New funding, Kennedy Center debut give Ballethnic strong footing for future

Atlanta’s arts organizations are starting to see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, but Ballethnic Dance Company is emerging from a much longer tunnel, one that reaches back to the ensemble’s founding in January 1990.

Several events have helped. New funding, national recognition and new performing opportunities.

In 2019, a transformative grant from the Chestnut Family Foundation allowed Ballethnic to keep a core of nine dancers on salary throughout the pandemic. In July 2020, it was one of several Black arts organizations to protest the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta’s pandemic grant making — no Black companies received funding initially. Their protest got results. The Foundation changed its criteria and in August 2020 announced $1.15 million in grants, of which more than 90 percent went to organizations led by people of color. Ballethnic was one of them. Its latest grant came in July 2022 — $300,000 from South Arts along with recognition as a Southern Cultural Treasure.

The Black Lives Matter movement brought vastly overdue attention to Black arts organizations in Atlanta and in June 2022 Ballethnic made its Alliance Theatre debut with a refreshed “The Leopard Tale,” their signature work.

Later that month the company was one of three Black dance companies to participate in Reframing the Narrative, a groundbreaking weeklong event at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

In a wide-ranging conversation with ArtsATL, Nena Gilreath, Ballethnic’s co-founder and co-artistic director with her husband, Waverly T. Lucas II, talked about this pivotal moment in the company’s history.

Q: You’ve had a lot of good news lately, new funding and new performing opportunities. What does this mean for the company?

A: It’s a relaunch, a reset and a reward for staying diligent on the road. We were underfunded for so many years, and had so many setbacks, but we stayed true to the mission of making an impact.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Q: The event at the Kennedy Center was the first of its kind, featuring Black dancers who are members of predominately White ballet companies along with companies like Ballethnic that are direct descendants of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Arthur Mitchell was the visionary who founded Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, having already broken ground as the first Black principal dancer at New York City Ballet. What was this unique event like for you and your dancers?

A: I first danced on the Kennedy Center stage in “The Firebird” when I was with Dance Theatre of Harlem. I was one of the little monsters. It was remarkable to take our own company back there and to be on the stage with other company founders who come from Mr. Mitchell’s reign. It was really special to share space and time with other people who have this unique lineage.

Q: You performed two ballets there, an excerpt from “The Leopard Tale” and a revival of Waverly’s work “Sanctity.” How were they received?

A: Seeing our vision realized was magnificent. When the curtain came up for “Sanctity” you could hear the audience do a big “aah.” The scene transported you to another place, a grand African village. An amazing [technical] company in D.C. created projections of a Sankofa bird, which symbolizes paying homage to our ancestors and the journey we’ve been on while moving the company forward.

Q: Who else was involved?

A: Dance Theatre of Harlem and Collage Dance Collective performed. Choreographer Donald Byrd created a work for a group of Black dancers who are in predominantly White ballet companies. That was a magnificent platform for them. Denise Saunders, president and CEO of The International Association of Blacks in Dance was there, so was Theresa Ruth Howard, who founded the digital platform Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet. We danced with Theresa at Dance Theatre of Harlem and know them both very well. Just to see Black women leaders was important for me.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Q: Very few ballet companies are led by women, period. How does it feel to be a Black woman leading an established company?

A: I never thought about it until recently, when a lot of attention was focused on women running ballet companies. I have been doing this for 32 years; I never thought about it being unique. But I know the difficulties I encountered. It was great to see women in leadership bring forth great ideas at the Kennedy Center event. To see this level of excellence, to see people of color take over a space that is not known for that. It was remarkable.

Q: What challenges still exist?

A: The toughest part is finding a regular home, a theater where we can perform. There are no stages [in Atlanta] for Brown and Black people to call home. It’s been a struggle since we left the Ferst Center [at Georgia Tech] in 2015. When Madison Cario came in as the new director at the Ferst, she moved dates around and we never got back on the calendar. We helped build the Ferst Center; I’m not afraid to say that. We were the first dance company to perform there. We helped them develop the space for dance.

Q: You have described this time as a relaunch for Ballethnic. What are you hoping to achieve going forward?

A: We hope to remount “Flyin’ West — The Ballet” based on Pearl Cleage’s 1992 play. She and Zaron Burnett [Cleage’s husband] gave us the rights to it in 2014. It’s a unique story about migration of Blacks from the South to the West. Waverly saw the play at the Alliance and dreamed of doing it for years. We did it, but we were under-resourced.

It’s an epic full-length ballet with all types of music, classical, techno, African drums, the whole array, and every age, from young to old. We want to see it fully realized.

We also want to do a movie version of “Urban Nutcracker.”

Q: You have always found a way to present “The Urban Nutcracker,” most recently at the Legacy Theatre in Alpharetta. Was that a successful move for you?

A: It’s a smaller venue but the theater has an LED wall, which helped us work more with digital media. A new population of Blacks came to see us there. People came from North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee too, which was interesting. I don’t know why, especially since it was during Covid. This year we hope to bring “Urban Nutcracker” to the King Chapel at Morehouse. The first time we performed the full-length version of “Nutcracker” was at the chapel in 1991. We did it there again in 2017 and it was very successful.

Q: What else does the future hold for you and Ballethnic, given these accolades, opportunities and grants?

A: Many times people get accolades when they can’t continue to make a difference. I am excited that both Waverly and I are in a place where we can continue the work together. We are still vibrant and excited and energetic, but the legacy piece is important. [We are working on] what we want the company to be when the next generation inherits it.

[The South Arts grant] is for our administrative infrastructure, which will give us the freedom to do the art. That’s what we’re good at. We want to be liberated from operations. I learned how to do the infrastructure part, writing grants and proposals and how to have a voice in the arts. Now I want to help artists discover that for themselves. That’s what drives me.


Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL

MEET OUR PARTNER

ArtsATL (www.artsatl.org), is a nonprofit organization that plays a critical role in educating and informing audiences about metro Atlanta’s arts and culture. Founded in 2009, ArtsATL’s goal is to help build a sustainable arts community contributing to the economic and cultural health of the city.

If you have any questions about this partnership or others, please contact Senior Manager of Partnerships Nicole Williams at nicole.williams@ajc.com.