She's been a force for change in ballet. The world is catching up.

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She's been a force for change in ballet. The world is catching up.
Megumi Eda, left, and Theresa Ruth Howard in “In This Dream That Dogs Me,” at the Duke Theater in New York, Nov. 29, 2005. Howard calls her new role “diversity strategist and consultant,” and companies are listening. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Siobhan Burke

(NYT NEWS SERVICE).- On May 29, four days after George Floyd was killed by the Minneapolis police, Theresa Ruth Howard posted a call to action on Instagram:

“Demonstrate your outrage

Demonstrate your allyship

Demonstrate your authenticity

We don’t need shadow heroes, step into the light ...”

Howard, a former ballet dancer who founded the digital platform Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet (or MoBBallet), was addressing the institutions she has worked with for the past few years, in a role she sums up as “diversity strategist and consultant.” Those institutions, which include some of the world’s most prestigious ballet companies and schools, are predominantly white, onstage and behind the scenes. They know they need to evolve, and she is helping them.

So when protests against systemic racism and police brutality began sweeping the country, she found their silence disconcerting. “You can’t say you want us, and when we are in peril, not be there for us,” Howard, 49, said in an interview.

Over the next few days, companies answered her call, or tried, posting statements of support with a hashtag she had started: #balletrelevesforblacklives. (Relevé, a ballet term, is a way of saying “rise up.”) Their messages drew both appreciation and criticism, with many commenters demanding action, not merely words. In an opinion piece for Dance Magazine, Howard expanded on her thoughts about what leadership should look like in this moment, under the headline “Where Is Your Outrage? Where Is Your Support?”

On Aug. 14, leaders from more than a dozen ballet companies and schools will convene for an online discussion titled “#balletrelevesforblacklives ... Or Does It?,” a chance to reflect, beyond social media, on the Black Lives Matter movement and its impact on their institutions. The public event is part of Howard’s second annual MoBBallet symposium, a series of conversations and lectures that, in her words, “centers Blackness but welcomes all.”

The multiweekend symposium will explore topics like colorism in ballet and implicit bias in teaching dance history and hold a session for dancers on “how to activate your activism.” These issues have long been pressing to Howard, even as others are just beginning to feel their urgency. A former member of Dance Theater of Harlem — the company founded 51 years ago, by visionary Arthur Mitchell, as a space for African American dancers in classical ballet — she established MoBBallet in 2015 to highlight the often overlooked histories of Black ballet artists.

Virginia Johnson, Dance Theater’s artistic director, says that Howard has been “a force of change” for years: “She’s done her research, she knows her methods, and she is relentless in not letting people off the hook. And that’s what’s needed.”

“Now that people are ready,” Johnson added, “she is flying, and they can join her.”

As a writer, public speaker and social media presence, Howard is one of the most vocal proponents for racial equity in ballet. But she’s not alone in shaping a more inclusive field. In addition to her independent work as a diversity strategist, she was part of a team of consultants for the Equity Project, a three-year initiative led by Dance Theater of Harlem, Dance/USA and the International Association of Blacks in Dance. The project, which involved directors from 21 North American ballet organizations, ended in June.

While some ballet schools, over the years, have developed internal diversity initiatives, the Equity Project had more holistic aims. Johnson described it as “focused on bringing African Americans to the field of ballet in all aspects — onstage and behind the stage, in the wings, in the administrative offices, in the schools.” It sought to ensure “that these organizations are not bastions of whiteness,” she said. “Or if they are, they’ve decided that is what they want, and they are not just ignorantly moving forward.”

Through the Equity Project, Howard met some of the people with whom she now works closely, like Barry Hughson, the executive director of the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto. Like many of her colleagues, he appreciates Howard’s directness.

“I need someone to be brutally honest with me, and to do that in a way that inspires us all to keep pushing forward,” he said. “That’s her spirit.”

Their conversations, he added, have helped him to think more deeply about equity in all dimensions of the National Ballet, not just in hiring dancers.

