It’s a bustling Saturday afternoon at the Harlem School of the Arts. Sunlight filters through the floor-to-ceiling windows into the main performance space and energizes the children, who squirm impatiently in the audience, the little ones standing on their seats for optimal viewing. “Sit still, they’re about to start,” one mother says, and her toddler son acquiesces as dancers Stephanie Rae Williams and Da’Von Doane take the stage.
There’s a tender familiarity between them as their movements tell the captivating, fraught story of a white woman and a black man in love in 1940s Munich. Williams leans in, arches away, and rises, her relevés coquettish. Doane feeds off her energy and counters it with confidence.
The two dancers belong to a ballet collaborative called Black Iris Project, which aims to create and perform pieces that tell stories about black history and culture. “What we know of classical ballets are usually rooted in European tradition — ballet [typically tells a] story — so classical ballets are usually Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake,” Jeremy McQueen, the project’s founder and creative director, tells the Voice. “We wanted to take [all] that and turn it upside down and bring some black perspectives into it.”
Brown Baby, the ballet the Harlem event previewed — set to be performed in full in July for the project’s debut season at New York Live Arts — is a perfect example. The piece, co-choreographed by McQueen and Lauren Cox, the granddaughter of pioneering black fashion model Beatrice Reynolds Cox, tells the poignant tale of how Beatrice’s parents met, commenting along the way on racism, colorism, love, and loss. (The title is a term once used to refer to children born to black soldiers and white European women during and after World War II.) “That story of love is timeless,” says Williams. “Whether it’s in the Twenties or Fifties or now, it usually works the same way.”
Timeless, sure, but also specific in its point of view. McQueen has had a lot of time to think about how best to tell such stories. The San Diego native, thirty, has trained at Fordham’s Ailey School and choreographed for the Joffrey Academy of Dance and Harvard Ballet Company, gathering accolades as he went. He also works as a dance instructor — and notices a lack of diversity in every dance space he enters, from the most prestigious ballet companies to small teaching studios.
Out of those observations arose Black Iris. While the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater has set the standard for black dancers and cultural expression in New York and nationally, Black Iris focuses solely on ballet. It’s also intentionally designed as a collaborative rather than a company, which means its members join forces as a community but still belong to other companies.
“The black dancers in these companies all over the country — it’s important for them to stay where they are, because if they don’t clear the way for themselves in that company, who knows how long it’s going to take for another black dancer to grace the ranks of those companies?” says McQueen. He points out that American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland is the first black female principal dancer in the company’s nearly eighty-year history. Her “tenacity and steadfast faith,” he says, served as catalysts for his own mission to bring black ballet dancers together.
The artists he’s assembled — for both their onstage and offstage talents — are an impressive bunch. Doane performs with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Cox has danced with Pharrell and Alicia Keys. Nardia Boodoo has trained at the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, and Kimberly Braylock-Olivier — who will be the lead ballerina in the collective’s SummerStage performance of its eponymous piece — has been a fixture at the San Francisco Ballet since 2010. Referring to Copeland’s breakthrough and the legendary Ailey’s ability to turn his experiences in the black church or with the civil rights struggle into powerful performances, McQueen says, “We’re following in that tradition. What makes it contemporary are really just the contemporary voices that we’re bringing to the table.”
Those voices will have a chance to shine in Madiba, a new ballet about Nelson Mandela’s life that will also debut this summer. McQueen, who choreographed it, calls it “a beautiful, powerful message” that will resonate with young people confronting police brutality and racism today. He pauses before noting, “It’s almost like we’re repeating a cycle.”
To make sure that message reaches the right audience, Black Iris is putting on several summer performances — like the one at Harlem School of the Arts — aimed at young black ballet dancers who might lack the support and context they need for their journeys.
“Hopefully there will be more opportunities for young dancers of color to not have to necessarily step outside of themselves,” Doane says. “They’ll be comfortable in their own skin onstage and it will be authentic.” Williams puts it a different way: “We want people to leave seeing us thinking about it the next day and the next day after that…. You want something to stick. We want to keep coming back to them.”
And it’s key to McQueen that these absorbing moments happen in real life. “One of my favorite things to do when I go in to see a dance performance is to be able to hear the dancers breathe,” he says. “I love that because it lets me know that someone else is going through something…. It’s a living, breathing human being that’s having an experience, and I think that’s something that gets lost between watching YouTube and Vimeo and Instagram.”
Harlem School of the Arts’ president, Eric Pryor, sees young dancers in the community come alive when they watch these performers onstage. “Anytime professional-level artists can go and make themselves accessible to the next crop, the next generation, it’s huge,” he says. “Ultimately, I think understanding oftentimes is about experience and seeing others who you can emulate.”
After Doane and Williams finish performing, classes resume in the studios. A lithe, sprightly ten-year-old girl named Aliyah perches on a stool in a white leotard as her mother pins her hair back into an immaculate bun. Aliyah compares Williams to the now ubiquitous Copeland. “I want to be like that, so I think about their footsteps, who they are, what they do,” she says. “It’s kind of scary, but it’s fun at the same time. Like, at first you think, ‘Ooh, that’s really hard to do’ — and when you get the hang of it, you’re like, ‘I can do this.’ ”
Reflections like that are what fuel McQueen and his cohort. “I’m not a freedom fighter. I’m not that type of person that you will see walking down the street holding a picket sign. I don’t even like crowds,” he says. “But I believe I protest in my own way through creating works of art that amplify not only my own state of being, but also amplify our range of what we can say.”
Black Iris Project opens for a screening of the Misty Copeland documentary A Ballerina’s Tale at Central Park’s SummerStage on June 29. It launches its debut season at New York Live Arts on July 27 and 28.