It took more than two hours to get to the point of “Reframing the Narrative” (Program A) at the Kennedy Center Opera House. My “ah-ha” moment came when BB King sang from a recording of “Let The Good Times Roll”. That’s what the concert was supposed to be – singing, dancing and celebrating black ballet dancers who weren’t properly recognized. What a wonderful piece! I’ve never seen ballet dancers calling the audience to join in the applause and sing the lyrics to “Bluff City Blues”, performed by Collage Dance Collective.
When we weren’t jumping in our seats, “Reframing the Narrative” made us seriously think about black ballet in America.
There was little narration that started in the dark with a “divine voice” speaking to us from afar. The roll call of the MOBBallet (Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet) listed 621 names. Alicia Graf Mack of Howard County was one of them.
The performances bring together the Dance Theater of Harlem, the Ballethnic Dance Company and the Collage Dance Collective along with other Black-identified ballet dancers from around the world to highlight the incredible work these pillar companies do in ballet today.
“Together we will consider what ballet might look like as we gather the best of what our path has to teach us, so that we can reach our full potential in the future,” said the hidden person noted in the program ( available for download on an application in the hall of the Opera). Check with ushers for the rare large-print paper programs that list the International Association of Blacks in Dance, led by Denise Saunders Thompson, president and CEO, and Theresa Ruth Howard, founder of Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet. The two women greeted the audience halfway through the show and shared their appreciation for the Kennedy Center which continues to be at the cutting edge of technology, giving voice to black performers – especially black ballet dancers – and providing a place where being black is the norm rather than the exception.
It’s somehow fitting that the Dance Theater of Harlem (DTH) opened the ‘Reframing the Narrative’ dances. The late artistic director, Arthur Mitchell, founded DTH in 1969. It was partly in response to the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. to prove that a company of black dancers could bring a new style to the spectrum of contemporary classical ballet. . He did – and more.
Mitchell sacrificed an established career as a star of New York City Ballet to bank on his own company and school. He could have founded it anywhere, but, for reasons of sentiment and social responsibility, he chose Harlem.
“We’ve proven that black people can do ballet,” Mitchell said at a press reception for his company’s engagement at the Kennedy Center in 1993. solid dance with mixed artists. We give a new approach to ballet that tackles heavy preconceptions of what classicism is in dance.
Although the myth of black ballet dancers may have been exploded, racial bias in the world of white ballet still exists nearly 30 years later, highlighted in this program. Few black dancers are seen in international companies with roles above the corps de ballet.
Since King’s death, DTH has proven to be a company equal to the best of its kind anywhere in the world. Yet with all of this current internationalism and blending, it’s important to note that DTH continues to emphasize that black ballet is beautiful, as seen in the opening dance, “Balamouk,” an explosion of orange hues and vibrant dance. Cuban-born Annabelle Lopez Ochoa created this dazzling ballet for ten dancers, including a kilted man. The Dickerts designed the lighting that followed individual dancers in and out of groups to remind us of older ballets like Nijinsky’s “Les Noces” and Paul Taylor’s “Esplanade.”
DTH returned to the stage to show off their classical repertoire, overseen by current Artistic Director Virginia Johnson, the embodiment of a beautiful black ballerina. The odalisque variations of “Le Corsaire” brought shouts and applause as loud and powerful as the first dance received. It was that kind of night with constant cheers from the audience tony – nice to see so many well-dressed men at the ballet.
Highlights of the ballets include the aforementioned cheerful “Bluff City Blues” from the dancers of Collage and Donald Byrd’s new closing work, “From Other Suns”, a sensitive look at the desire to belong. This modern dance/ballet commissioned by the Kennedy Center “brought together excerpts from the choreographers and directors – men in white t-shirts and Arthur Mitchell-style black tights. Arms outstretched to the sky reminded me of Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations”. Carlos Simon’s uplifting and somewhat witty score carried the message that black ballet dancers deserve praise, happily celebrated again and again in this performance. It was particularly gratifying to go and see the big and the young in ballet and it may have opened more doors to future ballets than expected. When we weren’t jumping in our seats, “Reframing the Narrative” made us seriously think about black ballet in America. (Take your dad to that ballet concert on Father’s Day weekend. He won’t be disappointed.)
Duration: 2 hours and 22 minutes with two intermissions of 15 minutes.