“For a while we were focused on representation, on the company looking more racially diverse, and it does look more racially diverse,” he said. “But now it’s like turning inward and saying: What do these artists need to feel support and safety, and to see themselves on a path through and up the ranks? That’s the work at hand, and that’s where Theresa’s been standing by our side as we imagine the future.”

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the future can be hard to imagine. Ellen Walker, the executive director of Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, said that despite the challenges facing the company, there is also opportunity in this break from business as usual.

“I talk to Theresa a lot about this: Who do we want to be on the other side?” she said. “So that we are not in an academic or theoretical or workshop-y place with our work around diversification of our company and school and institution, but that we are absolutely making real change, and the action steps we’ve taken are showing up.”

Howard would probably be pleased to hear this. As a diversity strategist, she strives to bring directors “from their head space, which is that organizational lens, into their heart space, that more empathetic human lens,” she said. She wants them to understand, as much as possible, how it feels to be Black in ballet’s white spaces, “the added pressure the brown body takes on.”

For a Black ballet dancer, “It’s not just an arabesque, it’s not just a pirouette,” she said. “You’re the Black girl doing the arabesque, you’re the Black girl doing the pirouette. Which says that either Black people can do this, and they’re capable, or they’re not. That’s something white dancers, white students, don’t carry with them.”

Howard speaks from firsthand experience. Growing up in Philadelphia, she was one of few students of color at the School of Pennsylvania Ballet. She remembers feeling entirely welcome there until the year she was cast in “The Nutcracker” in a coveted party-scene role — or so she thought. She’d seen her name on the cast list next to the “Bootmaker’s Daughter,” but when the time came for children to pick up their costumes, hers went instead to a white girl, someone who looked more like the rest of the fictional family onstage.

She recalls breaking into tears as she told her father what had happened. (“I had a dance father, who did the driving, sewed the point shoes,” she said.) He spoke with the company’s artistic director, and she ended up splitting the role with the white student.

“I don’t know if that changed me,” she said, “but it might have solidified my desire to dance with Dance Theater of Harlem.” (She had seen the company perform a few years before, when she was 8.) “In my mind, that would never happen in a place like that.”

After performing with Dance Theater from 1989 to ’92, Howard danced with choreographers including Karole Armitage and Donald Byrd. Byrd, now her close friend, said that about five years ago, he noticed that she “was in a real funk.” Around that time, the idea for MoBBallet came to her, springing from a blog post she had written on Misty Copeland, the American Ballet Theatre star, and lesser-known Black ballerinas who came before her.

Suddenly, Howard was reinvigorated, Byrd said. “It seemed like she felt that she was definitely on the right track, that she had discovered the thing that she could do, and that she needed to do, and it just kind of took over.”

While Howard said that lately she feels like a “very former” dancer, her ballet roots deeply inform her work, even something as simple as the way she walks into a room. In 2017, she gave a rousing and eye-opening keynote address at Positioning Ballet, a convening of 40 international company directors in Amsterdam.

“The moment she enters a stage, you can see and feel that she understands ballet,” said Peggy Olislaegers, an artistic consultant for Dutch National Ballet, which hosted the conference. “She has this embodied knowledge. She loves ballet, and that gives her a clear authority within the field of ballet directors.”

These days Howard is as much a resource for ballet dancers — a mentor and an advocate — as she is for company directors, although she stresses that she is “still learning and evolving” in her work. Sebastian Villarini-Velez, a New York City Ballet soloist, said that when he recently met with Howard, seeking her guidance about organizing a group of dancers of color at City Ballet, he was struck by how attentively she listened.

“I know it sounds cliché,” he said, “but I felt heard, for one of the first times.”

Chyrstyn Fentroy, a Boston Ballet soloist, has enjoyed popping into Howard’s Instagram Live sessions, which invite candid discussion among dancers. Ballet, Fentroy said, tends to train dancers not to speak up. “You take the correction, and it doesn’t matter if it hurts your feelings, you just nod your head and keep dancing.” But Howard is helping to change that: “I think she’s allowing people to learn where their voices are.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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