The Constellation Project's detailed orbit of Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. Digital design by Natasha Hulme, Courtesy MoBBallet

Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet's "Constellation Project" Maps the Complex Histories of 6 Dance Pioneers

Last week, Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet celebrated the start of Black History Month with the launch of The Constellation Project, a star-studded online exhibition of dance history. The project maps the lives of six influential Black dancers—Arthur Mitchell, Mel Tomlinson, Lavinia Williams, Mabel Jones Freeman, Doris Jones and Claire Haywood—across a digitally rendered galaxy of historical events, institutions and more. The result is an educational experience that, much like its galaxy-inspired title, will no doubt only continue to grow.

Writer and activist Theresa Ruth Howard founded MoBBallet in 2015 with a fairly simple mission: to make the invisible visible. She started with projects like her Roll Call of Black dancers and the Timeline that traces their presence back into the 19th century. These designs highlighted Black artists as individuals, but the more that Howard learned, the more complex these stories became.

"We don't dance in a vacuum," Howard explained recently, "and history is not as siloed as it's presented when we teach it."

Mel Tomlinson, one of the artists profiled by MoBBallet's Constellation Project, danced for Dance Theatre of Harlem, Heritage Dance Theatre, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, New York City Ballet, North Carolina Dance Theatre and Boston Ballet.

Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives

One example, she says, is the way that renowned 20th-century choreographer Anthony Tudor—a white man—also spent time teaching private dance classes to Black women in Philadelphia.

"What does that do?" Howard asks. "Does it change the way that we perceive what ballet is and how the world actually worked?"

This question guided the start of MoBBallet's Constellation Project, whose full title includes "Mapping the Dark Stars of Ballet." Howard, along with MoBBallet's digital art director Natasha Hulme, conceptualized the dancers in orbit with each other's influences. Howard had also partnered with Janine Parker, the artist in residence at Williams College, to co-teach a course that would eventually lead to The Constellation Project's launch.

The five students in Howard and Parker's class chose their own subjects and then spent the semester conducting expansive research. "I didn't say, 'Oh, no, that's not relevant, that's not about ballet,'" Howard explained. "It ended up being more anthropological—it looks at Black culture and Black life."

The approach shifted the way the students looked at history, Howard said: "It wasn't as one-dimensional. It automatically made them think about what's not being said and who is not being represented."

Digital design by Natasha Hulme, Courtesy MoBBallet

The Lavinia Williams orbit

Howard hopes The Constellation Project will encourage a shift in the way we view, teach and categorize dance history and normalize more conversations like these. She wants dancers, educators, directors and choreographers to start actively looking for what has been invisibilized. On the site, users start by choosing one of six galaxies that surround each featured artist and then take step-by-step tours of the stars that represent overlapping influences within each orbit. For example, near Lavinia Williams, who danced for the American Negro Ballet and Katherine Dunham Company, is a star that represents Virginia Lee, the woman who provided Williams' scholarship to the Art Students League, where she had trained in her childhood. The Art Students League has its own star, which also orbits around Lee and Williams. This continues, with each intersection moving in sleek animation, until the user has seen a galaxy made up of dozens of stars with interwoven orbits. At each stop along the way, users can click to read a few paragraphs of information and find more sources.

"It's designed to be like a rabbit hole," Howard says "so that you just trip and fall down and you find all these interesting things."

As she adds more artists with their own orbits of history, Howard hopes to collaborate with a few more colleges, and one day she would love to see the exhibition in a physical space—maybe even the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

For now, though, the project will continue to grow online, where everyone can navigate it easily.

"History is for everybody," Howard says. "And everybody's history is for everybody. It really does involve all of us almost all the time."

Latest Posts

The author, Lucy Van Cleef, dancing Balanchine's Serenade at Los Angeles Ballet. Reed Hutchinson, Courtesy Los Angeles Ballet

My 12-Year Journey to a Bachelor’s Degree While Dancing Professionally

If you'd have told me in 2009 that it would take 12 years to earn my bachelor's degree, I never would have believed you. Back then, I was a dancer in my early 20s and in my second year with Los Angeles Ballet. I was used to the straightforward demands of the professional ballet world. I knew that hard work and willpower were the currency you paid in the studio, and that the thrill of live performance made all that investment worth it. What I didn't know then is how life's twists and turns aren't always so straightforward. In hindsight, I can see how my winding road to higher education has strengthened me—and my relationship with the ballet world—more than I ever could have imagined.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Victoria Morgan with Cincinnati Ballet principal dancer Sirui Liu. Jennifer Denham, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

After 25 Years, Victoria Morgan to Step Down as Cincinnati Ballet's Artistic Director

Last month, Victoria Morgan announced that she will step down as Cincinnati Ballet's artistic director at the conclusion of the 2021-22 season. The organization's board of trustees has formed a committee to conduct a national search for her replacement.

