In one of her first interviews after being promoted to principal dancer for the American Ballet, Misty Copeland was quick to recognize those that came before her.
“I’m just standing on the shoulders of so many who have set this path for me, and they may not be seen or recognized, or have been given an opportunity to have a voice, but I’m here representing all of those dancers.”
Among the first group’s Copeland recognized was the Dance Theatre of Harlem, where Karen Brown spent 22 years dancing. She joined the company in 1973, just four years after it was formed by Arthur Mitchell as the first African-American ballet company in America.
While the Dance Theatre of Harlem provided Brown the opportunity to tour the world, again and again, still many doors remained closed to her. However with talent and pure determination, she managed to weave together a ground breaking career in dance that has gained her a reputation as a standout in the field. After Dance Theatre of Harlem, she spent years as a rare African-American instructor of ballet on the college and university level.
If rolls on the stage for Black ballet dancers are a rare, even rarer are opportunities for African-Americans as leaders in major ballet companies. So it’s not surprising that Brown was a first when she became artistic director of the Oakland Ballet. It’s credential like those that put her on Ballet Wichita’s radar.
After 40 years at the helm, Jill Landreth, the dance company’s artistic director announced her retirement earlier this year. This left the company with an immediate need for someone to direct “The Nutcracker,” the company’s major annual production. A contact from her Dance Theater of Harlem Days recommended Brown, and she was up for the challenge.
With such stellar credentials, she’s already proving a special treat for Ballet Wichita. She began her assignment as the company’s Guest Artistic Director in late August and she’s already shaking things up.
So exactly what does an artistic director for a ballet company do? The artistic director is the individual who controls the company’s production choices and sets the overall artistic vision for the company. No surprise, Brown has a different vision for the typically staid Nutcracker.
So much so that she’s brought in internationally known choreographer Sean McLeod to choreograph a totally new Nutcracker for this year’s performance. McLeod, also African American, is president and CEO of the New York Institute of Dance and Education, as well as founder of the 27-year-old New York Dance Festival. His Master Dance classes fill quickly and with students connecting with his codified McLeod Technique that trains dancers by engaging their emotions to facilitate honest movement and encourage good mental health, he’s gaining quite a following.
“Most choreographers won’t touch it,” said McLeod, about Brown’s request to have him choreograph a new Nutcracker. “But if Karen Brown calls, you come.”
McLeod said this isn’t going to be a new Black Nutcracker, or a Hip-Hop Nutcracker. The production will stay rooted in the ballet’s classical tradition, but, “it will have a different sensibility.”
Some of the scenes in the traditional production can put you to sleep, McLeod said. But his choreography interprets Tchaikovsky’s original score differently and makes the production much more exciting and engaging.
Beyond the steps, the moves and the beats, McLeod’s teaching technique encourages the dancers to be happy and to convey their excitement to the audience.
“Soldiers are candy and soldiers are happy,” he told the excited dancers at the cast rehearsal last weekend at Wichita State University’s Heskett Center. Project this happiness to the audience,” he told them. Back from the top, you could see they were getting it, from the youngest ones to the adults. They gave their happy all.
McLeod and Brown are a big hit with the cast, many of whom have been regulars in the production for years and for newcomers who decided to participate after taking McLeod’s master class.
Tanisha Truett, was one of those who only showed up for the opportunity to take a dance class from a world class dance instructor and choreographer. She wasn’t going to audition for the Nutcracker.
“She’s so busy dancing every weekend, she didn’t know if she would have time for it,” said her mother Sanaa Truett. “But at the master class she just fell in love with both of them and decided she wanted to be a part of the production.”
After the master class, Brown and McLeod held auditions and whittled the cast down to a manageable 124 dancers. However, they’re still looking for dancers for a few key parts. While the production will be diverse by Wichita standards, both Brown and McLeod would like to see more diversity in the cast.
This is Sidney Mansaw’s 10th season in the production, and she’s excited about the fresh new choreography and about having Brown and McLeod at the helm.
“Sean teaches life lessons, not just ballet,” she noted. It’s good to get more out of dance than just dance.
Having two African-American leaders of a ballet company producing the Nutcracker is historic, McLeod noted and followed with praise for the Ballet Wichita board and executive team, and their vision for Ballet Wichita’s future.
“For a Midwest (ballet) company to hire a world class choreographer out of New York and a world class artistic director out of New York to help them define their next phase is remarkable and trendsetting. The fact that they didn’t hire us because we’re were Black but because we’re the best for the job is even more trendsetting.”
Plan now to see the result of Brown and McLeod’s collaboration. Ballet Wichita’s Nutcracker will run Fri., Dec. 15 – Sun. Dec. 17 at Century II Concert Hall. Friday and Saturday performances are at 7 p.m. and Sunday’s show is at 2 p.m.
By Bonita Gooch
The Community Voice