American Ballet Theater Wants to Look Like America. They Don’t Yet, But They’re Trying.

Kevin McKenzie and American Ballet Theater dancers.

Kevin McKenzie and American Ballet Theater dancers.
Photo, Fabrizio Ferri/American Ballet Theater

Prior to Monday evening, when I attended American Ballet Theatre’s annual June gala, I had never been to Lincoln Center’s Metropolitan Opera House. I recognized the twinkling chandeliers dripping from its ceilings only from Gossip Girl and The Undoing, in which Nicole Kidman’s character helps to plan a fundraiser for the precocious Reardon private school. It’s no coincidence, then, that the ties between exclusive upper class fetes and the culture of American balletic institutions have remained so taut—almost inextricable from each other, both in pop culture and the real world.

As a longtime dance devotee, that’s sometimes what ballet has felt like for people like me and even younger generations: a storied fantasy land, something that people attend in the movies when they’d like to perform societal relevance or bask in the honor of naming themselves a donor to an “elite” artistic organization, I, on the other hand, did not grow up in the city attending ballet shows or galas. I was lucky to see professional ballet companies whenever they were passing through Los Angeles—mainly more Nutcrackers than I can count and an ABT performance of “La Bayadère” one time. So that group of thin, hoity-toity moms Kidman paraded around the Met always seemed more in step with the heart of ballet—or at least the institutionalized ballets and not the rinky-dink hometown studios I grew up at—than I ever did. No matter how much I adore ballet, ballet did not seem to love most of America back; it seemed more like a see-and-be-seen for the upper echelon of New York City society.

Yet, this week, I—someone who’s never shied away from demanding ballet to be less white, less abusive, less exclusionary—found myself seated front and center for American Ballet Theater’s grand return to the Met after several seasons had been spoiled by the pandemic. The company opened its summer season with a performance of the classic story ballet “Don Quixote,” which was staged one last time by the company’s longtime artistic director Kevin McKenzie. The former principal ballet dancer was on hand to bid farewell to the company after more than 30 years and pass the reins to Susan Jaffe: ABT’s first solo female artistic director in company history. As feminism hits a larger cultural wall in the outside and political sphere, in which its corporate shilling has overwhelmed and nearly erased the true meaning of intersectionality, there’s room—urgency, even—for a feminist awakening in ballet. And perhaps that awakening starts here.

That evening, as I peered into the orchestral pit and fawned over the spirit-like movement of dancers Catherine Hurlin, Aran Bell, Devon Teuscher, Thomas Forster, Hee Seo, Joo Won Ahn, Katherine Williams, Calvin Royal III, Christine Shevchenko, and more from the first row in a house of booming applause, there seemed to be a shift in energy. As if, after all these years of promising change, championing change, fostering change, this new guard might actually pull it off. At long last, it seemed ABT had opened its doors to the next generation in a meaningful, ceremonious manner.

For one, Janet Rollé, the company’s chief executive and executive director who started in January of this year and the former general manager of Beyoncé’s Parkwood Entertainment, is the first person of color to lead the company. Getting more diverse leaders into the bureaucratic structures of an 83-year-old ballet company with its roots in the 1500s Italian Renaissance is step one in the remaking and modernizing of ballet, and Rollé, a Black woman raised by a Jamaican immigrant mother, seems to have the right chutzpah and vision for the job.

Gabe Stone Shayer in DON QUIXOTE.

Gabe Stone Shayer in DON QUIXOTE.
Photo, Fabrizio Ferri

“We want to make sure that we remain culturally relevant so that people understand that ballet is for everyone,” Rollé told me on the red carpet on Monday. “I hope to see the culture of American Ballet Theater be truly relevant to the world we live in now, but to get to the world we all envision, it’s going to take time…we’re not going to reinvent the wheel overnight.”

Michaela DePrince, a second soloist at Boston Ballet and a former student of ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (JKO) school who was in attendance that night, has long been witness to the sluggish pace of change in the art world. She told me she looks forward to a day when Blackness isn’t celebrated just once a year during Black History Month. When I asked if, at the very least, she was relieved to no longer have to pancake her pointe shoes (a process by which dancers of color have to paint their shoes with makeup to match their skin tone), she admitted that even though Bloch has gifted her brown pointe shoes, she still runs out. “I am Black every single day, and I would love to be able to see more Black and brown dancers wearing skin tone, because I think it’s just so beautiful when you can see somebody being authentically themselves and not having to fit into that norm of pink classical tights.”