Prior to coming to Cincinnati Ballet in 1997, the Salt Lake City native was a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and Ballet West, as well as resident choreographer for the San Francisco Opera. She graduated magna cum laude from University of Utah, where she also earned her MFA, and has judged several international ballet competitions.

Entering her 25th and final season as director, Morgan has accomplished a lot at Cincinnati Ballet, not the least erasing the $800,000 in company debt she inherited at the outset of her tenure. To right the organization's financial ship she had to make tough choices early on—the first task the company's executive committee gave her was to release a third of the company's dancers. In her continuing effort to overhaul how the organization did business, in 2008 she became both the artistic director and CEO and set about building the company's now $14.5 million endowment. For the 2016–17 season, with the arrival of new company president and CEO Scott Altman, Morgan returned to being full-time artistic director and helped lead the realization of the organization's new $31 million home, the Margaret and Michael Valentine Center for Dance.

A champion of female choreographers, Morgan has also choreographed numerous ballets for the company, including world premieres of King Arthur's Camelot and The Nutcracker. She has also helped orchestrate several company collaborations, including 2013's Frampton and Cincinnati Ballet Live and joint productions with BalletMet.

Pointe caught up with Morgan to talk about her recent announcement.

Victoria Morgan is shown from the side standing on stage right, turning to smile at a line of costumed dancers to her left during bows. She wears a patterned green dress with chunky green high heels and holds a red rose in her hand.

Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

Why leave Cincinnati Ballet now?

It's been an amazing run and I have seen it all. I am not sure where I would go from here. I also feel there is a required stimulus and infusion of new ideas and energy that always needs to be a part of a growing, evolving and exciting arts organization.

What made you happiest at Cincinnati Ballet?

The people, from the devotion of patrons and donors to learning from and feeling the pride in work from the staff. It has also been so satisfying for me to choreograph on and watch so many dancers evolve in their dance careers and lives.

Were there things you wanted to do for the company that you weren't able to?

There were other collaborations I wanted us to explore and choreographers I wanted us to work with. It takes quite an investment to make those happen.

Your legacy includes actively creating opportunities for female choreographers. What motivated that?

I started realizing, in a profound way, the gender inequities in our art form. Because I was in a leadership position, I thought I could do something about this and try to get to a 50-50 balance of male and female choreographers. It took a little time to find women to step forward, but it happened. Now there are many more prominent female choreographers, including our resident choreographer Jennifer Archibald, and I am proud of that.

If you could handpick your successor, what qualities would you look for?

Somebody creative, charged up, and who can be visionary. Someone who has had a high-level experience in our art form. A leader who is demanding but also kind and supportive, and who opens doors to find new ideas while still embracing Cincinnati Ballet's philosophies.

What do you feel will be one of the biggest challenges for the new artistic director?

The important cause of DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility). Whoever steps into that position has to have awareness of the culture of today's conversation.

Do you plan to keep choreographing?

I am not being proactive about it, but if the opportunity presents itself, it would be fun.

What's next?

I feel my next calling is bringing movement to the biggest segment of our population, baby boomers. I want to be part of an initiative that makes moving and wellness enjoyable and enlivens people.

Carla Fracci in Romeo and Juliet, 1968. Erio Piccagliani, Courtesy La Scala Ballet

Backstage Notes: Conversations With Carla Fracci

Last month, the legendary Italian ballerina Carla Fracci passed away at the age of 84. A star whose name was eponymous for La Scala Ballet in Milan, she went on to have an international career with companies including The Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. Over her five-decade career she developed partnerships with the greatest male stars of the age, including Rudolf Nureyev and Erik Bruhn. She also acted on television and in films, playing Tamara Karsavina in the 1980 movie Nijinsky, and would go on to direct ballet companies in Naples, Verona and Rome. Often called the "Duse of the dance" (referencing the great Italian actress Eleanora Duse), Fracci became famous for her bringing vivid spontaneity and depth to her roles, from her signature Giselle to The Accused (Lizzie Borden) in Agnes DeMille's Fall River Legend.

In October 2006, I had the pleasure of conducting a series of interviews with Fracci for my book, First Position: A Century of Ballet Artists (ABC-CLIO). After the interviews ended, she and her husband, Beppe Menegatti, graciously invited me to their home. Our conversation was wide-ranging (including our ideal casts of present-day dancers for various ballets, the role of the Alonsos in Cuba), and she shared anecdotes about partnering.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks