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Ballet Austin: Raising the Barre

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A ballet company humbles itself and learns how to commit to diversity in meaningful ways.

By Brianna Caleri, Michelle Martin photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood, Cookie Ruiz photo by Michael Thad Carter

Ballet, Michelle Martin points out, is about creating lines. “Everything that you’re looking for in classical ballet relates to establishing a line through the body,” she says. “If you are wearing dance clothes—particularly tights on your legs—that cut your line…then you’re doing a disservice to the dancer and you’re not moving anything forward.”

For as long as there have been ballet dancers of color, they’ve been forced into the wrong shades. It’s not a superficial difference. It affects the dancer’s sense of belonging as well as their actual performance and appearance of belonging. In 2019, an article in the Guardian celebrated the UK’s first line of pointe shoes to match Black and brown skin. It shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it is: dancers at Ballet Austin wear the right colors for their skin.

Martin is the associate artistic director of Ballet Austin, one of the 15 largest classical ballet companies in the United States. With Martin’s help alongside Artistic Director Stephen Mills and Executive Director Cookie Ruiz, Ballet Austin is tackling these obvious practical issues and much larger, more ambiguous ones in a racial equity company reboot. Ballet Austin has known for decades that the medium carries a centuries-long reputation. Both as an impeccable art and an impenetrable bastion of white, upper-class culture. Around four years ago, the company got involved in nationwide initiatives that lit a new fire under its equity efforts. Since then, through intensive audience research, internal auditing and goal-oriented industry conversation, Ballet Austin has been identifying which historical lines need breaking, and which ones can be fortified with its influence.

Ballet Austin’s Work for Humanity

Ballet Austin is nationally celebrated for Mills’ choreography work, which is not only progressive in style, but in humanitarian substance. His original work Light / The Holocaust & Humanity Project was recognized in 2006 by the Anti-Defamation League with the Audrey & Raymond Maislin Humanitarian Award. Martin teaches alongside him, acting as a mentor for dancers as they move through the company’s various pipelines from early-childhood training to national renown. Meanwhile, through administrative efforts, Ruiz supports securing funds to subsidize those pipelines and maintain stability for those dedicated to the art form.

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Michelle Martin

As COVID-19 shuttered arts organizations, the trio remained on task. The dancers had to be engaged as athletes, and everyone on staff had to be paid. Ballet Austin had to keep offering art to its audience. Especially as the world became desperate for healing in any form. The company had to put its allyship training to work as the country descended into protests and even insurrection. Ruiz sums up the organization’s existential responsibility. “Whether or not there’s a performance really doesn’t matter in terms of Ballet Austin’s obligation to employing our artists.”

Enacting Change

Three and a half years ago, Ballet Austin was invited to participate in a nationwide program sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation called The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet. Twenty-one of the largest ballet companies in the U.S. (who are also the largest employers of dancers) gathered together under the leadership of Dance Theatre of Harlem, The International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA for coaching on creating a more equitable national landscape in ballet. Participants flew from city to city for two years of conferences and conversations about doing more than simply hoping for more equity by putting detailed practices in place.

Toward the end of the program, Ballet Austin’s answer was to put together an employee-led task group that would carry those principles forward. The Equity Leadership Team, as it’s now called, then commissioned an internal landscape analysis run by an external consultant. The results showed a lack of conversation at Ballet Austin about race. As much as Mills, Martin and Ruiz talked, it didn’t reach ears throughout the rest of the company. To keep up, they’ve continued undergoing allyship training. Meanwhile Martin started moderating optional small-group discussions with the rest of the staff. Ruiz succinctly points out the need for “organizational opportunities for individuals to do individual work.”

Finding Diversity

Finding more diverse representation on the board of directors had also proved difficult over years of wishful thinking. Starting with low representation in a small group, Ballet Austin was moving the needle one person at a time. Progress was slow, and strides were undone the moment anyone left. To commit more deeply to its goal—35% BIPOC representation on the board—for the past three years, Ballet Austin assembled nominating committees entirely made up of people of color. Like any nominating committee, they reach out to prospective members and invite them to performances and events to continue to let the work speak for itself. The difference is simply a more welcoming face to those who would worry they don’t belong in ballet.

This is the lament of many white-led organizations trying to invite members of color through good intentions alone. Martin points out, “What I’ve heard a lot of people say—and I’m sure these words left my mouth as well—‘We just don’t see a lot of people of color who come to our auditions.’ If you’ve been excluded and harmed for generations…if you don’t see others that look like you in an organization, why would you want to present yourself?”

