When Debra Austin became the first black woman to dance at New York City Ballet, hired by George Balanchine in 1971, there was very little publicity surrounding her appointment. Then, after dancing Zurich Ballet for two years, she was offered a principal contract with Pennsylvania Ballet—becoming the first black principal woman to be hired by a major American ballet company outside of Dance Theatre Harlem.
Debra Austin has a special place in dance history: In 1971, at age 16, she was the first African American woman George Balanchine hired into New York City Ballet. After nine years with the company and two years with Zurich Ballet, she joined Pennsylvania Ballet as a principal dancer, making her the first female African American principal hired by a major U.S. ballet company outside of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Famous for her buoyant jump, Austin's vast repertoire ranged from classical roles to Balanchine to Hans Van Manen. Since 1997, she's been passing on her knowledge as ballet master at Carolina Ballet, a company led by her former director at PAB, Robert "Ricky" Weiss.
In honor of her achievements, Texas Christian University's School of Classical and Contemporary Dance has named Austin as this year's Cecil H. and Ida Green Honors Chair. She started at TCU this week, where she's been leading master classes and cross-department collaborations, attending cultural events and giving lectures. We caught up with Austin prior to her residency to talk about her extraordinary career.
Complexions Contemporary Ballet is celebrating their 25th anniversary this year, and we can hardly contain our excitement. Their longstanding commitment to diversity and daring, edgy repertoire has made them an exemplar of American contemporary ballet today. The company's season opener will be held at the Joyce Theater from February 19–March 3. Works include the world premiere of Complexions co-founder and choreographer Dwight Rhoden's WOKE; a compilation spanning 25 years of the company's repertory titled From Then to Now; the return of the David Bowie tribute Star Dust; and the New York City premiere of Bach 25. A gala evening will be held February 21, in which Complexions co-founder and co-artistic director Desmond Richardson will perform for the last time as a full-time company member.
Pointe caught up with Rhoden and Richardson in separate interviews to hear them reflect on what the past 25 years has meant to them, what audiences can expect from their anniversary season, and why Richardson is choosing to step away from his role as full-time company member.
Whenever Debra Austin jumped, she soared—and not only onstage. Invited by George Balanchine to join New York City Ballet at age 16, she was the first African-American woman to enter the company. She later joined Zurich Ballet, returning to the U.S. to accept a principal contract with Pennsylvania Ballet in 1982—a groundbreaking milestone for a black dancer outside of Dance Theatre of Harlem at the time. In this clip from a 1987 production of Giselle, her beautifully pliant feet and effortless ballon shine through the fuzzy video quality. In her Act I variation, the classical, understated purity of her port de bras belie the sheer technical strength of her attitude pirouettes and hops on pointe. Then watch, at 4:00, how she appears to fly through the air as a spectral wili, only to rise ever so delicately for a series of fluttering ronds de jambe en l'air.
Lauren Anderson, a former star of Houston Ballet, broke down barriers when she became the company's first African American principal ballerina in 1990. It was with enormous strength, personality and passion that she earned this elusive rank, as well as critical praise and loyal fans. In these snippets from Harald Lander's Etudes, her spirited performance proves why she rose to the top.
It's a thrill to watch Anderson in Lander's masterpiece, which celebrates the traditions of classical technique. She brings extraordinary virtuosity to the lead female role. Anderson captivates the audience with her bravura, insuppressible smile and dramatic flair, like the high-flying entrance at 1:45. In the first solo, she shows her musicality and personality through details in the upper body, sailing through brisk turns with confidence. She has impressive attack, but still incorporates fluid, suspended movement. Anderson certainly pushes boundaries and she reminds us of the possibilities that the future of ballet holds. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!
When artistic director Kevin Thomas and executive director Marcellus D. Harper founded Collage Dance Collective in 2006 in New York City, they sought to push the boundaries of classical ballet and foster and promote the talents of artists of color. In 2007, the company relocated to Memphis during a period of the city's "artistic renaissance" and as part of a mission to extend classical ballet training to a wider and more diverse audience.
