BWW Interview: Launch of Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet with THERESA RUTH HOWARD
Internationally acclaimed dancer, writer, and advocate Theresa Ruth Howard has a diverse and multifaceted career as an artist. She began her professional career at the Philadelphia Civic Ballet School and went on to dance with the notable Dance Theatre of Harlem, collaborating with Donald Byrd and the New York City Opera, was a guest artist with Complexions, and a founding member of Armitage Gone! Dance. Her writings have been published in a number of media such as Dance Magazine, Pointe, One World Magazine, and Italian dance magazine- Expressions. She has taught at several colleges and universities including Sarah Lawrence College, New Haven University, The Ailey School, and the American Dance Festival.
Theresa's latest endeavor is the launch of Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet (MoBBallet). MoBBallet is an online platform that looks to preserve the contributions and stories of Black artists in the field of Ballet. Through the sentiment of a digital museum, MoBBallet will host "traditional" archival materials and be a site of an oral catalog. The goal is to create access to high quality content, tell the stories of Blacks in Ballet, and promote larger discussions within the dance community.
Q: What is MoBBallet and what is your hope others will get out of it?
A: I wanted to create a digital space for the stories and history of Black dancers. I wanted to have a place that represents us as Blacks. History isn't documented the way it should be. Too often, when it comes to Black history, you have to hunt for it- and that is problematic. I wanted to have a place where all the history lives. This is not just for the US, but internationally as well. We need to tell our stories. And this is meant to celebrate the achievements of the past while helping to create the next generation of Black dancers.
Q: Why create something like this and why now?
A: We are in a time we are seeing the reality of the inequities that exists, to a point where we have to acknowledge it. As a society, we are becoming hyper-aware of diversity. We are seeing the inequity in representation. We have an immediate form of awareness to maintain our rights. There is a feeling that if one group's rights are eliminated, then we are next. There is a sense of urgency to have change- sustainable change. This is a path towards that sustainable change in the field.
Q: Whose stories did you want to tell?
A: I wanted to go beyond the mainstream and tell the stories beyond those we know. I wanted to focus in on both those we know and those below the radar. I want to go deeper and tell the story of who they are and what they are doing while zeroing in on the question "How it feels to be brown in a world of whiteness?" I also wanted to tell their artistic stories, We focus so much on who and what they look like, and forget what they are doing. They are dancing.
Q: What have you learned through this process?
A: It's been an interesting process. Through this, I've been able to track my own personal dance history through both Dance Theatre of Harlem, and studying dance in Philadelphia. There are currently 289 names listed, I've heard of some, but not all of them. And it's been amazing finding the connections between people and the times they lived in. I've also been learning about history through a new lens and uncovering a new culture. So often when we learn about Black history and the way they lived, they have mostly been depicted as slaves, poor, and uneducated. But through this process, I've been learning about Black elegance and Black professionals that we don't know about.
Q: What is your long-term goal for this initiative?
A: It is my hope to be able to change the way we have conversations and get to the heart and core of what this conversation is really about. I want to train Blacks to have the conversation in a way that is not "attacking" and have Whites be open to recognize who is in the room and not be ok with who is not there. I don't want it to be an "us vs. them" thing, but rather "our" thing. I also want to present the question and really think about why we do what we do.
MoBBallet is an online digital platform dedicated to telling the stories of Blacks in Ballet of the past, present, and future. This is a collaborative effort to tell our stories and the stories of those we don't know. If you would like to get involved you may consider taking part in this living historical project by contributing as a historian, writer, videographer, graphic designer, visual artist, or a donor. For more information, please visit their website at www.mobballet.org.
Photo Credit: Theresa Ruth Howard