Ballet Stars

The Black Iris Project Photographed 100 Black Dancers Around NYC in Celebration of Nelson Mandela's Centennial

New York City Ballet's Olivia Boisson. Photo by Melika Dez, Courtesy Black Iris Project.

In 2016, choreographer Jeremy McQueen founded the Black Iris Project with the aim of bringing together predominantly minority dancers each summer to create works that celebrate diversity and black history. This year, he's mixing it up. In honor of South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela's 100th birthday on July 18, McQueen created 100 FISTS in collaboration with photographer Melika Dez. Each day, for the hundred days leading up to Mandela's birthday, BIP has released a photo on social media of a black dancer in a New York City location, posed with their hand in a fist. Each photo is paired with an inspirational quote by Mandela. Pointe caught up with McQueen to find out how this project came together and what's next for the fledgling collective.


How did you come up with the idea for 100 FISTS?

I was looking at how we could continue to further our mission at BIP to continue engagement and increase visibility of black artists while also continuing to share the stories of black figures in history. This year is Nelson Mandela's 100th birthday, and I wanted to celebrate that through community, which is what our collective is all about and is what Mandela was really all about. We looked at what was popular on social media, and people love dance photos. So a year ago I decided to pull together 100 dancers and photograph them—but make something not just about technique, but deep and meaningful, where dancers come together to admire and spread the love about this great historical figure.

Where did the name for the project come from?

A number of photos of Mandela throughout history have been shown with a fist, and when I made MADIBA, my ballet based on Mandela's life, I used a lot of fists. It also references the Black Lives Matter movement. Everyone had to have at least one fist in their photo.

ABT corps dancer Gabe Stone Shayer


What was the timeline of the project?

We shot 70 dancers during four days in the middle of a storm this winter, and then we shot 30 dancers in two days in the spring. Each dancer was given 10 minutes to get a shot; some came totally prepared and were done in three minutes, and some took longer.

The photos are all shot in quintessential New York locations. How does the city play into this project for you?

It's part of the message. We're an NYC-based ballet collaborative, though we do perform all across the country and are honored to do so. I've called NYC my home for 13 years, and I think there's something so inspiring about the vibrancy of the city. I was inspired to start BIP after graduating from the Ailey/Fordham BFA program. I'd made all of these friends, and then once we started to become professionals we never really got to come together and dance together. So I wanted to honor where our collaborative started, and why we all love the city.

How did you find the dancers?

Most of them were in my network to begin with. The black dancer circle in New York is fairly small. I sent a Facebook message to every black dancer I knew in NYC, and said, "Hey, this is what we're doing. If you'd like to join us, please sign up." That's how we got the first 70 dancers. The later 30 were a curated list hand-picked by me. I wanted to include as many different dance companies as possible, whether it be American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Ballet Hispanico or Dance Theatre of Harlem, and some of those dancers were on tour or not available in the winter.

What do you hope that viewers on social media will get out of seeing the project?

Nelson Mandela was a great champion for change, and a pioneer for bringing people together and collective organizing and how to protest. He and his supporters overturned the South African apartheid. It's really meant as an inspirational and motivational tool despite our political climate and what we might be going through in our personal lives.

What do you plan to do with these photos after July 18?

I would love, love, love to have these photos in a gallery somewhere. I think it would be so dynamic and wonderful.

What's next for the Black Iris Project?

Our mission is to create one new work a year that's rooted in either black history or the black experience. Our 2018 ballet is called A Mother's Rite and is inspired by a number of mothers who have lost their children to police brutality or racially charged violence. It will be performed alongside MADIBA, my ballet on Mandela, on August 16 in Harlem. Our 2019 ballet is a Harriet Tubman ballet that follows her journey.

Show Comments ()
Ballet Training
Anna Greenberg of ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, photographed by Jayme Thornton for Pointe.

All dancers have their go-to tension area: shoulders that creep up towards the ears, a hand that becomes a claw, or feet and ankles that grip. Yet "Just relax" can be the hardest correction to apply. We spoke with four teachers for their tips on releasing tension throughout the body—and how it's all connected.

The Face

A dancer's face is a frequent tension trouble spot, as eyebrows lift or furrow, jaws clench and tongues peek out. Hilary Cartwright, international guest teacher and creator of Yoga Narada, notices that, for many students, "all the tension goes into the face in their effort to achieve and please their teacher." Similarly, Seattle-based ballet instructor Stephanie Saland observes that dancers "demonstrate" their focus with their face instead of actually being attentive. "Does 'focus' mean bug your eyes and shove your chin forward to show interest, enthusiasm, volition?" she asks. "Or can you just be present and take the information in?"

Cartwright recommends taking a moment to "turn it around" and find your inner smile. "When you're feeling tense, think of something—a smiley face, your dog or cat—that brings back reality a little bit. Remember the good things in the rest of your life." If your inner smile turns into an outward one, even better. Smiling is a simple way to alleviate tension in your face and convey your joy of dancing.

Saland suggests visualizing a mask that's painted onto your face dripping off "almost in puddles down the front of your body." This relaxes facial tension and sends your focus inward. Remember that in class, sometimes, you can just make the effort without feeling that you have to project out.

News
Ballet Austin's Aara Krumpe in The Firebird. After 20 years, this is Krumpe's final season with the company. Photo by Tony Spielberg, Courtesy Ballet Austin.

Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.