That same year also marked the company's first performances at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. This week, Collage Dance Collective returns to the Pillow, performing at the festival's Inside/Out stage on Thursday, August 10. (Thomas will also teach an open ballet class; click here for more info.)
When I was a teenager, Lauren Anderson was my generation's Misty Copeland. The former Houston Ballet star made history as the company's first African American principal ballerina in 1990, and her partnership with Carlos Acosta thrilled audiences before he left Houston for The Royal Ballet. Since her retirement in 2006, she's had her hands full as Houston Ballet's program manager of community engagement—yet she still finds time to teach master classes around the world. On April 8–12, Anderson will be headlining Debbie Allen Dance Academy's "DADA On Pointe" Ballet Intensive, including an exclusive talk-back with Allen on April 8. Anderson spoke with Pointe about the impact the Fame star had on her career, and how she's tried to pay it forward since.
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For the past few months, a new ballet collaborative called the Black Iris Project has steadily gained momentum. Founded by choreographer Jeremy McQueen, the project brings together dancers of color from different companies to perform original works about the black experience. Tonight, Black Iris Project opens its debut season at New York Live Arts with three new ballets, including Brown Baby, a piece co-choreographed by McQueen and Lauren Cox, and McQueen's Madiba, based on the life of Nelson Mandela.
The project, which also includes an educational component, was created in response to ballet's lack of diversity. In a recent article in The Village Voice, McQueen stressed that Black Iris Project is a collaborative, not a company, and that its featured dancers are from all over the country. “It's important for them to stay where they are," he told writer Rajul Punjabi, “because if they don't clear the way for themselves in that company, who knows how long it's going to take for another black dancer to grace the ranks of those companies?"
One of those dancers, San Francisco Ballet corps member Kimberly Marie Olivier (formerly Braylock), will dance the lead in McQueen's Black Iris, a ballet that confronts the particular challenges faced by black women. In an SFB blog post, she writes about premiering the work at a preview performance in June. It was her first stab at a principal role. “When my self-esteem started to ebb," writes Olivier, “I just had to keep reminding myself that this was for a cause that was bigger than just me."
The Black Iris Project runs from July 27–28, 2016 at New York Live Arts. Check out the video of the making of Madiba below.
The International Association of Blacks in Dance has announced that it is hosting its first annual ballet audition for women of color. On January 24, 2016, women ages 15 and older will have the opportunity to audition for directors from multiple companies, second companies and schools at the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Studios in Denver, CO. (See list of confirmed participating companies below.) Professional development, summer workshops and training positions will also be available.
Ballet’s lack of diversity—and what to do about it—has been a frequent topic of late, with stars like American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland leading the conversation. The sheer number of companies participating in IABD’s collective audition is a hopeful sign that directors are listening. For more information on how to apply, click here.
Confirmed participating companies:
Dance Theatre of Harlem
The Hartt School
Kansas City Ballet
Pacific Northwest Ballet School
San Francisco Ballet
The Washington Ballet
Ballet has a lily-white reputation.
The great “ballet blanc" works glorify white swans, white shades, white wilis and white sylphs. Still, in 2014, balletgoers might expect some progress in racial diversity onstage, especially in the U.S., where populations of color are growing. But comb the rosters of most American companies and you'll find a striking sameness. While a few have established inclusive policies in training and hiring, they are the minority. There is a notable exception—Asian and Asian-American dancers have made real inroads. However, dancers of other ethnic backgrounds continue to face challenges, especially women.
Many factors contribute to ballet's lack of diversity: economic inequality—ballet training is notoriously expensive; a lack of role models for aspiring dancers to emulate; a failure on the part of schools and companies to provide support for young dancers of color on the uphill road to professional success. And another factor looms large in the discussion: Many believe a thread of racism still runs through the ballet world. “There are people who define ballet in a very specific and historic sense and think it should look like the Mariinsky in 1950," says American Ballet Theatre executive director Rachel Moore, who last year launched the company's Project Plié, an initiative to support the training of ballet students from underrepresented communities.