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Classic Black.

What began as an oral history project about black ballet dancers became "Classic Black,"a ground-breaking historic photo exhibition.

A few years ago, my colleague, Dawn Lille Horwitz, a professor of dance history at City University of New York (CUNY), perceived a gap in the information on black ballet dancers prior to the formation of Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1971. Many of the dancers were still alive, but no one was collecting material or gathering any information. Horwitz, with help from a grant from Professional Staff Congress/ CUNY, began to collect oral histories from Talley Beatty, Elizabeth Thompson, Gene Hill Sagan, Louis Johnson, Betsy Dickerson, Michaelyn Jackson, Frances Jimenez, Delores Brown Abelson, Raven Wilkinson, Sylvester Campbell, Barbara Wright Craig, Evelyn Pilcher, Doris Jones, Sydney King, Joan Meyers Brown, Joe Nash, Bernard Johnson, Cleo Quitman, Edward Walrond, Nat Horne, Charles Queenan, and Marion Cuyjet.

With these first twenty oral histories, we receded a grant from the National Initiative for the Preservation of American Dance to explore further. Along the way we had found photographs in the Joe Nash Collection at the Schomburg Center for Black History, the Dance Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, and the Huntington Library in California. One person would give us a name we didn't know, another would have yearbooks from ballet schools. While attending a conference on black dance in Philadelphia, Dawn met Janet Collins [see page 66] and Marion Cuyjet. Dolores Brown was a trove of remembrances. Talley Beatty was particularly moving. (We were lucky to have recorded him before he died.) They in turn gave Dawn still other leads.

After some two years of searching, we had gathered many remarkable stories and incredible photographs. Finally, after receiving grants from the New York Council for the Humanities and the Harkness Foundations for the Dance, and strong, invaluable support from Madeleine M. Nichols, curator of the Dance Collection, we were able to present "Classic Black," a traveling exhibition and two symposia, at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Before the late 1960s, many American theaters were segregated by law or custom. In spite of this discouragement, many black dancers managed to study and teach ballet. These dancers were always looking for performing opportunities in a field with a notoriously limited opportunities. A fraction of these dancers remained in ballet as performers, company directors, and teachers. Others, after years of study, moved to different dance styles or left dance entirely.

Many of the pioneering generation established schools so that the formal training could be transmitted. Among them were Doris Jones and Claire Haywood in Washington, D.C.; Essie Marie Dorsey, Sydney King, Marion Cuyjet, and John Hines in Philadelphia; Mary Ann Bailer in Detroit; Karamu House in Cleveland; Elma Lewis in Boston; and Katherine Dunham, Grace Giles, Ella Gordon, and Ruth Williams in New York City.

Because much of American society was segregated, many ballet studios would not accept black students, though there were exceptions New York City, for example, black students could attend the Ballet Theatre School and the School of American Ballet or study privately with George Chaffee, Aubrey Hitchins, Karel Shook, Maria Nevelska, Valentina Pereyaslavec, and Orest Sergievsky. Eugene von Grona offered scholarships to aspiring students as early as 1934. New York City's High School of Performing Arts, which opened in 1948, and the Juilliard School Dance Department, which opened in 1951, provided additional training.

Ballet studios in other American cities also accepted or even recruited black dancers. In Philadelphia, Thomas Cannon and William Dollar taught, and Antony Tudor and Alfredo Corvino offered guest courses at the Ballet Guild. In Chicago, Mark Turbyfill taught Dunham and other black students, as did Ludmilla Speranzeva. Mildred Haesler taught at the Rosenwald Houses Community Center. In Los Angeles, Carmelita Maracci taught, as did Joseph Rickard, and in Detroit, there were Sophia Tsouklas and Gertrude Jory. Some of these teachers took or sent advanced students to New York or Europe for further study, often with scholarship money raised in the local community.

The First American Negro Ballet, directed by von Grona, opened in 1937 at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem with a live orchestra. The repertory included his Firebird. The opening season of Ballet Theatre in 1940 included a Negro Unit, which presented one work, Black Ritual, choreographed by Agnes de Mille. The First Negro Classic Ballet, directed by Rickard, premiered in Los Angeles in 1947, and was the first to present a complete repertoire on pointe. Hitchins formed the Negro Dance Theatre, an all-male company that performed in 1954. The New York Negro Ballet was at its peak in 1957, when it toured Great Britain with Ward Flemyng as director. The group had begun performing in 1954 with six dancers from Maria Nevelska's studio and was variously called Ballet Negre or later Ballet Americana, continuing until 1959 under the direction of Antony Bassae. In Washington, D.C., Capitol Ballet, created in 1961 as the performing unit of the Jones-Haywood School, invited many distinguished African-American dancers and choreographers to be guest artists.

A few African American performers managed to find employment with large ballet companies. Betty Nichols was featured in Zodiac, choreographed by Todd Bolender, and she and Talley Beatty danced in Blackface, choreographed by Lew Christensen, during Ballet Society's 1947 season in New York City. Beatty also danced with Ruth Page Ballets, based in Chicago, in the early fifties. At New York City Ballet, Arthur Bell danced in Frederick Ashton's Illuminations in 1950, and Louis Johnson danced in Jerome Robbins's Ballade in 1952. Raven Wilkinson joined Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1956, perhaps the only black dancer to enter its ranks, and later performed with Netherlands National Ballet. In 1956, Arthur Mitchell became the first black dancer invited to become a full member of New York City Ballet, where he rose to principal dancer before leaving to form Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Other dancers who worked under full-time contracts with ballet companies include Janet Collins in the Metropolitan Opera's ballet; Sylvester Campbell in Netherlands National Ballet and Royal Winnipeg Ballet; John Jones in Jerome Robbins's Ballets: U.S.A., the Joffrey Ballet, and the Harkness Ballet; Christian Holder and Gary Chryst in the Joffrey; and Keith Lee in the Harkness Youth Ensemble and American Ballet Theatre. Betsy Dickerson and Elizabeth Thompson joined the Radio City Music Hall corps de ballet.

After World War II, Roland Petit's Ballets de Paris and the companies of several German opera houses, notably Munich, Stuttgart, and Cologne, employed African American dancers. Gene Hill Sagan danced with the Israel Opera and the Israel Classical Ballet. Ballet-trained black dancers also found roles in Broadway shows, memorably in House of Flowers and Carmen Jones.

If opportunities for black classical ballet dancers were limited, those for choreographers were even fewer. Among those able to realize works created in the idiom of classical ballet were Sagan, Billy Wilson, and Louis Johnson. Doris Jones choreographed for her Capitol Ballet, and Bassae ious Les Ballets Trockadero companies. Beatty, despite his extensive ballet training and his fame as a dancemaker, said that there was never an opportunity for him to show his ability as a classical choreographer.

When "Classic Black" opened in New York City last year, the results were all that Horwitz and I had hoped for. Several hours were devoted to round-table discussions among old colleagues, when one response would trigger another. One was amazed at the underlying sense of purpose and will that impelled these soft-spoken, gracious people; none of them regretted a moment of the struggle it took to learn, to find jobs in a restricted job pool, and to maintain momentum despite frustration. They were an exquisite model of strong, quiet, willful purposefulness and the need to prevail in the face of terrible prejudice. This year "Classic Black" will begin to tour throughout the country.
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Title Annotation:Black History Month; photography exhibit of African American ballet dancers, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, New York, New York
Author:Greene, Jonnie
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 1997
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