Dancing into the conversation

Performance Garage presents When Yesterday Meets Tomorrow: Being Black in Ballet Today

4 minute read
Rainey with another dance partner in mid move, holding them up in a rehearsal space.

What is it like to be Black in ballet today? A free community event at the Performance Garage aims to address this through a HubChat panel discussion featuring Meredith Rainey, the 2023-2024 DanceVisions resident artist, in conversation with choreographer Tommie-Waheed Evans and Theresa Ruth Howard on Thursday, October 5. Howard is the founder and curator of Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet (MoBB), a digital platform that preserves and promotes the experiences of Black artists in ballet. HubChats focus on relevant topics for Philadelphia dance artists, and they are always free. Participants can bring questions, stories to share, or simply a curious and supportive ear. I sat down with Rainey and Evans to learn more.

The good stuff

When Yesterday Meets Tomorrow: Being Black in Ballet Today & Asking Questions will be the first time the panelists explore this conversation together. Although Rainey, Evans, and Howard know each other, they decided not to discuss their ideas beforehand. Howard made the suggestion, and the others agreed because “the good stuff comes when you have the first discussion, not when you remember what you said,” as Rainey put it. In this way, conversation can be like dancing. “I want it to be a real discussion” where participants can comment and respond rather than passively observe, Rainey added.

A choreographer who teaches at the University of the Arts (UArts) and Drexel, Rainey formerly danced with the Pennsylvania Ballet (now the Philadelphia Ballet). Yet becoming a dancer “wasn’t the first thing that came to mind” when he was a child, he said. “I grew up with a single mom with four kids,” Rainey explained. “We lived in the projects, we moved a lot because we had to.” He began dancing in high school when a peer introduced him to ballet in the early 1980s. “Once I took the first class, I was done ... I’m a dancer,” he realized.

Evans also danced professionally before transitioning to roles in choreography and artist-in-residence. A native of Los Angeles, he came to the city to join Philadanco. He is now a full-time faculty member at UArts and has created work for companies including Ballet Memphis, BalletX, and Philadanco. Ballet was an important part of his training, and Evans describes his choreography as within the vernacular of contemporary ballet. “I create works that combine ballet and African diasporic aesthetics,” he said. In 2021, he received a Guggenheim fellowship. Evans noted that Philadanco founder Joan Meyers Brown encouraged him to apply for the Guggenheim award.

Brown, who founded Philadanco in 1970 and received the National Medal of Arts in 2012, is a dance legend. Referring to her by her nickname, Evans said, “JB herself was a pioneer at a time when Blacks were not allowed to be involved” in ballet. MoBB documents the contributions of artists like Brown. MoBB’s interactive Constellation Project, which maps ballet’s “dark stars,” features a constellation called The Legacy of Black Philadelphians in Ballet as well as materials documenting Brown’s life and work, from photos of her performing at Club Harlem to flyers from a dance school where she taught.

Profile photo of Rainey, a Black man, in blue, black, and white chrome. Leans his head against his hand, straight expression
Meredith Rainey talks about being Black in ballet this week at Performance Garage. (Photo by Portia Maria Jones.)

More than just a chat

MoBB’s resources reveal the long history of Black involvement in ballet despite the medium’s associations with whiteness. When I asked Rainey about his relationship to ballet today, he observed that it has afforded opportunities his siblings could not access. However, “the business of it sometimes becomes problematic,” including how people are treated, he said. Dancemaking involves using people to create art, and artists of color must “navigate in ways other people don’t,” Rainey pointed out. “You have to work so much harder” than others. Rainey often heard he was the company’s best dancer, but he did not get parts because “I did not fit the norm. I’m Black. I was not the thing.” This led to him constantly wondering what was happening (or not happening) in his dance career because of race.

Rainey initially seemed “a larger-than-life figure of dance” to Evans, though. “As a young Black male” dancer moving to Philadelphia, Evans knew of Rainey. Later, they crossed paths professionally and then personally. “People need to look at Meredith Rainey the same way we look at Justin Peck and Christopher Wheeldon,” Evans stated, naming two famous white choreographers. “My friend Meredith does wonderful work in developing the conversation around Blacks and ballet,” he added.

Viewers need not be bunheads—passionate ballet students or professionals—to get something out of the panel discussion. “It’s going to be a really nice” and “courageous conversation,” Rainey said of his HubChat with Evans and Howard. “Theresa has a wealth of knowledge in ballet,” he noted, while Rainey and Evans bring backgrounds in classical and contemporary dance. To learn more about the past, present, and future of Black people in ballet, join Rainey, Evans, and Howard for the HubChat.

At top: Meredith Rainey during a rehearsal. (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.)

What, When, Where

When Yesterday Meets Tomorrow: Being Black in Ballet Today & Asking Questions. Free. Thursday, October 5, at 6pm, at Performance Garage, 1515 Brandywine Street, Philadelphia. eventbrite.com.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation