An inconspicuous building in Manhattan’s Flatiron District is not only headquarters to the American Ballet Theater but also a wonderland of sorts for some 22 children of color enrolled in the JKO School Children’s Division Bridge Class, which is a local component ABT’s national Project Plié initiative. The children came from a number of community-based schools, including Harlem School of the Arts, Uptown Dance Academy and Brooklyn’s Covenant Ballet Theatre.
In a mirrored studio on the third floor, one of several just off a long winding hallway lined with posters featuring ABT stars, past and present, Project Plié students, aged 8 to 13, are being introduced to a dance technique that, after years of discipline and dedication, could transform them into what one dance legend aptly called “acrobats of the Gods.”
For now, the children attend ballet class once a week. There exercises range from the simple to slightly more complex, all with an eye towards both introducing novices to ballet and accessing the strengths of those who’ve had some previous training. Once each term, on parent observation day, family members sit on folding metal chairs placed along the studio’s mirrored walls and watch their darlings show how much they have learned.
Classes usually begin at the barre with legwork and footwork, and then students move to the center of the floor for unsupported jumps and turns before they go across the floor with traveling steps. Exercises are designed to strengthen and stretch the dancers’ bodies. Here, the teacher first demonstrates the steps. Then, the class repeats them as she counts out loud or claps, keeping time with the pianist accompanying the class. Occasionally, she injects corrections or praise. Sometimes she asks a student to demonstrate. A young boy is asked to show a jump. He springs into the air with ease. She compliments him before signaling the others to do the exercise. Asking a young girl in the front row to demonstrate another step she praises her, “Good, Paige.” Though Paige’s face is emotionless her eyes shine with delight. Later, the teacher, Rodica Borddeianu, says, “I love this class. They always give 150 percent.”
Paige’s mother, Yvana Nair, proudly tells an observer, “I was very excited for Paige when she was chosen to take classes here at ABT.” The 12-year-old and her 10-year-old sister, Elle, were accepted into Project Plié after auditioning with some 50 other youngsters last year. “Paige is a big fan of Misty Copeland and her dream was always to study at ABT,” the mother adds.
“These kids are hungry for this,” says ABT’s Project Plié Coordinator Monica Stephenson. “You can see the eagerness in their faces. It’s refreshing.” Stephenson says Paige has been invited into ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School Level 3 and Elle into Level 2. Now, both will begin studying at ABT several days a week taking ballet, character dance and body conditioning. That is good news. Of their entire bridge class, eight have been invited into the JKO School Children’s Division and 12 have been invited to repeat the bridge class program a second year.
“The JKO Children’s Division Bridge Class Project Plié is actually a bridge from the community to ABT,” says Stephenson. “The program usually lasts one year. We’ve never had this type of recruiting before where we’re going into the community and developing partnerships, creating an avenue into the full-time training at the JKO School.”
According to an ABT press release, from its inception in 2013 Project Plié was “a comprehensive initiative” created by then-CEO Rachel S. Moore to “increase racial and ethnic representation in ballet and to diversify America’s ballet companies.” It was also hoped that by strengthening and broadening the pipeline of future artists, it would “help ensure ballet’s continued relevance and excellence in the 21st century.”
Misty Copeland, has been a champion of Project Plié from the beginning, according to her publicist, Gilda Squire, who recalls the first meeting at the home of Susan Fales-Hill, which brainstormed about the initiative. How to find talent? How to let them know about the opportunity? Squire says, “Because of Misty’s relationship and ambassadorship with the Boys and Girls Club of America, Misty and I suggested a partnership with them.” It has grown from there. Misty even sat in on the auditions that resulted in this current bridge class. Recently, parents gushed recalling her visit not long ago to give each of the kids a newly released Mattel Barbie dolls.
Fales-Hill enthusiastically recalls the “robust discussions” that led to the creation of Project Plié. At the time she was on ABT’s board of directors. Currently, she is part of the Project Plié Advisory Committee, along with Misty Copeland and Gilda Squire. “This is not like other diversity initiatives that are really about throwing the community a bone and then going away with no intention of every really finding anything or including people,” Fales-Hill says proudly. “This was really about saying there’s talent and the inclusive energy helps everybody.” After all, she adds, “White people are soon to be in the minority in this country, and if people of color don’t see themselves onstage there’s no way for the art form to survive.”
Clearly, ABT understood the value of diversity. They didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. The graying of ballet’s predominantly white audiences spelled box office trouble. The browning of America offered a solution for those willing to embrace it. It’s no secret that America’s ballet schools and companies have not always welcomed Black dancers. In fact, the history of American dance is rife with stories of talented, beautiful Black ballet dancers confronted with racial barriers and limited opportunities in ballet having to choose other alternatives, even leaving the country. When Misty Copeland became the first African-American principal ballerina in American Ballet Theater’s 75-year history, the glass ceiling seemed shattered and the times seem to be changing, even though there is still much work to be done.
Now, in addition to training budding young ballet dancers and providing them with full tuition scholarships, a uniform and travel assistance, ABT ‘s program trains arts administrators and teachers of color like the head of the Harlem-based Uptown Dance Academy, Robin Williams, who trained Paige and her sister, Elle. ABT also has created a national network of partnerships in this endeavor that stretches from Cincinnati to Austin, Texas. It also offers scholarships for young dancers of color in both the Children’s Division and the Pre-Professional Division of the JKO School, as well as merit-based scholarships for Summer Intensives.
Although some have pointed out that it takes close to a decade to train ballet dancers as an excuse for the still scant representation in major ballet companies, others insist it would be misleading to suggest that there are no dancers already in the pipeline who are prepared to join these companies. Although some might be tempted to insist that Misty Copeland is an exception, and who would dare dispute that she is an exceptionally beautiful and talented dancer, a closer look at the facts suggest that in some ways she is also the exception that could prove the rule. In other words, there is undoubtedly untapped talent out there. The fact that ABT’s training programs alone have resulted in some 40-plus young dancers joining ABT’s studio company, ABT proper and other ballet companies around the globe debunks the “we can’t find any qualified dancers” response.
Still, Project Plié is a much-needed program. Also needed is the kind of open-minded commitment to diversity that seems to have contributed to Project Plié’s success and will possibly make it sustainable. Only time will tell.