Juilliard’s first black dance director brings ballet to the 19th century

Image for article titled Juilliard's first black dance director pulls 19th-century ballet

Photo: Courtesy of Juilliard

On a December night, the audience watched in amusement as Juilliard high school seniors yelled at each other to grab a microphone on stage. The dancers stumbled around, some maniacally, others deliberately, before rattling off incoherent memories and repeating jumbled sentences like a tape paused and rewound ad nauseam. The moves were inspired by the late saxophonist John Coltrane, who said of the performer, “I start mid-sentence and move both directions at the same time.”

This is the current state of dance at Juilliard as the program works to preserve select traditions while transforming from a homogenized thing of the past into a model of progressive dance education. In 2018, the school hired Alicia Graf Mack to head the dance department, making her the youngest person and first black woman to head the dance department in the institution’s 70-year history. Now in its fifth year, Mack’s tweaks, additions, and overhauls are beginning to come to life.

“I believe that ballet is one of the most brilliant technologies of movement that a dancer can embody, and it is our responsibility to make the ideas of movement relevant to today’s artists,” says Mack, former dancer at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and director of the Dance Theater of Harlem, told Jezebel from her office in Juilliard. “What we need to do is address some of the challenging cultural norms of classical ballet that have not changed over time.”

December concert credited to the department, New Dances Dancers at the microphone as “in collaboration” with choreographers Jermaine Spivey and Spenser Thebergei, rather than typical Power structure from top to bottom. Each class of dancers wore nearly genderless costumes. And the stage seemed no longer a shrine to the kind of nepotism and privilege that defines overbearing art schools, but presented a future where potential can take precedence over access.

Last year Mack told Magazine dance She’s “not in the business of repression”: a statement that suggests a cultural shift in the world of dance and a stark departure from the realm of classical ballet – where Gender roles and costumes are the normsand Colored women are a dime a dozen. So Mack’s overwhelming impact on the school is both a sign of things to come and a boon for the next generation of artists to study at the Juilliard School.


It’s a Thursday afternoon in November, which means all four classes of dance students are rehearsing at the same time: practicing Horton, Cunningham and Graham techniques. Just across from Lincoln Center, Mack leads me through the Juilliard building, where dancers lounge and stretch and the echo of musicians warming up their instruments echoes down the hallway. We look into a studio and hear a professor compliment a student: “Julie, you’re doing such a wonderful job today.” The room is a kaleidoscope of cropped shirts, hoops, and brightly colored hair and leotards. A dancer wears a Seahawks jersey. Most ballet studios require students to wear black leotards and pink tights, but Mack says there’s no dress code at Juilliard other than form-fitting attire that shows the dancers’ muscles at work.

Image for article titled Juilliard's first black dance director pulls 19th-century ballet

Photo: Courtesy of Juilliard

We tiptoe into a second room where we find the first years, all around 18 years old, learning the work of Martha Graham. A live pianist is playing in the corner while the instructor urges the dancers to push their center of gravity to the side: “I’d rather see you go to the edge and fall off. Then you know where you need to be.”

Mack’s work in transforming the 71-year-old division was in itself a series of swan hops, though many were influenced by student suggestions. In an industry where intimate touch has long since been a part of the profession, faculty are now asking for their consent to offer tactile guidance to students at the beginning of the semester. Early in her tenure, Mack had to meet with guest artists beforehand to remind them to ask for each student’s pronoun — something they now do without being prompted. She has prioritized anti-racism education with a new lecture series exploring the “Black Culture Impact on American Dance” from slavery, minstrelism and vaudeville, and highlighting the work of Black composers who were once expunged from dance pedagogy. And while women and men once attended gender-specific ballet classes, these classes are now offered as “pointe” and “allégro” and are open to any gender that self-identifies.

Sidra Bell rehearsing with Juilliard students.

Sidra Bell rehearsing with Juilliard students.
Photo: Courtesy of Juilliard

“If you can’t be yourself in the rooms you’re supposed to study in, how can you grow?” said Mack. “A dancer can learn by taking punchline, a dancer can learn by taking allegro, whatever he chooses to choose is fine with me as long as he’s in the room, present and learning.”

In classical ballet, Mack says, the work involves “gendered learning”: the port de bras, or movement of the arms as part of traditional technique, for example, is often set differently for men and women — not unlike women, who used to be fairies, princesses or cast delicate birds in popular narrative ballets, while men play princes, magicians, and soldiers. According to Mack, rather than erasing ballet’s gendered past, Juilliard’s instructors show how each movement was typically presented before allowing the students to make their own artistic decisions about the movements.

Mack, a self-described tall brown ballerina in a world of petite white women, has also prioritized Commissioning of People and Women of Color for original works. She grabs a note from her office and lists seven black women choreographers in four years, including Sidra Bell, the artistic director of Sidra Bell Dance New York and the first black woman commissioned by the New York City Ballet in 2021. Mack commissioned her to to create an original work Give infor the second grade New Dances concert that year.

“Finding things together in a way that’s really collaborative and requires a lot of trust is a model for how we want the world to be,” Bell said in a phone interview with Jezebel about her time working with the Juilliard students. “That’s the beauty of artistic practice: it’s a model for human connection and human dialogue and for working together to build community.”


Much of the ballet world likes to pretend its art form is a fossil preserved in amber, when in reality its suppliers have entrenched themselves in ancient, ignorant, and sometimes obnoxious customs until public demand becomes too overwhelming to ignore. Queer Love and Partnering have only just begun to embark on some America’s Most Famous Stages. changes to the typically racist and caricatured Chinese section in the holiday bonanza The Nutcracker are finally mass-produced, despite protests from board members that traditions need to be protected. And choreographers, artistic directors, and solo dancers who once enjoyed relative immunity from sexual harassment and assault are finally getting a taste of accountability (at least before they are left for another company resume work).

When I asked Mack what she hoped for the next phase of the discourse around professional dance, she said, “I hope we’re talking about the quality of movement, dance and skill and not the body that embodies the art. “

Image for article titled Juilliard's first black dance director pulls 19th-century ballet

Photo: Courtesy of Juilliard

That’s not to say the department is perfect, or that its advanced magic has seeped into other departments in the school. (Two Juilliard music professors have been accused of sexual misconduct by prospective and enrolled students, and survivors say the institution knew about the allegations for at least four years without taking significant action, according to to NPR). The institution is by and large still at the mercy of wealthy donors and stands as the epitome of inaccessible intellectualism. But in the dance department, the long-prophesied generational change has already happened, and it’s nothing but joy.

“We could be a model for the professional industry and say, ‘Look what we’re doing here. Look at how incredible these students are and how they’re thriving, and, you know, maybe there are some ideas you could adopt too,'” Mack said. “It’s not a rejection [of ballet], of course, but it continues the conversation, which I think is really nice. Nobody would be a dancer if they couldn’t think about the field could be.”

https://jezebel.com/juilliard-s-first-black-dance-director-is-dragging-ball-1849920998 Juilliard’s first black dance director brings ballet to the 19th century

Adam Bradshaw

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