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Project Plié Steps Out at American Ballet Theatre

By Hanna Rubin
12 Nov 2013

Erica Lall and Naziir Muhammad, students at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at ABT.
photo by Rosalie O'Connor

Diversity remains a sensitive subject in the world of ballet. Many major companies have only a handful of dancers of color in their ranks.

Few dancers of color reach the level of training that would enable them to audition for major companies. “The real issue,” says American Ballet Theatre CEO Rachel Moore, “is the pipeline.”

Moore believes the solution lies with better training opportunities, and that ballet companies cannot afford to postpone actively addressing the problem. Pointing to the country’s changing demographics, she says, “If professional ballet is going to be relevant in the 21st century, we need to look like America.”

To prompt more diversity onstage and off, American Ballet Theatre has launched Project Plié, a training initiative that combines outreach to potential students in under-served communities, and funding to help increase the pool of well-trained dancers across the racial and ethnic spectrum. “The ballet field has not done a good job of reaching out and actively supporting interested kids,” says Moore. “Being a ballet dancer is like being an Olympian. It’s a huge commitment in terms of time and emotional energy, and when your family has few resources, that’s much harder.”

Stereotypes have also built up hurdles. “There are myths that black dancers don’t have the right bodies for ballet,” says Moore. “But most white people don’t look like professional ballet dancers. And there’s a myth that audiences won’t accept a black woman as a white swan. But the theater world has had color-blind casting for years.”

Dancers of color like ABT corps de ballet member Calvin Royal III are excited about the program’s potential. “Some people don’t have access to quality training, and when they get to a professional ballet school, they can feel unprepared and anxious,” he says. “Project Plié is going to allow that access so that when students come to a major school or company, they will feel ready. They will feel they belong there.”

The project, which has Payless ShoeSource® as a corporate sponsor, has many facets. Going forward, ABT will offer 15 full scholarships to the company’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in the children’s and pre-professional divisions. Students will also receive help with uniforms, shoes and travel, as well as extra mentoring and support with academics. The company’s Summer Intensive programs will also add 15 scholarships, some with housing stipends.

To help make the training process more truly diverse, the company will also recruit dance teachers from minority backgrounds and award scholarships for certification in ABT’s National Training Curriculum. One goal is to provide more role models at the front of the classroom for students. The company is also adding arts administration fellowships aimed at building up diversity behind the scenes in company management. Finally, Project Plié will also partner with Boys & Girls Clubs of America, where soloist Misty Copeland took her first dance classes. ABT teachers will conduct master classes at clubs across the country, and connect talented and interested young students with local ABT certified teachers.

Even a company as high profile as ABT cannot single-handedly affect change. So ABT has established partnerships to develop the Project Plié goals with a number of other ballet companies across the country, including Ballet San Jose, Orlando Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Oklahoma City Ballet, Ballet Memphis, Richmond Ballet and Ballet Austin. “Talent gets distributed everywhere,” says Ballet Austin Executive Director Cookie Ruiz. “But a professional ballet career requires a lifetime of training. How can we substantively change that early experience?”

Ballet Austin, for instance, has a community outreach program in Austin schools that uses dance to reinforce academic concepts. The company also recently received a $1.8 million gift to underwrite the final tier of training for students in its school, which Ruiz believes will help maintain diversity in the critical adolescent years. Ruiz praises ABT’s decision to partner with other companies to seek the field’s best recruitment practices. “If we’re willing to work together collectively as an industry, all boats will rise,” she says. “And if ABT can lead that process, something wonderful will happen.”

Neither Moore nor Ruiz believe that the results of these efforts will be visible immediately. But for professional dancers of color like Royal, the program is welcome and they are ready to commit time to mentoring the first Project Plié generation of dancers. “Our country’s culture and ethnic makeup is constantly changing,” Royal says. “Ballet needs to grow and change too. The stories we dance can be interpreted by a spectrum of races. Seeing a black swan queen or an Asian prince, kids will say, ‘Wow, that inspires me to dance. I see someone just like me. Maybe I can achieve that level.’”

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Hanna Rubin is the editor of Pointe Magazine.




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