Ballet Memphis joins three-year, national project

by Elle Perry for The Daily Memphian, September 25, 2018

Ballet Memphis has been chosen to participate in a national, three-year partnership program designed to “support the advancement of racial equity in professional ballet companies.”

"Ballet Memphis is not only participating in The Equity Project, it has been in the lead for years on this issue because we believe our art form should advance civic progress, uphold justice and clearly demonstrate these beliefs in every aspect we can in the unfolding of our days,” said Ballet Memphis Artistic director and CEO Dorothy Gunther Pugh. "Our commitment is real, continuous and can be seen in so many ways throughout our work.”

Dance Theatre of Harlem, The International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) and Dance/USA are administering The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence in Blacks in Ballet.

The cohort of artistic and executive leaders from 21 large budget, professional ballet organizations will gather for in-person meetings and coaching, with the goal of increasing black representation in all facets of ballet.

Ballet Memphis employs 21 dancers and has a $4.4 million operating budget.

The first equity project cohort meeting was held in Los Angeles in June at the Dance/USA national conference. Ballet Memphis’ associate artistic director Steven McMahon attended the meeting.

McMahon said that each group met for nine hours to go through the scope of the project and that each organization discussed their current Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives at length. Each group was asked to prepare a DEI statement that would guide its future.

“We discussed challenges and successes and best practices within this work,” he said. “The cohort discussed aesthetic choices in ballet and (was) taken through a history of aesthetics in our field. Each organization has been tasked to create a transformational DEI group within the companies.”

The group will meet again in Dayton, Ohio, at the IABD Conference and Festival in January, followed by a 2020 meeting hosted by the Dance Theatre of Harlem in New York.

Along with Ballet Memphis, the other participating organizations are American Ballet Theatre, Atlanta Ballet, Ballet Austin, Boston Ballet, Charlotte Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Miami City Ballet, Nashville Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, New York City Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Richmond Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, School of American Ballet, Texas Ballet Theater and The Joffrey Ballet.

A team of consultants will support the project.

"My number one agenda when I was asked to head the Artistic Directors Council for three years at Dance/USA was to advance this cause, as it has been through most of my tenure leading Ballet Memphis,” Pugh said. “There are many people on my staff and donors and board members, who, over many years, committed to my desire to make a ballet company look like America, like Memphis and buck years of unquestioned, mostly patriarchal Eurocentric assumptions that kept the beauty and inspiration of our art form stale, locked up and non-inclusive.”

Elle Perry is a native Memphian and a two-time graduate of the University of Memphis. Elle serves as a reporter for The Daily Memphian.