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#Overthewall: diversity in the ballet sector


Three young girls of colour in blue ballet leotards are smiling at the camera
Credit: Travis Magee photo

When thinking of ballet, associations that might arise are elegance, tradition or conformity. However, an up-and-coming contestant for this word cluster is the term diversity. How so? In the past few years there has been an increasing effort from different sides of the ballet world to make it more inclusive. For example, famous ballerina Misty Copeland, who is also the first African-American Female Principal Dancer - the highest position in a ballet company - at the prestigious American Ballet Theater (ABT), publicly spoke up about the need for wider representation on stage and behind it. In an interview for Time Magazine she said, ‘It’s important for me to set an example of what a healthy image is. What a ballerina can be. That she doesn't have to be a white woman that's real thin. That she can look like the world.’ Besides functioning as a role model, Copeland has written multiple inclusive children’s books about ballerinas of colour, as well as launching a non-profit after-school ballet programme for children of colour called Be Bold this September. In addition, the ballet shoe manufacturer Freed of London and the London-based dance company Ballet Black have teamed up to produce pointe shoes in different colours to match a wider variety of skin tones. This shows that – finally – ballet institutions are ready to initiate change.


One outstanding example of an organization that actively works towards change is ABT RISE. While the first part of the abbreviation stands for American Ballet Theater, the second gives away its motto: Representation and Inclusion Sustain Excellence. The project’s efforts are as diverse as their goal and have the potential to inspire other companies beyond the ballet sector. The following paragraphs, therefore, will dive deeper into the origins and strategies of this initiative by the biggest ballet company in the United States.


Projet Plié

Before ABT RISE, there was Project Plié. Susan Fales-Hill, vice-chair at the board of ABT, shared in an interview (see below) that in 2006 the company critically assessed its own ranks of dancers and came across only one African-American ballerina. The conclusion: ‘We can’t look like an Alabama Country Club in 1952.’ To go against ABT’s lack of racial and ethnic diversity effectively, the former CEO of the American Ballet Theater (ABT), Rachel Moore, founded Project Plié in 2013. It has been described as a multi-pronged effort to enhance the ballet world’s accessibility, support systems and mentoring by applying different strategies.

These included for example:

  • awarding scholarships to ballet students from diverse backgrounds

  • making ballet more accessible and supporting talents from a young age by working together with Boys and Girls’ Clubs of America, which provide after-school activities for children and teenagers

  • recruiting and training dance instructors who have worked with ballerinas in underrepresented areas across the United States of America

  • establishing an official Project Plié partner network with professional ballet companies to work towards more inclusive ballet practices in the US

Within a short time the project showed positive results. ABT’s CEO Rachel S. Moore announced that after one year, there has been a five-per-cent increase in dancers of colour auditioning for ABT’s summer and year-round programmes. The former alone draws 5,000 children on average, so five per cent is significant. Additionally, because of the project, forty merit-based scholarships and housing stipends have been awarded to students of colour in the same period. Project Plié was a success and served as a role model for other companies, but it also paved the way for a new in-house project.



ABT RISE

In 2020 ABT introduced a new project: ABT RISE. It is a continuation and expansion of Project Plié and - like the latter - it provides internal and external programmes, initiatives, and activities. While Project Plié predominantly focused on BIPOC, ABT RISE has a wider scope in that it also supports and values the talents and viewpoints of LGBTQ+ people and women.

The project’s efforts comprise:

  • the ABT RISE Intensives which are engagement programmes for eight- and nine-year-old children across New York City. ABT thereby aims, in collaboration with community organizations, to make classical ballet more accessible and support diverse talents from a young age.

  • the ABT RISE Scholarships create training opportunities for dancers and teachers from lower-income socio-economic backgrounds.

  • the ABT RISE Education Series, which is addressed at ABT’s employees. It provides training programmes and makes resources accessible that aid in creating an inclusive workplace.

  • the ABTTALKs Series, which connects diverse leaders from different industries with the ABT community to share their expertise and engage in conversations.

  • matching new members of ABT with ABT RISE Mentors to create a smooth start and assist with queries.

  • the ABT Women’s Movement and ABT RISE Creative increase opportunities for women and BIPOC choreographers with commissions and collaborations.

  • the ABT Random House Children’s Books publishing programme, which brings together stories, representation, and ballet dancing. Together, ABT and Random House publish multiple books per year that reflect the diverse world of ballet.

These points illustrate that ABT invests in diversifying the company in many different ways and by various means. The Chief Administrative Officer of ABT, Kimberly Ayers Shariff, sums up the company’s intentions perfectly by saying:

‘We are poised to weave the commitment embodied by ABT RISE into the fabric of our organization, ensuring that everyone in our community is supported, positioned to thrive, and deeply engaged in demonstrating that equitable representation sustains excellence in our artform.’


Conclusion

ABT RISE and its predecessor Project Plié show that it is possible to make changes that advance inclusivity even within a sector as old as ballet. Both projects are in-house initiatives, which exemplifies how important the practice of self-reflection is. By transforming their organizational structures, ABT has not only diversified its own ranks but created collaborations with other companies and thereby paved the way for more diversity in the American ballet world. Misty Copeland served as an inspiration to the creators of Project Plié and ABT RISE, and the two projects are now giving other ballet companies an idea of how they can be more inclusive. Ultimately, the ballet projects’ interdisciplinary approach has the potential to inspire other industries as well.


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