The Ballet Austin team is building nominating committees. But it’s also looking into starting a paid internship and an apprenticeship program for BIPOC college students. Getting them involved just before graduation could widen the company’s admin talent pool past the same kinds of applications that have been coming in for years. This way, Ruiz explains, the company will be less reliant on “the luck of the draw” while rushing to fill gaps.

Bringing Ballet to the Underrepresented

A similar program, Ballet Austin II, has been in place for dancers since Martin established it in 1999. Catching dancers early in their careers, as dramatic as it may sound, means developing talent in children and getting them ready to hit the dance floor running, so to speak, when they hit 18. From then and until they’re 23, they become a part of Ballet Austin II. There they take classes, perform with Ballet Austin and receive health services. Eventually moving on to the main company or one of the 42 others across the U.S. contracted with the program. Right now, nearly 80% of Ballet Austin dancers come through this pipeline.

This type of development is common with professional dance companies. This also means the diversity issues that are common to ballet are already coming up before a dancer even signs up to audition. One of the shifts Martin made in recent years is reexamining the training organizations Ballet Austin II is sourcing from. The program is now fostering partner relationships with institutions that work specifically with young dancers of color. These include the Chicago High School for the Arts and the International Association of Blacks in Dance. Martin also recognizes the barriers even those dancers, who seem set up for success, face.

Parents are often worried about sending their Black children away at the cusp of adulthood to a Southern company. To work in an industry that historically mistreats them. Even if they wanted to, they might not be able to afford it. Countering both issues takes continuous work and relationship-building. Over time, personally validating the experiences of BIPOC dancers in one-on-one discussion and maintaining scholarships like the Butler Fellowship Program could invite more diverse dancers to step onto its stage.

Constant Growth

A dancer’s career onstage, like any athlete’s, is short and could end with an injury or, say, a pandemic, at any time. Ruiz’s concern is getting those dancers through the door. Martin’s is making sure these young dancers fighting for coveted jobs are not only growing in ways they think others want to see. “That’s not how artists are developed,” she says, through an exasperated chuckle.

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Cookie Ruiz

So why should an arts organization put itself under the same stress? During an intensive audience research program, Martin and Ruiz realized that developing a connection was more complicated than showing the audience what Ballet Austin thought they were ready for. “My only lens previously had been what we wanted people to get from what we were doing,” Martin says. “That is not what people necessarily come to you for, and that’s often not what they find.”

The invite-only research program that upended these assumptions was run by the Wallace Foundation and took a year of applications and audits to qualify for. Just three dance companies were admitted to the group of 25 arts organizations. Ballet Austin, New York City’s Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre (whose Texas-born founder is famous for preserving Black contributions in dance) and Seattle’s hugely popular Pacific Northwest Ballet. Each company had a different goal. Austin’s was to learn to engage audiences in their new, less familiar offerings. (While traditional stories like Swan Lake and The Nutcracker regularly sell out.)

Bringing More Stories to the Forefront

In its write-up, the Wallace Foundation notes that there were two simple things drawing Austin audiences in. “The social experience of spending time with family and friends at an event and the emotional or intellectual reward of experiencing the art itself.”

Ballet Austin also learned that familiarity with the experience of attending a ballet was more important to ticket buyers than familiarity with the story itself. The company was suddenly, measurably free to widen its repertoire past the unfamiliar. All they had to do was explain it. One project Martin is excited to unveil to audiences over the coming years is a triptych of children’s ballets highlighting non-Western European cultures. Dtarting with Filipino folktales choreographed by Ballet Master Alexa Capareda, who came up through Ballet Austin’s Butler Fellowship Program.

This is a tangible result of another continuous line, created by ballet, from scholarship to training, to staff, to audience. Including the children and families who are familiar with how folktales are told. Even if they’re less familiar with Filipino lore. Other audience members may see themselves in the non-white narrative and go on to take public classes at Ballet Austin. (Some of which are free thanks to the money they spent on ticket sales and donor subsidies.) The cycle begins again.

Not Just Back to Normal

Ballet Austin knows results will come slowly, and only if they’re willing to put ideas out. Their hypothesis that framed their Wallace Foundation audience was wrong. Their internal culture audit found unflattering blind spots. They didn’t know exactly what to say when the country cried out about police brutality. But their simple online statement of support led to an invitation from Black Women in Business to join their ongoing food drive. Of course, cultural leaders have to do their due diligence. But they will often be wrong, and they can’t afford to let that fear keep them from making necessary trouble. Ruiz embraces the opportunity to rebuild after the pandemic. Not just getting things back to normal, but elevating them to a more equitable space. She promises, “We have no intention of putting it back the same.”


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