“It’s new for the world to see”

Visiting Philly’s Chocolate Ballerina Company ahead of its June Black Swan performances

4 minute read
Sitting on a rectangular block at an angle with ankles crossed, Barnwell poses in a white tutu with arms gracefully raised

Philadelphia’s Chocolate Ballerina Company (CBC) has come a long way. Seven years ago, I heard about it through word-of-mouth and social media. But now I learn about the nonprofit’s events through marketing blasts and a highly stylized website. After visiting an early June rehearsal where I interviewed founder and artistic director Chanel Holland-Pierre, I’m excited for CBC’s second annual Black Swan performance coming up June 22 to 23, 2024, at Drexel’s Mandell Theater.

The warmth of the CBC rehearsal contrasted with my awkward childhood dance background, making me wish I had that same dance community growing up. In elementary and high school, I HATED ballet’s harsh postures, pink leotards, and white tights. At age 15, at 5’8” and 120lbs, I felt fat and misshapen compared to my white classmates. Although I now enjoy the quirky fun of Philly’s Fringe Festival dance community, watching Holland-Pierre joke with her dancers, and seeing lead dance instructor Elexus Filmore-Freeman hug the students and inquire after their performances made me feel nostalgic yet wistful.

It felt amazing seeing dancers of all genders, ages, skin tones, and body types, all outfitted comfortably while doing various floor stretches and warm-ups. There was so much diverse fashion on display including a super stylish male dancer with a blonde faux hawk and one-legged warm-up pants. Although the younger corps dancers stuck to the standard bunhead hairstyle, I loved the older dancers’ self-expressions through their hair. I enjoyed watching the cast flip between twirls, leaps, and jumps while sprinkling in contemporary TikTok-style dance moves. Everyone seemed happy, joyous, and comfortable.

A dancing village

It takes a village to put on a CBC production. Holland-Pierre has assembled an excellent team. Filmore-Freeman is very modest about her background as a Hampton University graduate whose 16-year dance history includes PHILADANCO!, Philadelphia Dance Theatre, and performing with the American Football League’s Soulmates of Philadelphia. She wears many hats in addition to being lead dance instructor, including stage management. Other team members include wardrobe director Oneeka Noble, operations chief Nakisha White, event supervisor Michelle Holland, and marketing lead Jean Pierre.

Chairperson Ashley Holland-Armstrong (Holland-Pierre's cousin) describes her job as support for these staffers, proudly saying, “We are a team.” Their daughters attend CBC classes, and at least one company staffer (and usually more) attends most rehearsals.

Holland-Pierre is a powerhouse of charisma with an open facial expression sparking generosity. What attracted me to her as a choreographer is her embodiment of homegrown talent including her background with Koresh, University of the Arts, Temple University, and Wissahickon Dance Academy. She studied at Alvin Ailey and National Dance Institute NYC and established CBC in Philadelphia seven years ago. Her current production features an ensemble of 40 and elements of Tchaikovsky’s traditional Swan Lake, plus her own choreography.

The artists pose smiling in rehearsal clothes with their arms around each other, in a sunny studio with large wooden doors.
From left: Chanel Holland-Pierre with principal dancers Sade Barnwell, Brandon Gray, and Nya Cunningham. (Photo by An Nichols.)

Throughout the rehearsal I attended, she used humor to correct: “Lunge ... not like you're serving pizza!” She challenged the Black Swan’s prince, Brandon Gray, to switch from a single to a triple and rewarded his improvement: “That was a quadruple, but I’ll take it!”

I remember working for a studio owner who yelled at her teen dancers. However, there was no Dance Moms energy in the rehearsal I attended. While Holland-Pierre corrected student postures, she allowed the teen corps members to act like teens.

Spotlighting professional Black ballet artists

This is Holland-Pierre’s second (and possibly last) staging of Black Swan (so see it while you can). The choreographic changes from last year’s production include tightening the cast and adding more leaps. The dance quality is unquestionably professional (here’s the BSR review from last year’s show). While the corps de ballet pulls from the CBC training school, the lead dancers all hail from New York or the DMV area. It is a testament to Holland-Pierre that her ballets offer highly talented Black performers the opportunity to serve as leads. The head dancers I witnessed were sinewy, elegant, and strong. Kudos to Nya Cunningham’s deeply emotive arms and Gray’s facial charm and calf strength. The entire cast, including the teen corps, did an excellent job marking movements.

June is a busy month for CBC. On Saturday, June 15, the company had its fourth annual training company recital at the Performance Garage. Additionally, its ballet boot camp intensive takes place from June 24 to 28. The boot camp will bring established talent like Alicia Holloway, Gray (CBC’s principal), Anthony Rhodes, and Maurice Renaldo (of Alvin Ailey). Beyond this, the company maintains partnerships, including one with Philadelphia Ballet, that provide free rehearsal space.

A new vision that takes time

When I asked if CBC would ever stop reimagining classical dances, Holland-Pierre said no.

“We want to see Black and brown ballerinas … It’s new for the world to see. New for the community,” she said, pointing to Philly-born ballerina Stephanie Dabney, who found stardom after her historic turn in Dance Theatre of Harlem's 1982 Firebird—the first Black dancer to perform that title role. “Imagine seeing a Black Cinderella ballet. Imagine seeing [a Black] Coppélia. That’s all new." And it doesn't happen overnight. "The important thing to know is that what I'm working on takes time," Holland-Pierre finished. "It's like a nice piece of chocolate that melts in your mouth."

At top: Dancer Sade Barnwell of Chocolate Ballerina Company’s Black Swan. (Photo by Ray Valdez.)

What, When, Where

Black Swan. Choreography by Chanel Holland-Pierre. Chocolate Ballerina Company. $25-$99. June 22 and 23, 2024, at Drexel’s Mandell Theater, 3220 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. chocolateballerinacompany.com.


Mandell Theater is wheelchair accessible and offers Assisted Listening Devices (ALDs). Please contact the Office of Disability Services for any needed accommodations: (215) 895-1401 (voice), (215) 895-2299 (TTY), or [email protected].

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