‘Pathways to Performance’ Spotlights Black Ballet at the Kennedy Center 

By Hailey Wharram

On July 2 and July 3, Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet (MoBBallet) and the Kennedy Center presented “Pathways to Performance: Exercises in Reframing the Narrative” in the Eisenhower Theater. Spearheaded by a team of Black choreographers and dancers, the ‘Pathways to Performance’ initiative aims to provide ample opportunities for Black creatives working in the ballet genre. The showcase featured five pieces: in sequential order, “From Other Suns,” “Faintly Seen,” “Quick Pleasures,” “Where They Meet,” and “HOME.”

‘Pathways to Performance’’s curator and director Theresa Ruth Howard created MoBBallet in 2015, largely in response to Misty Copeland’s historic promotion to principal ballerina at American Ballet Theater (ABT) that same year. Copeland was the first African American woman to receive this promotion in the company’s history; at the time, it had been 76 years since the prestigious company’s founding in 1939. Though Copeland’s remarkable achievements are undoubtedly worthy of immense celebration, Howard began noticing that the cultural conversation surrounding Copeland’s career began mythologizing the ballerina in a manner which, to no fault of her own, minimized the achievements of other Black ballerinas who had preceded her. 

On her blog My Body, My Image, Howard published an article entitled “The Misty-rious Case of the Vanishing Ballerinas of Color: Where Have All the Others Gone?” In this article, she writes on the subject as follows: “The truth behind the myth is that Misty is walking on a path that, though overgrown from lack of use, was cleared before her—but you would never know it (unless you know it). The mythologization of Copeland’s story, her journey and the glorification of her achievements (which have been great and many) are not the problem. She deserves the accolades. The issue is that when the narrative assigns Copeland with the title of ‘only,’ and often ‘first’ in many instances, it is inaccurate.”

In hopes of honoring the often overlooked—if not altogether forgotten—historical contours of Black ballet, Howard founded Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet (MoBBallet) and began curating a digital archive of primary sources, oral histories, and other documents recounting the ample Black contributions to the ballet world. Seven years later in June 2022, Howard partnered with the Kennedy Center for ‘Reframing the Narrative’ as a guest co-curator alongside Denise Saunders Thompson, the president and CEO of The International Association of Blacks in Dance. This partnership was memorialized in a short documentary entitled ‘Reframing the Narrative: Blacks in Ballet.’ 

As Howard mentioned during the opening night of ‘Pathways,’ one of MoBBallet’s primary goals through this initiative is to reform the larger dance ecosystem into something more inclusive, empathetic, and empowering: a space where vulnerability, community, learning, and listening are cherished hallmarks of the creative process. Metaphorically speaking, Howard hopes that MoBBallet can serve as a “pollinator” within the ballet community.

“​​I want everyone to be able to take some pollen in their pockets and bring it back to the hive,” Howard told the crowd. “I hope everyone—our dancers, our choreographers—are able to put some pollen in their pockets and sprinkle it around to their home companies to make the ecosystem a little healthier.”

The showcase begins with Donald Byrd’s “From Other Suns,” a number originally commissioned for ‘Reframing the Narrative’ two years ago. A stunning start to the evening, this number concludes with a passage in which each of the dancers move in a cascading, ovular line from the wings, to center stage, to the curtain once more. The visual entanglement of their bodies alludes to the strong, interpersonal connections possible when a creative community prioritizes the holistic, learning-based care which Howard so lovingly describes. 

One of the most captivating performances of the night is Kiyon Ross’s “Quick Pleasures,” a breathtaking triptych duet between Zsilas Michael Hughes and Ashton Edwards which seemingly details three successive phases of a fracturing romantic relationship. The piece begins at the height of the honeymoon phase. Awash in amber light, Hughes and Edwards prance about the stage in silky orange costumes which ripple with each movement like billowing pillars of sunlight at golden hour. The pair’s beaming smiles and the radiant, joyous score seamlessly mirror this optical sunniness. However, storm clouds wash this honeymoon down the drain as the lights shift to a somber royal blue and those once beaming smiles fall away. While the previous scene ended with Hughes and Edwards moving in perfect unison, this mournful segment ends with Hughes grabbing Edwards by the waist as they kick wildly in protest. After this dreary dissolution of brighter days, the final scene sees the dancers begging the question of “where do we go now?” As these characters grapple with their painful shared past, fittingly, the lights turn purple like a bruise. The technique in this concluding passage is particularly strong—as evidenced by the sour-grapes eye rolls flung between Hughes and Edwards, there is a sense that their characters are hungry to one-up one another after the frustration of their bitter quarrels. 

After a brief intermission and Meredith Rainey’s poignant “Where They Meet” which uses chair-centric choreography to evoke a heartfelt scene of domesticity and family, Jennifier Archibald’s “HOME,” ironically, brings the house down. A large group number in which each performer has the chance to individually shine, “HOME” finds inspiration in the powerful words of singer-songwriter Nina Simone. In addition to using a portion of her song “Blackbird” (“Blackbird, you ain’t ever gonna fly”), the musical accompaniment also incorporates an audio file from one interview in which she famously states that freedom, to her, means “no fear.” Simone’s words invigorate the remainder of the number as both the sonic and choreographic currents of the piece brazenly heed her call to fearlessness, concluding ‘Pathways’ on an electrifying note. 

In addition to the sensational performances, Howard’s dedication to sparking audience engagement throughout ‘Pathways’ transformed the evening into something truly memorable. She is delightfully candid when she tells the crowd “I give opportunities stretch marks”; her interest in community building extends beyond the confines of the studio. At one point between numbers, Howard says to the audience, “I really wanna play Baptist church,” and encourages attendees to turn to their neighbors and reflect upon the most impactful moments of the show thus far. Furthermore, during intermission, audience members were similarly encouraged to flock to the lobby and write down their responses to a series of thought-provoking prompts related to the performance on sticky notes and paste them on two poster boards. By the end of the evening, an entire rainbow of ink-stained paper squares speckled the once blank canvases. In addition to MoBBallet’s steadfast dedication to properly acknowledging ballet’s past, the organization’s parallel focus on facilitating meaningful connections in studios and performance spaces alike ensures the future of ballet could not be in safer hands.



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