Karla Tyson, 32, remembers well the early days of her ballet training when she and fellow young dance students performed in the ensemble cast of Atlanta-based Ballethnic Dance Company’s “The Urban Nutcracker.”
Her favorite part of each performance of the African American-inspired and Atlanta-focused adaptation of the classic Tchaikovsky ballet was when prima ballerina Nena Gilreath would take to the stage as Brown Sugar, with her husband and fellow lead, Waverly Lucas, as the handsome Chocolatier at her side.
The sight of Gilreath twirling gracefully across the stage in a rust, marigold and chocolate-colored tutu ensemble, her mahogany-colored skin glistening under the stage lights, would literally take her breath away. The standing ovations and encores audience members gifted Gilreath afterward, Tyson remembers, were “definitely inspiring.” She says it was validating and made her believe as an African American, I can be a ballerina too.
“Watching her, I definitely knew I wanted to do ballet,” recalls Tyson, a Henry County resident. “I wanted to be just like Ms. Nena.”
This month in her fifth reprisal in the lead role, Tyson, a Ballethnic graduate, hopes to recapture some of that same “Black ballerina magic” that Gilreath so effortlessly commanded during her 13-year tenure. For the first time, the signature production was recorded at the Legacy Theatre in Alpharetta without a live audience and streamed virtually Saturday, Dec. 19 at 7:30 p.m. It’s yet another COVID-19 casualty that forced the cancellation of all previously planned festivities in celebration of Ballethnic, metro Atlanta’s first and only African American-founded “classically trained, culturally diverse” school. It’s the professional dance company’s 30th anniversary year, which officially wraps up Jan. 15.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Tyson, like many of the hundreds of students who have trained and performed professionally with Ballethnic, says she is grateful for Lucas and Gilreath’s groundbreaking contributions to Atlanta’s arts scene, combatting the stereotype that Black people don’t do ballet.
“All I knew growing up was seeing Ms. Nena do Brown Sugar; so my perspective of ballet and ballerinas has always been different thanks to her,” says Tyson, who went on to perform professionally as a Los Angeles Laker Girl. “I never attended a [predominately] white ballet company, so to me, seeing a Black woman as a ballerina was the norm. It was a while — really not until I lived in Cali — before I became aware of the fact that it’s not so popular other places.”
Despite the production’s longstanding run in Atlanta, some 27 years and counting, Lucas, who along with Gilreath co-founded Ballethnic and also serves as co-director, says it is a little-known fact that he wrote the ballet in the early ’90s to create a platform to showcase Black ballerinas like Gilreath and Tyson. Many possess the talent, he says, but are often “overlooked” and outright excluded from significant opportunities, especially professional opportunities, in the white-dominated ballet world.
The topic most notably nabbed headlines in 2015 when Misty Copeland became the first African American woman to be promoted to principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre of New York. In 2019, the New York City Ballet followed, casting its first Black “Nutcracker” lead in its 65-year history. Last month, Ingrid Silvabecame the first Brazilian Black ballerina to appear on the cover of Brazilian Vogue. This holiday season French ballerina Taïs Vinolo has garnered much buzz as the star of Amazon’s heartfelt 2020 Christmas advertisement “The Show Must Go On.”
Still, critics say change in the ballet industry has been slow and, arguably, not steady enough, even in Atlanta, a city widely touted as a Black Mecca and center of Black political power, wealth and culture. One high-profile flap unfolded in 2018, when two of Atlanta Ballet’s three Black board members and a top Black administrator resigned in protest, questioning its leadership’s commitment to addressing the lack of racial and ethnic diversity among its ballerinas, usually the focal point of ballet. Two years later, in the shadow of the recent Black Lives Matter protests erupting in American streets following George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis cop, Atlanta Ballet has four Black male dancers and one Black ballerina, Nadyne Bispo, who is Brazilian and an apprentice in the professional company, says Gennadi Nedvigin, the artistic director of the Atlanta Ballet.
“The lack of racial diversity in ballet has been one of the dance world’s most widely discussed issues over the last few years — and Atlanta Ballet values its unique position to become a leading force of change in terms of racial equity in its field,” says Nedvigin. “As the state ballet of Georgia and the largest professional ballet company in Atlanta, we consider it our social responsibility to better reflect the demographics of our city and to provide audiences with opportunities not only to see people who look like them on-stage and behind-the-scenes but to experience the magic that occurs when a group of individuals with diverse backgrounds and mindsets comes together to create art.”
Lydia Abarca Mitchell, a Juilliard-trained former prima ballerina who trained under famed Dance Theatre of Harlem founder Arthur Mitchell and made history in 1975 as the first Black dancer to grace the cover of Dance magazine, says it is exasperating seeing the same diversity problems persist that she faced during her heyday in the 1970s. Mitchell, whose film and television credits include “The Wiz” and “The Cotton Club” says, despite experiencing many career highs, barriers in the industry eventually led her to give up her dreams of dance fame to work as a medical transcriptionist. All the more reason, she says, why Ballethnic’s legacy of supporting diverse dancers should be celebrated.
