Building on the momentum created by the highly successful exhibition, conference, and performance Radical Bodies in 2017, the Dance and Performance Studies program at UCSB will stage a full day of talks, films, and performances devoted to the role of race in the history of classical ballet in America on Monday, April 29, in the HSSB Ballet Studio. Dance studies professor Ninotchka Bennahum and associate professor of English and black studies Stephanie Batiste have co-curated an event that has attracted some of the most revered figures in American ballet.
Heather Watts, former principal dancer for the New York City Ballet (NYCB), will stage two important works from the 1950s, George Balanchine’s Agon (1957) and Jerome Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun (1953), both featuring Calvin Royal III, principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, and Unity Phelan, soloist with the New York City Ballet. Cameron Grant, the pianist for the NYCB, will be on hand to create what is sure to be an extraordinary experience. Watts sees these two mid-century masterpieces as important not only in the civil-rights-era context in which they were created and first performed, but also as having a lasting impact “as they live on through new generations of dancers.”
Using an innovative model for structuring the colloquium, the curators have designed a day that features multiple opportunities not only to reflect on the role of race in the history of American ballet, but to witness it in performances and on film. Alicia Graf Mack, the former Alvin Ailey and Dance Theatre of Harlem star who was named director of the dance division at the Juilliard School in 2018, will be giving a keynote lecture and performing. Arthur Mitchell, the first African American to be named a principal dancer at the NYCB and the founding director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, will be represented through the screening of films depicting his work as a choreographer. Mitchell was a member of the original cast of Agon, which the NYCB describes as “the apex of Balanchine’s collaboration with Igor Stravinsky.”
No one knows more about ballet history, including not only the legacy of Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes but also the development of significant dance traditions in New York City, than Lynn Garafola, professor of dance at Barnard College and the event’s other keynote speaker. Her address, titled “The African American Presence in Postwar American Dance,” promises to be a highlight of the colloquium when it kicks off the afternoon session at 1:15 p.m. Professor Garafola is renowned for the power and clarity of her presentations, having organized multiple exhibitions for the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts along with publishing a half dozen influential books, including Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance.
This event marks the beginning of a new initiative on the part of UCSB’s program in Dance and Performance Studies to convene international panels of experts for demonstrations and discussions, both formal and informal, which will illuminate major aspects of dance history and practice for the new century. Under the guidance of Bennahum — who has been the historian of the American Ballet Theatre and has published on Carmen, flamenco, and the American avant-garde of the 1960s, among many other topics — this inaugural International Colloquium for the Study of Dance and Performance Studies promises to become a major contribution to the ongoing development of dance as an academic discipline and as a global practice that brings joy to millions.
4•1•1 | Race, Ballet, and American Dance takes place Monday, April 29, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., at UCSB’s HSSB Ballet Studio. See theaterdance.ucsb.edu.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included a photo of a dancer who was misidentified as Arthur Mitchell. We also clarified that the show is on Monday, not Sunday, April 29.