Kennedy Center showcases Black ballet in ‘Reframing the Narrative’ initiative

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Black ballet at the Kennedy Center (Part 1)

The nation’s capital is shining an overdue spotlight on Black ballet dancers and choreographers.

Ballet dancers perform "Reframing the Narrative" at the Kennedy Center. (Courtesy Kennedy Center)

Next week, the Kennedy Center will host “Pathways to Performance: Exercises in Reframing the Narrative” on Tuesday, July 2, and Wednesday, July 3.

“The title points out that sometimes people who are marginalized aren’t actually writing their own story,” artistic director Theresa Ruth Howard told WTOP. “The story that gets written about us: the lack of Blacks in ballet or that maybe we don’t like ballet, we don’t understand it or we don’t want to do it, is incorrect. We need to take the moment and have the agency to scribe our own story, so that’s what we are doing.”

This is the second “Reframing the Narrative” event at the Kennedy Center after the first in 2022.

“The idea was curating a week that would celebrate Blacks in ballet,” Howard said. “The concept was to bring the three Black ballet companies that exist in the U.S. — Dance Theatre of Harlem, Collage Dance Collective and Ballethnic — along with this idea to curate 10 to 12 Black-identifying ballet dancers from professional companies to come together and work with choreographer Donald Byrd on an original composition.”

This year’s program will feature the return of Donald Byrd’s “From Other Suns” and Portia Adams’ “Faintly Seen,” as well as a trio of world premieres, including “Pas de Deux” by Kiyon Ross, “Home” by Jennifer Archibald and “Where They Meet” by Meredith Rainey.

“I wanted to bring back Donald Byrd’s ‘From Other Suns’ because it was such a success,” Howard said. “We have Jennifer Archibald, the first Black female to be a resident choreographer. … Kiyon Ross, associate artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, has choreographed a neoclassical pas-de-deux. … Meredith Rainey is bringing ‘Where They Meet,’ a beautiful, poetic work about community and different types of love. … Portia Adams has choreographed ‘Faintly Seen,’ only six minutes long for four dancers and it’s quite lovely.”

The Kennedy Center showcase is the latest step in Howard’s lifelong mission to level the playing field of ballet across racial barriers. She grew up attending the Philadelphia School of Dance, founded by ballet legend Joan Myers Brown, before her supportive father enrolled her in the prestigious Pennsylvania Ballet.

“I had a ballet father, not a ballet mother,” Howard said. “You know ‘dance moms,’ but I had a ‘dance dad’ who learned not only how to advocate for me and protect me as one of the only Black students in the school, but also learned technique, terminology, he learned dance history and really supported me to every degree.”

In 2015, Howard founded MoBBallet, which stands for Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet, initially as a website providing a digital archive for the key contributions of Black people in ballet throughout a rarely-told history.

“People don’t know that Blacks have been in ballet since it began,” Howard said. “We have a digital timeline that starts in 1946 with George Washington Smith, who was a mixed-race dancer who premiered ‘Giselle’ in Boston. I wanted to show that, yes, Blacks have been in ballet since the beginning, you might not know their names because, historically, the contributions of people of color are muted. I wanted to illuminate and give visibility to all the beautiful artists that have come before us and are presently making what will be history.”

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WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Black ballet at the Kennedy Center (Part 2)

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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