OGDEN — A lithe, pale girl in a white tutu balancing on the small tips of her dainty pointe shoes has been the quintessential image of the ballerina since the popularization of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." However, the Memphis-based dance company Collage Dance Collective, which is partnering with the Ogden Symphony Ballet Association, is working to change that stereotype.
“When I first started dancing, I was the only dancer of color,” said Kevin Thomas, artistic director of Collage, who started his dance career in Montreal, Canada. “I kept on seeing ballets where there were no people of color, so it almost made me feel like I wasn’t meant to do ballet.”
It wasn’t until a few years later when he was introduced to the Dance Theater of Harlem that he became confident with his place in the world of ballet. After seeing them perform with dancers of many different hues, Thomas said, “I felt that I saw myself onstage, and that was important.”
A few years later, Thomas was using his own experience as inspiration to improve the opportunities and possibilities for others who may feel out of place in the world of ballet. The creation of Collage was his way of answering the need for more diversity. He felt that in order for young black kids to become interested in ballet, they would need to “see themselves represented onstage by dancers who look like them.”
With 12 principle dancers of color from five different countries and seven different states, Collage is making a name for itself among the top ballet companies in the U.S.
According to Marcellus Harper, executive director of Collage, their mission is to “increase diversity in ballet and … provide a platform for professional dancers of color to be showcased.”
With their conservatory and various outreach programs, Collage is able to do just that, impacting nearly 400 students each week from underserved populations in the Memphis area.
It was this work in community outreach, in addition to Collage's dance skills that contributed to the OSBA bringing the company to Ogden as part of their first full season presenting elite professional dance companies from outside Utah, said Emily Kunz, OSBA's executive director.
Speaking of OSBA’s own outreach efforts, Kunz said, “We feel like it’s a really important mission … to bring art that’s going to uplift, enrich and inspire (our communities).”
With many low-income and underserved demographics in the Ogden area, OSBA seeks to provide exposure to the arts for children and families who might not otherwise have the opportunity. “It’s kind of in line with some of the stuff that’s happening right now,” Kunz said in reference to the recent Time's Up campaign and its coverage at the Golden Globes. “It’s about really making sure that voices who have been on the fringes are being heard. It’s important for us to recognize … that every person has a story.”
As part of OSBA’s new season, it is working with local schools to provide master class opportunities for underserved kids to learn from the visiting professional companies.
According to Kunz, OSBA hopes the participants of the master class and attendees of Collage's performances will “get inspiration from the fact that these dancers are trying to break through into a community that has traditionally not been welcoming to them, and to realize that through perseverance and hard work, determination and collaboration, they can kind of be this beacon of hope.”
The program for Collage’s performance in Ogden contains five different ballets, each with a story and background as different as the dancers who perform them.
One of the ballets, titled Wasteland, brings to life the story of the Sioux Indian people and their fight against the laying of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Harper described it as “full of heart, emotion and power” and said that “it speaks to themes of triumphs that all of us as humans can relate to.”
Much like the histories of those who perform it, Thomas said it is an example of “standing up and being powerful” in the face of opposition.Comment on this story
And as Harper put it, that’s part of what Collage hopes to communicate in its performances. “We try to create works that are accessible and relevant, that are emotionally powerful but also sophisticated and say something and challenge our audience to see and think in different ways.”
If you go …
What: Collage Dance Collective hosted by Ogden Symphony Ballet Association
When: Jan. 25, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Val A. Browning Center, 1901 University Circle, Ogden