President Lisa Leet, who danced with the company in the 1970s, said during an interview that the board understands what is needed. “From the beginning of Robert’s tenure, we have appreciated that the ballet needed to expand its audience and reach audiences that we hadn’t reached before.”

Leet sent me an email after we met for a conversation about the role of the board in increasing diversity. She reiterated the Ballet’s collaborations with artists, changes in the thematic content of new works and continued outreach efforts — “all of which the Board supports.”

“What I failed to mention is at the Board level a commitment to diversify the Board itself,” she wrote. “We have gender, age and professional background diversity on the Board. We have a bit of diversity in terms of religion and zip codes, but we have a glaring absence of racial diversity.”

This acknowledgment is rare. It shows that at least here in Louisville, there is an understanding that the times have changed and with that, the institution must follow suit.

Leet said the board is working to recruit members of color and just elected an African-American member. “By the end of this season, I am hopeful that we will have elected at least 1-2 more board members of color, who will bring new perspectives.”

Natalia Ashikhmina, HannahDrake, Benjamin Wetzel and ChristyCorbitt in the Louisville Ballet's Choreographers' Showcase. - photo by SamEnglish
photo by SamEnglish
Natalia Ashikhmina, HannahDrake, Benjamin Wetzel and ChristyCorbitt in the Louisville Ballet's Choreographers' Showcase.


There is something about Hannah Drake speaking. It isn’t just her words. It is also Hannah. Your attention is required, as she is speaking and, at the end, you are better because of it.

Hannah Drake is a black woman — dark skin, booming voice and a solid physical presence. She is a University of Colorado graduate and member of the Roots and Wings artist group. And though she is aware of herself in strange spaces, as most black women are, she pushes her way in and demands to be heard and not ignored.

Sitting down with Drake in a NuLu coffee shop, again we’re aware of who we are and where, and we know that what we say will be overheard by potentially sensitive white ears. What needs to be said must, and we do. We share our sisterhood as black women and writers. We laugh and talk about what we know to be true about these spaces and what is possible.

In her recent collaboration with Brandon Ragland, she feels it was kismet. He was the right person, it was the right dance, and she was certainly the right poet. Ragland choreographed the opening dance of the Ballet’s Choreographers’ Showcase presenting a powerful and emotional collaboration between his dancers and Drake. It was a collaboration that forced a confrontation of ballet-goers, both new and old, with ideas of losing a child at the hands of violence and perhaps the most powerful clash was that of what it means to belong in a space. The collaboration built a special bond between Ragland and Drake.

She recalled, “Brandon told me, when they told him what they were doing with poetry, he told them, ‘I know exactly who I want to work with.”

Once they found out they were paired, and Ragland told her that it could be about social justice, she had to make some decisions.

“I thought what can we really say, especially in this audience, which I knew would be predominantly white. I didn’t want to go in there and scare them out of their seats, but we knew that we wanted them to be as uncomfortable as we could push them,” she says, laughing.

Ragland, who unwittingly became part of my original ballet narrative, said of the collaborations he’s had, “Outside of the dancing artistic perspective of collaborating, there’s also just the human aspect. Getting to know someone and seeing the world through their eyes and how they communicate their art.”

Ragland grew up dancing in his own unusual space, as a black, male ballet dancer from Alabama. He says that his teachers and family were supportive, “The challenges came when I went away to summer programs. A few teachers during my summer training would always tell me that I was more suited for a modern or contemporary company even though they knew I wanted to be a ballet dancer.”

When he came to Louisville, he felt welcomed, and only outside of the safety of his company did he experience racism. In one instance a mother expressed her and her daughter’s enjoyment of his performance in “The Nutcracker.” The mother then qualified it by telling Ragland that she had to “‘explain why his skin looked different.’ She proceeded to express her sympathy to me because, in her words, ‘I know that it is hard for you people to get into ballet because you all don’t have the right body types, right?’”

“I have to say, my initial reaction was not pleasant, but I quickly pulled myself together. I then realized that she wasn’t necessarily coming from a bad place, but just plain ignorance.”

Final Curtain

The lights have dimmed and a spotlight shines on Drake as she begins her final poem:

“It is difficult to stand in spaces

Spaces that were not designed for me

Spaces that were not constructed for people that look like me Spaces that scream, ‘You do not belong here!’

Spaces that feel like sandpaper against my blackness

Coarse… Rough… Painful… Uneasy ... ”

“ ... These are spaces that I no longer want to reside in

I don’t enjoy these spaces

I no longer desire to subject myself to these spaces

Then I am reminded, as I stand in these spaces

And I see the faces of 2 little black girls watching me perform in awe because I am a person with kinky hair like them and skin that looks like theirs and lips that look like theirs, standing in these spaces ...”

I’m sitting to her right, on bleachers again, my notebook wobbly in my hand, wiping tears and remembering my own entry into the space of the Louisville Ballet. I’m admiring her as she anchors the stage with dancers — ethereal, thin and white — floating around her in a circle. Ragland has asked them to do this. He wanted them closer to Hannah to disrupt the viewers’ sense of comfortable distance, of invaded space.

This time the bleachers aren’t filled with only white people. This time the bleachers hold people who look like me, some who don’t. It holds some that are young, traditional, some punk rock and the room looks radically different than it did four years ago. It not only looks different, it feels different. We are having a collective experience and when eyes meet, no matter what face those eyes are in, we know that we’ve all been changed.

The effort of the Louisville Ballet has shifted what it means to be in their space. It has deconstructed itself and rebuilt — a Phoenix that rises from its past, to be reborn as something newer, better... its own Firebird. •