In 2015, ABT made history as it anointed Misty Copeland to principal dancer, making her the first Black woman to do so within a major American company and largely drawing praise that ballet might finally be shedding its porcelain skin. The company has since added Calvin Royal III as a principal, Gabe Stone Shayer as a soloist, and Erica Lall and Courtney Lavine as corps de ballet members among a few others, but not much overhauling of the company’s diversity makeup has taken place since then. (It should be noted, however, that the company has highlighted and promoted a number of talented Asian American dancers.)

A daughter of Caribbean immigrants, Lall was highlighted before the performance on Monday evening, as she introduced Trustee Susan Fales-Hill, who headed up the nine-month artistic director search for Jaffe’s role. Lall thanked Fales-Hill for creating the Josephine Premice Fales Award—an award Lall had won twice—which gives a young dancer of color a full scholarship to ABT’s training school. In daring fashion, Fales-Hill then called upon the history of a “well-intentioned, but separate and unequal Negro wing” of 16 dancers within ABT back in 1940, calling it a “wing that was destined to be clipped.” That history made it all the more astonishing to see two Black women presenting on stage that night. But shortly after Fales-Hill and Lall left the stage, the curtains gave way to a smattering of beautiful ballet dancers, with only a few people of color to be seen.

The sense I got from Rollé and from Aubrey Lynch, ABT’s Dean of Faculty and Student Affairs, is that ABT is painfully aware of its shortcomings and is not trying to shy away from them. “If you never acknowledge what’s wrong, you can never move past it,” Rollé told me.

“Well, they call us trailblazers, and we are. It’s very scary in the front, but we are determined to make American Ballet Theater as diverse with its beliefs, with its economic status, with its race, ethnicity…all of those parts that make America beautiful,” Lynch added during an interview. “And we’re asking ourselves what it means to be American today, and what will it mean in the future, and what will make it more interesting to watch ballet? We’ve got to talk about today, stories about today, people about today, and look like today.”

Image for article titled American Ballet Theater Wants to Look Like America.  They Don't Yet, But They're Trying.

Photo, Fabrizio Ferri

For that exact reason, regardless of how stunning the performance was, the choice to open the season with “Don Quixote”—a fixture in the company’s repertoire but notably not a reflection of American culture—remained a puzzling one. Largely white women were adorned in Spanish-style costumes holding fans, and wearing chokers, slicked back buns, and hoop earrings. But Jaffe, who refashioned the ending of Swan Lake when she was at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, told the Washington Post she’s ready to dismantle some of the company’s more problematic and archaic story plots, including “Le Corsaire,” which tells the story of a Greek woman sold into slavery and whose hero is also an “enslaver,” and “La Bayadère,” which is set in a fictionalized India presented through a white lens. She also plans to institute audience surveys and a listening tour, in which the opinions of those who care about ballet are actually taken into consideration.

But my conversation with Lynch also inspired some hope for the future of ballet and its dancers, no matter how they identify. The company is working with intimacy coordinators to help mitigate some of the more physical interactions between dancers onstage, according to Lynch. The JKO school has embraced nonbinary dancers, giving them the choice to learn roles traditionally meant for men or women and allowing them to get on pointe—a practice reserved only for ballerinas. And Lynch told me they were offering up more mental health services than ever before and trying to move away from the eating disorder-friendly world of insecurities once fostered by ballet’s incessant thinness.

I know that, over time, promises of evolution have come and gone within the realm of ballet. But just as Jaffe transformed a swan’s tragic ending into a feminist sacrifice motivated by a wish to free her maidens, American Ballet Theater, too, seems primed to transform into something grander…something for all of us. It was a magical evening, and I hope, in all earnestness, that all of that magic sticks around.

As Kevin McKenize noted in his farewell remarks, “ABT is on the brink of a new era. And we know what happens when ABT enters a new era: It soars.”

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