The American Ballet Theatre’s groundbreaking initiative aims to change the institution of professional ballet from the inside out
Misty Copeland made waves as the first African American dancer to be promoted to a principal position by the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in its 75 years of operation—in 2015, just two short years ago. Even though we hear so many “firsts” when it comes to the achievements and accolades of nonwhite creators in the US, it should continue to be shocking that people of a certain skin tone are not given the same opportunities than others. And within the sphere of professional ballet, institutionalized racism is basically accepted. When casting principal ballet dancers, the tendency to hire caucasian talent is chalked up to the need for visual homogeneity. The more elite the institution, the more common this practice is. Often, these aspiring dancers are not even granted access to quality training. The lack of this necessary resource leaves them basically barred from the industry as a whole.
The ABT, however, has recognized that this imbalance in the representation of dancers of color is unfair and does not accurately reflect the diversity of our country. In 2013, they launched Project Plié, a foundation aiming to “increase racial and ethnic representation in ballet and diversify America’s ballet companies.” Project Plié cites Misty Copeland as an inspiration for the program—when she was hired as a principal dancer, many people thought that the lack of representation would no longer be a problem, but it seemed that she was an exception and not the new normal. The program has partnered with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America to provide its members with access to master classes taught by ABT qualified trainers. The ABT also provides scholarships to aspiring dancers so that they can attend classes at their facilities in New York City.
Not only students, but Project Plié also seeks out teachers of color to provide them with the ability to become certified by the ABT. There is an internship program that gives under-represented people the ability to become involved in the administrative and behind-the-scenes aspects of professional ballet. They also have partnered with ballet companies across the country to bring their prestigious training to other places, making equal representation a norm throughout the institution. The program is an incredibly thorough approach to the lack of diversity in ballet, aiming to provide equal access to students. It won't be long before other prestigious ballet companies follow suit. The ABT seems committed to making professional ballet a welcoming and representative place for everyone.
Photos by Rosalie O’Connor
By Bailey Calfe