When India Bradley steps onstage at Lincoln Center to dance in George Balanchine’s “Agon” this season for the New York City Ballet (NYCB), she will bring the same sparkle to this well-known masterpiece that she has brought to other roles since joining the company several years ago, but this performance will offer a little something extra.
This season, Bradley dances one of the work’s fast-paced, intricately structured pas de trois, bringing to it her brisk, long-legged attack and adding another dazzling dimension to this exciting ballet masterpiece and another important milestone in dance history.
Bradley joined New York City Ballet in 2017 after attending the Academy of Russian Classical Ballet not far from her Detroit, Michigan, home before coming to New York, first to attend Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Summer Program in 2012 and enter the Professional Training Program under the direction of Andrea Long-Naidu In 2014, she attended the summer session at the School of American Ballet (SAB), the NYCB’s official school, before enrolling as a full-time student later that year. In August 2017, she became a NYCB apprentice and in August 2018, she joined the company as a member of the corps de ballet. In addition to “Agon,” her slightly shortened season due to a slight injury, includes dancing in Justin Peck’s “Partita” and Balanchine’s “Swan Lake.”
Not only is “Agon” known for what in 1957 was viewed as Balanchine’s revolutionary interracial casting, pairing Arthur Mitchell, the company’s first and, at the time, only Black dancer, in an intimate and evocative pas de deux with a white ballerina, Diana Adams. It also has an Igor Stravinsky score, specifically created for the NYCB.
In a recent conversation, Bradley’s commitment to ballet and her excitement about this current NYCB season were obvious as she touched on a range of topics that included life as a Black ballerina at the predominantly white NYCB, her experience as a young aspiring dancer studying briefly at Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), and the realization that her determination to pursue her passion is also meaningful to other budding young Black ballerinas. Here is what she had to say.
On joining NYCB: As a young ballerina, I remember telling everyone, there is no other option for me other than getting into New York City Ballet. That was just my thing. I had other companies I wouldn’t have minded dancing for, but I didn’t have a Plan B, so frankly, I remember being very excited at being chosen to join NYCB.
On being an aspiring young Black ballerina: I knew my whole life I was going to be an artist. I was dancing from 3 or 4 years old, but I was a very nonchalant kid. I loved ballet, but I wasn’t ready to make it my whole life. But, when I got into SAB, I was like, “Oh, I want to be better than everyone else.” The first time I remember saying I was going to be a ballet dancer I was around 14. As for race and racism, when I was young, I just had no idea. I wasn’t ignorant of racism, of course, but I had a really good support system behind me and my parents were very supportive and Andrea Long (a teacher at DTH who had danced with the NYCB) was the first person who told me I needed to go to SAB. I think, too, my innocence…at the time it didn’t occur to me that it wouldn’t happen because I was Black. I just knew that I wanted to get into the company.
On studying at Dance Theatre of Harlem: I was really young and I remember the company was still on a hiatus. Virginia was there—she was the one who told me to come. I was dancing with the DTH Professional Training Program and I think you had to be 17 or 18 to be in that program, but I was 13 going on 14. Everyone was older than me. And we did a ton of performances. EndalynTaylor choreographed for us. Francesca Harper came. It was a lot of fun.
The first time I met Virginia Johnson, she was teaching at a college. I was 11 and that was when she told me to come to the summer program…
I also remember conversations they had with my mom about possibly a future in the company at DTH, but DTH as a company was still on hiatus. But my time at DTH was great. I always say that I could not have attended the school of SAB had I not spent that time at DTH. When I went to DTH, like every Black kid who studied ballet in predominantly white ballet schools, I was like “Oh, I didn’t know it could feel like this at all.” It felt like family.
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On Arthur Mitchell’s advice: Oh, my gosh! At DTH, he would come in and watch class, but for him, watching class meant offering his input every 5 seconds, so it was more like taking his class. In addition to classes, we did a ton of studio showings and performances in small venues here and there. I was only 13 years old, but I learned a lot working with Mr. Mitchell. Of course, he was a very demanding teacher. I would cry. I would cry during. I would cry after. I would cry before his critique, out of fear. I was so young—a child—and I didn’t always understand what tough love was. I think I’m a very tough person. I don’t think anybody who knows me would call me emotional, but Mr. Mitchell would get the waterworks going.
Then, as I got older, during my apprenticeship at NYCB, I would work with him, and he would give me advice. I learned so much. Once, when we were having lunch a few days before he passed away, he told me, every time I walk into a room, I’ve got to walk in like I’ve got Double G cups…“You don’t have anything there, but every time you walk into the rooms at NYCB, you’ve got to walk in like you’ve got Double G cups ’cause people need to see you.” I was like “OK, (pause) sure.” He was wonderful!
On being at New York City Ballet in the era of diversity, equity, and inclusion: NYCB when I was 18 is very different from NYCB now. Obviously, before I wouldn’t say I was naïve; I was just a very nonchalant teenager and young person, to a point where I wanted to be a people pleaser. I wanted everyone to be happy. I wouldn’t say I was a very outspoken activist type as a younger person, but you know, racism was different in 2017 than it is now. When I first got into the company, it wasn’t always to the surface and things would happen and I just didn’t always realize they were intentionally and unintentionally saying things that shouldn’t be said, or doing things that were kind of passive-aggressive. Since I’ve gotten older and with all these meetings on diversity, equity, and inclusion lately, after the pandemic, things have changed…Jonathan Stafford (artistic director with associate artistic director Wendy Whelan) and I have had a lot of interesting and really good conversations.
I think City Ballet did a lot of work to try to come back to a place that wasn’t hurtful to people of color and was sensitive to people who wanted to be considered with different pronouns, trying to take certain things out of certain productions. Things that make you look better as an institution.
On being a Black ballerina with the New York City Ballet: I have thought long and hard about my place in this company and not just my place, but about my friends in the company and the young Black girls coming after us. There are only three or four of us here in the first place in terms of women of color. It’s so weird that we’re having this conversation. I looked around at “Agon”—it used to be just me in the studio, and now there’s another girl—one of my closest friends, another Black girl—in the room and it’s just us. When I think of when it was just Andrea Long-Naidu, or Debra Austin, or Aesha Ash—it had to be lonely for them.
A few days ago, I went to the Dance Theatre of Harlem season at City Center and there was a little girl who goes to the DTH school. She came up to me with tears in her eyes during intermission and she said, “I had to tell you, you’re the entire reason I started doing ballet. I just had to tell you that.” I was like, “Oh my God!” I almost started crying. It’s such a generic answer, but that’s literally the only thing you could want. It made me realize there is still so much to do. Sometimes, even when I’m having a terrible day, like Arthur Mitchell used to say, [I remember that] this has to do with so much more than just me—my being at New York City ballet is about so much more than just me.
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