On Sept. 30, the talented young Black female choreographer Sidra Bell made history when her new ballet was one of two world premieres featured on a program showcasing exciting artists from the worlds of dance and fashion at New York City Ballet’s ninth annual Fall 2021 Fashion Gala at Lincoln Center.
As a choreographer, Bell’s work, often performed by her company Sidra Bell Dance New York
(SBDNY), has been called fascinating, exuberant, audacious, captivating, genre-busting and at the forefront of innovative contemporary dance. After viewing a SBDNY concert steeped in visually vibrant imagery and innovative no-holds-barred physicality that wrestles with such poignant, provocative concepts as identity, intimacy and community, one critic described Bell’s work as comprising the “crisp rhythms of street dance, the stark, deep-queer glamour of a fashion catwalk, the enigmatic drama that just does not quit.”
Now, this talented artist whose work sits at the dynamic intersection of ballet, seminal modern techniques and the funky energetic innovation of hip hop, has made a historic leap. With the NYCB debut of her work, which also showcases a collaboration with Louisiana native, Brooklyn-based fashion designer Christopher John Rogers, Bell became the first Black female choreographer to set a work on the NYCB since the company was founded in 1948.
Asked what inspired this historic move, NYCB Associate Artistic Director Wendy Whelan says Bell had been on her radar for quite some time noting Bell’s “love for elements of design within her work. Bodies, lighting, clothing, music. She’s daring and curious and she loves process and play.” In fact, while Whelan was in talks for her own historic position, she says when discussion turned to the design for a season, “I knew then, when I’m choosing new choreographers, one had to be a Black woman. It had never been done and I just knew that this was a voice that needed to be heard, to be given the stage and a platform.” While this was a while ago, it is finally happening in 2021.
Work on the project began, Bell says, in 2019, when Whelan invited her to choreograph for the 2020 Fashion Gala. She immediately went to work pulling together the disparate elements needed to create a distinctive work, choosing dancers, costumes and choreography. Then COVID happened. The 2020 Gala was postponed but, in the meantime, Whelan asked Bell to participate in the NYCB’s 2020 Digital Festival, a natural for a choreographer who has worked with technology before and whose adaptability meshed with the unique challenges of COVID protocols. Bell also worked with another familiar element—music composed by her father, jazz musician Dennis Bell. The result, a delightful cite-specific piece that deepened the collaborative experience with NYCB, a collaborative feeling that seems to have carried over into the work with the company and, of course, designer Christopher John Rogers, making for what Bell calls a “super fun and very joyful process.”
When Bell describes her background, she seems made for this breakthrough moment. “I started out with an entrepreneurial spirit,” she says recounting how even as an undergraduate at Yale University, she had founded the Alliance for Dance at Yale College, offering performance workshops, working in partnership with the school administration to bring the art of dance to the campus while also doing outreach with community organizations. After graduation, she founded the nonprofit SBDNY, focused on doing live performances, educational programming, and teaching in Harlem-based community centers, including the Joseph P. Kennedy Performing Arts Center on 135th Street. Bell attributes the self-starter, innovative, adaptive, spirit that allows her to work “outside the box in different kinds of spaces,” to her training which began at age seven at the Dance Theatre of Harlem where she studied until she was 15 years old. “There is a lineage and a history that I feel a part of. I was always connected to the vision of Arthur Mitchell and the impactfulness of the founding of DTH. It permeated that environment where, as students we were able every day to see an exemplary level of excellence in the women and the men. There were just so many incredible women of color to look up to as a young woman, so I’m very grateful that I was placed in that situation. The history of Arthur Mitchell is just so meaningful.”
Bell uses the phrase “against the odds” and explains what she means by referring to her experience as a woman of color in the traditionally white space of ballet, saying, “For me it’s always been against the odds a little bit although I was always raised to believe that I could do anything. Yet, I guess I know it’s always been against the odds in some ways. I’ve always had this huge vision. I started making work when I was in high school and at that point, I was at the Alvin Ailey School. So I have the vision of these incredible huge Black-lead organizations.” Bell says the Ailey organization and the Dance Theatre of Harlem helped to fortify her sense of the possibilities. She recalls Denise Jefferson, head of the Ailey School who Bell says, “was a mentor and role model for me…I had this inspiration of people that were just doing it and doing it for the love of it.”
Now, as a young choreographer with her own company and a history-making commission for the New York City Ballet’s 2021 Fall Fashion Gala, like her mentors and role models Sidra Bell is doing it and doing it for the love of it while, at the same time, serving as a role model for other young aspiring African American female choreographers.
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