“There is a love for ballet among non-whites, but unfortunately, [we’re] still not being auditioned and accepted at the same rate,” says Mitchell, who’s included in the “Black Ballerina” documentary now on Amazon Prime Video. She has taught at and consulted for Ballethnic since she relocated from New York to Atlanta with her family in 1992. “So, there has to be other outlets like Ballethnic to help fill that void. It is amazing what Nena and Waverly have done; their work has been so important.”
Gilreath calls the ongoing lack of Black ballerina representation “disappointing” and “disturbing.” However, she says, unfortunately, she is not surprised. Ironically, it was an effort aimed at helping to diversify Atlanta Ballet that brought Gilreath and Lucas to Atlanta in 1988. Then artistic director Robert “Bobby” Barnett had recruited them while working at Dance Theatre of Harlem in New York City, where the couple first met as dancers.
Credit: Keiko Guest Photography
Credit: Keiko Guest Photography
“A group of Black business people had [formed] a task force, and they were like, ‘why does the Atlanta ballet not have any Black dancers?,’” remembers Gilreath, who also directs the East Athens Educational Dance Center and guest teaches at the University of Georgia. “They had one guy at that time, Chris Kirby, but there were no female dancers and they were like ‘we, as the business community, the Black business community, need you to get some Black dancers so that the company is more representative of the city.’”
Gilreath, a native of North Wilkesboro, a small town located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, says she jumped at the chance to move back to the South, but her excitement soon faded. She says she eventually left over the lack of diversity in the training program. The ever-growing disappointment, she says, inspired her and Lucas to found Ballethnic in 1990 with a credit card and a dream. Doing so, she says, helped them discover “a greater purpose.”
“We saw a need,” remembers Gilreath, now in her mid-50s. “I always thought if I, as a young Black girl, wanted to do this, there must be others out there too. I did not want others to have to struggle like I did. I also wanted others to see me — an obvious chocolate Black girl — doing ballet. I wanted to be a model for them; I wanted them to see that if I could do it, they could too.”
With that dogged determination to diversify ballet, the couple launched Ballethnic on the campus of Spelman College, then bounced around to other locations before purchasing the modest East Point studio where Ballethnic is still based today. Their work inspired Lucas to pen “The Leopard Tale,” an African-themed modern ballet and African dance long before Disney’s “The Lion King.” Equally innovative productions like “Jazzy Sleeping Beauty,” a musical take on “Sleeping Beauty,” and the ballet adaptation of playwright Pearl Cleage’s famed “Flyin’ West” have followed in recent years.
“It’s revolutionary what we’re doing with ballet because we were not trying to assimilate,” says Lucas, 57, who just earned his master’s degree in Ethnochoreology from the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance in Limerick, Ireland. “We have proven that we can do classical ballet at the highest of levels, [so] what we’ve wanted to do is show ballet in a way that really expresses our community, our people, our heritage.”
That perspective, he says, helped him create the whimsical characters — the Reggae Ragdolls, the sultry Arabian dancer, the spins and leaps of the Black Russians, Mother Spice and her tumbling Spice Drops and the bubbly Coca-Cola Pas de Six — that have helped “Urban Nutcracker,” set on Atlanta’s historic Sweet Auburn Avenue in the 1940′s, emerge as an Atlanta holiday classic.
“People want authenticity, and this is what we bring with Ballethnic,” he says. “We’re unapologetically who we are and what we are.”
Gilreath and Lucas admit that their anniversary year has been bittersweet. Ballethnic has grappled with the ongoing challenges from the pandemic and the sobering reality that their efforts to expand professional opportunities for diverse ballet dancers remain chronically unfunded.
“We have never been able to attract the level of money [needed] to support the vision, to market the vision [or] to get high-level board members; it’s been the ultimate sacrifice,” says Gilreath. “If we’re not careful, [Atlanta’s arts scene] will be a whole reversion of what it was before we came to the city 30 years ago.”
Adding to their disappointment, Gilreath says, has been watching many of the major metro Atlanta arts institutions, many with dismal diversity track records, claim the majority of the limited arts funding available, while smaller, niche outlets like Ballethnic, who’ve “championed diversity in dance from day one,” struggle to remain afloat. For example, the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund came under fire last spring for initially failing to award any of its $580,000 in COVID impact grant funding to any Black-led arts organizations. The Fund eventually met with Black arts leaders across the region and ultimately awarded funding to some Black organizations, including Ballthenic, in its second round.
“My perspective is support those of us who are Black; who are doing things that have been creating a pathway for Blacks [in the arts] since our inception,” she says.
Gilreath and Lucas say they are hopeful that the recent racial reckoning in the wake of Floyd’s death will also help spark some long-overdue collaborations with larger, more well-funded arts organizations.
“Hire us to come in and be consultants,” says Gilreath. “Let us help you better understand what the issues are because we’ve done it, and we’ve done it well. We’ve been that person on the other side of the barre.”
Ballethnic’s Urban Nutcracker Experience
Streamed performance by the Ballethnic Dance Company Inc.
$40 donation. 7:30-9 p.m. Dec. 19. ballethnic.org/academy-online-registration
About the Author
Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC