BWW Interview: Theresa Ruth Howard and the Launch of AND STILL THEY ROSE
Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet (MoBB), curated and founded by Theresa Ruth Howard, is an online digital platform that looks to preserve the history and tell the stories and contributions of Blacks in ballet. It also serves as a call for advocacy for diversity in the training and careers in the field of ballet. Ms. Howard and MoBB are pleased to announce the launch of And Still They Rose: The Legacy of Black Philadelphians in Ballet- an online video series that tells the stories of three great trailblazers: Judith Jamison, Joan Myers Brown, and Delores Browne.
I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Ms. Howard and learn more about MoBB and the new online series.
Q: Can you talk about what the series And Still They Rose is about?
A: This is a project that is funded by the Knight Foundation, where I am able to tell the stories of three women who were classically trained in ballet and made their careers between the 1930s and 1960s. It's about showing how despite the social and political climate at the time, how their careers formed and were developed. These women came about during a time when there were no professional opportunities available for Black and Brown dancers. You could only go but so far, despite one's talent. These are powerful stories that I found to be fascinating. I felt that it brings to light why there were (and still are) so few Black and Brown ballet dancers out there.
I also think that it is interesting that these women (including myself) began their training in the city of Philadelphia and how that played a role in their training and success. Philadelphia is a Quaker-founded city. The Quakers were a community that was more open and accepting of people of color. Philadelphia was a city that had the highest number of freed Blacks in the country. Quakers were eventually banned from buying slaves, because they were known for setting them free. Many schools in the city of Philadelphia were not segregated. There was a level of proximity between Blacks and Whites that did not exist in many parts of the US.
Q: Why did you choose to feature these three ladies?
A: I chose them because they are the most prominent classically trained Black dancers. These women are treasures- Ms. Myers Brown being a local (Philadelphia), Ms. Jamison as a national, and Ms. Browne as the unknown treasure. In hearing about their stories, we learn about who were their teachers. Folks like Anthony Tudor, Agnes De Mille, Sydney King and Marion Cuyjet, and how they helped to create a generation of Black dancers.
These women were living in a world where there was no access. In this case, access refers to engaging in full participation in ballet. And also taking notice of what the Black community looked like during that time and the barriers they often faced. There are also the un-danced stories to be told. These stories circle around issues about gender, race, and colorism.
Q: Who/What is next for the online series?
A: This is just the beginning. There are so many other great stories that I would love to share and do them justice. It is my hope that the series is well-received. I also hope that the youth take notice of and benefit from this knowledge. I want people to start questioning and having conversations around diversity and learn more about how we can move towards accessibility.
In the short-term, I want to be able to tour this work to various colleges and festivals. In the long-term, with the support of new and additional funding, I would love to expand this into a longer film and just continue in whatever direction this work takes me.
And Still They Rose will have the online release on October 22, 2017 on MoBB's website at www.mobb.org. A corresponding panel discussion moderated by Ms. Howard featuring Joan Myers Brown and Delores Browne at The Painted Bride Arts Center in Philadelphia, PA on October 28, 2017.
For more information, or to support and donate to the work of Ms. Howard at MoBB, please visit their website at www.mobb.org.
Photo Credit: Eva Mueller