Keep reading... Show less
Trending
Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe.

Over the past year, the #MeToo movement has helped spotlight sexual harassment, as well as verbal and emotional abuse, in the ballet industry. Most recently, a lawsuit filed by Alexandra Waterbury against New York City Ballet and principal dancer Chase Finlay, who has since resigned, revealed particularly chilling behavior. Earlier this week, we posted an article that struck a nerve with our audience. We've received some heated responses about the story's prompt and tone. We hear you, and we want to take this opportunity to give you a voice to address concerns and ask questions about recent claims of abuse in the ballet world.

Dancers, students and dance parents: how have these revelations shaped your view of the dance industry, and what worries you most? What changes do you want to see from leadership to address them? Professional dancers, what advice or insight would you give students and those in their early career about what to expect in the professional world?

We want to hear from you. Please feel free to comment or to send your thoughts to abrandt@dancemedia.com.

News
Ramasar and Catazaro, via Instagram

New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Careers
Nevada Ballet Theatre. Still Courtesy Lee.

Earlier this summer, we followed master pointe shoe fitter Josephine Lee of the California-based The Pointe Shop as she made her on a pointe shoe fitting tour around the West Coast and California. Now she's back, this time on a 45-day tour from California to Chicago, educating students on all things pointe shoes and helping them to find their perfect fit. Lee's making stops at top ballet companies and academies across the country, interviewing school directors and chatting with professional ballerinas to find out how they customize and break in their pointe shoes. Below, check out Lee's first stop: Nevada Ballet Theatre. She touches base with company dancer Caroline MacDonald, and academy director Anna Lantz. Stay tuned for more!

Keep reading... Show less
Editors' List: The Goods

Longer ballet skirts are having a major moment. We've seen them popping up in the Instagram studio clips of dance fashionistas around the world—from American Ballet Theatre's Isabella Boylston to The Royal Ballet's Beatriz Stix-Brunell to Berlin State Ballet's Iana Salenko. And with cooler weather on the way, we have a feeling we'll be seeing even more calf-length skirts.

Beyond being trendy, long ballet skirts give any studio ensemble a sophisticated prima ballerina vibe (hi, Natalia Makarova). Try out one of these long skirt options.

Keep reading... Show less
Viral Videos
Tricia Albertson kisses Didier Bramaz after finding the perfect hat in The Concert. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Miami City Ballet.

Tricia Albertson, as told to Gavin Larsen.

I like to make people laugh, so I was excited to be cast as the Mad Ballerina in Jerome Robbins' The Concert. But the character herself didn't feel like me. She's so bubbly and excited, and I'm a bit more pensive (when it comes to ballet, at least). I didn't want her to come across as stupid—she's still thoughtful. I guess you could say she's flighty, but it's just that she's so excited about the music at the concert that everything else is a blur to her.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
A portrait of Fanny Elssler, Courtesy Olga Smoak.

This Thursday, we're throwing it all the way back to Fanny Elssler, one of the most famous ballerinas of the Romantic period. Elssler may have graced stages far before the age of reality TV and Instagram, but her story is anything but dry. Last week, the Historic New Orleans Collection put on a symposium on the history of dance in New Orleans, of which Elssler played a pivotal role. We spoke with dance historian Olga Smoak to find out more about why this ballerina is still so exciting... nearly 200 years later.

But first, watch a recreation of Elssler's famous "La Cachucha," which she performed in New Orleans in 1841, danced by Rebecca Allen at the HNOC last week. Note the extreme tilts of the torso; they're part of what made Elssler such a captivating dancer in her day.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Training
Thinkstock

I've noticed that my progress has plateaued. Class starts out pretty well, but once we get to center, it seems like I am not improving whatsoever. Help! —Sade

Keep reading... Show less
Yuli looks like the ballet biopic of our dreams. Screenshot via YouTube

We admit it. We're picky about dance movies. They don't always represent our beloved art form accurately, or use real dancers to play the main roles.

But we just watched the first trailer for the new Carlos Acosta biopic, Yuli, and we're kinda speechless:

Keep reading... Show less
Trending
Katherine Williams as Myrtha. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe.

With a large exhale, Katherine Williams steps into a series of arabesque chugs, as if the force of her breath is propelling her forward. "Big step out, big," coaxes ballet mistress Irina Kolpakova, watching from the front of a small studio at American Ballet Theatre in May. It's a big step indeed for Williams—after 10 years in the corps de ballet, the 29-year-old is preparing for her debut as Myrtha in ABT's production of Giselle, her very first principal role. One month after the premiere, Williams was promoted to soloist.

"Myrtha is the hardest thing I've ever done," Williams admits. "By the end you feel like you're going to throw up. I was using my breath as much as I could to help me get through it."

While Williams is tall and a natural jumper, she was surprised when artistic director Kevin McKenzie cast her in such a fierce and powerful role. "Generally they give me the happy peasant girl, something softer," she says. "I think it was a leap of faith for Kevin to allow me to embrace a totally different side of myself."

Keep reading... Show less
Trending
Misty Copeland models her fall collection for Under Armour. Photo courtesy of Under Armour.

Fall is fast approaching, and American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland has your back-to-dance wardrobe (and beyond) covered. The Under Armour spokesmodel debuted her Fall 2018 Misty Copeland Signature Collection earlier this week, playing off her first collection with another set of looks that work just as well in the studio as they do hanging out with friends.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Viral Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!