Not your Petipa Swan Lake

Chocolate Ballerina Company presents Black Swan: A Swan Lake Premiere

3 minute read
Anderson, balanced one knee, leans back dramatically under Gray’s reach. They wear lush black, white & gray ballet costumes.
A standout duet: Jayla Anderson and Brandon Gray in Chocolate Ballerina’s ‘Black Swan.’ (Photo by Ray Valdez.)

Chocolate Ballerina Company presented a hybrid production of founder and artistic director Chanel Holland’s Black Swan, performed Sunday, June 4, at the theater of the Independence Seaport Museum on the Delaware waterfront. As a community ballet, the company filled the large corps with children at various levels of training from across the northeast corridor, while more professional dancers took the lead roles.

Holland revised the ballet to suit her mix of dancers, trimming it to 90 minutes, focusing on a few strands of the most familiar Tchaikovsky music, and mixing in bits of jazz, rhythm and blues, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, and other music. She simplified the steps for the student dancers who opened the performance in long, flowing dresses, most in green, but a few in blue and red. In a later section, the young dancers gave us contemporary with some well-executed floorwork. Later, they appeared in white tutus and the traditional swan-wing hair piece, a dream for ballerinas of every age.

Older students in the swans’ white tutus and pointe shoes performed their early corps pieces sharply, though they faded a bit toward the end. The four little swans looked nervous in the iconic choreography but they maintained their unison, even in the turn of the head. Together with the swans in the corps, they signaled a strong future for Black women in ballet.

Joy, dignity, and grace

There were very few men in the production (a concern I’ve written about previously), but Jose Torres as the Jester was a delight. His split jumps were huge and he inhabited the role with contagious joy.

Brandon Gray, a former dancer at Complexion Contemporary Ballet, was a standout as Prince Siegfried, bringing a maturity that imbued the role with depth and dignity. His solo gave us power in the clean lines of his extensions and the fluidity of his movement. Jayla Anderson, as Odette, had a knee injury that made it impossible for her to dance in pointe shoes, but she performed with such confidence and grace that I hardly noticed it at first. A little more time would have brought greater emotion to the duets with Gray, but I look forward to seeing what she can do when she is in full health.

The Dying Swan was a bit of a surprise. It is an unrelated dance set to Camille Saint-Saëns’s “Swan” from Carnival of the Animals. But it has a swan in it and Sade Barnwell did a lovely job dancing what appeared to be the Anna Pavlova choreography in costume designer Lakesha Howerton’s white tutu slashed with red. The flexibility in her back was astonishing.

Swans to watch

Nya Cunningham’s Odile was riveting. Her costume was spectacular: Howerton’s sparkly black and silver tutu with a set of fluttering black wings that were at least eight feet across. But even without the wings, she filled the stage with a commanding presence. In the duet with Anderson, the two swans took each other’s measure in a classical dance battle to the edgy beat of drums inflecting the Swan Lake waltz. It was the best choreography of the afternoon, performed by both dancers with an intensity that brought the ballet to electric life. Cunningham just finished high school and is off to college in the fall, so we are catching her at the beginning of her dance journey. She is going to shine.

Nya poses on brown pointe shoes in a lavish costume with huge black feathered wings, outstretched with her arms.
A dancer to watch: Nya Cunningham in Chocolate Ballerina’s ‘Black Swan.’ (Photo by Ray Valdez.)

There were technical glitches—wrist bands slowed the seating of patrons so the performance started over half an hour late, and sound problems interrupted Gray’s beautiful solo. I would have said the ticket prices, $50 and $100, were aspirational, but the 500-seat venue was sold out, and the audience was enthusiastic. Even making allowance for proud parents, it was clear that there is a Black audience who hungers for ballet and will come out in numbers to support the development of Black artists in classical dance. And five years from now, those of us who were there will be able to say that we saw Cunningham at the very beginning.

What, When, Where

Black Swan: A Swan Lake Premiere. Chocolate Ballerina Company. $50-$100. June 4, 2023, at Independence Seaport Museum, 211 S Columbus Boulevard, Philadelphia.


The Independence Seaport Museum is on Penn’s Landing at the bottom of the Walnut Street bridge. It is a wheelchair-accessible facility.

The museum does not require mask-wearing.

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