Portland's very white dance companies attracted blowback from the dance community and agreed to change
For the past several weeks, conversations and arguments around race and the arts have arisen nationally and locally. In the Portland dance community, they’ve been driven by the dancers themselves, many of whom have concluded that the city’s big companies—Oregon Ballet Theatre, BodyVox and NW Dance Project, along with its major dance presenter, White Bird—could do a lot more than they’ve done in addressing systemic racism in both the art form and their own organizations. And they’ve taken to Instagram and Facebook to express their opinions. “It takes someone in a position of power to advocate for someone who is disenfranchised,” said DarVejon Jones, a Black choreographer, teacher, and dancer in Portland. Jones explained what he and many Black Americans have experienced: that you can’t speak up because you fear the systems of power in place around you. “That’s what white supremacy says, it makes you feel like you have no agency to talk about your own life. When you do, you feel like a squeaky wheel,” he said recently in an interview with me.
Nonetheless, he and many other local dancers have been speaking up. And having been prodded, the dance companies have responded, often defensively and often without the clarity that might satisfy their dancers, the dance community and even their boards of directors.
ArtsWatch asked the leadership of the Big Four some questions about how they are reacting to Black Lives Matter and its implications. Each company is different: different history, different financial arrangements, different artistic focus. But for the first time in some cases, they are hearing criticism from the dance community itself and they are all looking intensely at the same problem. Here’s what we found.
Oregon Ballet Theatre If you’re a ballet fan, even a casual one, you’ve probably heard of Oregon Ballet Theatre, or at least seen its annual production of “The Nutcracker” in Keller Auditorium. The company’s revenue for the 2019 fiscal year totaled around $8.2 million (the company posts its audited financial statements online). Although the company has occasionally programmed dances by Black choreographers (Alvin Ailey), the programming historically has been male and white. Only 6.25% of OBT’s staff, board, and company identify as African American/Black, 77% identify as white, 12.5% identify as either Asian or Hispanic/Latinx, and 10.3% declined to reply.
Part of the explanation for these percentages is economic. The dance company business model, especially in Portland, is heavily dependent upon individual donors and ticket sales (corporate and government support for the arts here is low even by American standards), nearly all of which is coming from white pockets. An organization will naturally tend to reflect those it serves. If the patron and donor base is white, we’ve now created a white loop, no matter how diverse the city is.
Portland isn’t very diverse, but it also isn’t all white. At a multi-racial Black Lives Matter protest on Tuesday, June 2, at Tom McCall Waterfront Park, one of the speakers reminded us of something important: “This crowd here is Portland. Don’t let anyone tell you Portland is an all-white city. Don’t erase us. We are still here.”
One of OBT’s newest company members, Brian Bennett performing in George Balachine’s The Nutcracker. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.
Brian Bennett joined OBT in 2019 after artistic director Kevin Irving spotted him at auditions run by the International Association for Blacks in Dance. Bennett told me that Irving was transparent with him during the hiring process, making sure to note that Bennett was not a diversity hire for OBT, but sharing that Portland and OBT in particular were very white spaces to exist in.
“Although I was prepared to come into an all-white institution, I wasn’t prepared for the taboo on Black culture,” said Bennett, who grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. “Portland is a culture shock to me. I didn’t even know where to begin with getting hair and skin products.”
Almost a year later, Bennett’s image is printed in OBT’s new season brochure. He’s struggled with the notion of being tokenized as the company’s only Black dancer, but says, “I know the only way to move forward and collect Black bodies into the space is to show Black bodies.”
The company has been working toward a more equitable model, however. OBT received a $20,000 RACC grant in 2019 to support internal DE&I (diversity, equity and inclusion) efforts. The company formed a Transformation Team drawing from all of its departments and board of directors, according to OBT marketing and communications director Natasha Kautsky, “to identify OBT’s challenges and goals, and make recommendations for next steps.” Through the grant, OBT was able to bring in moderator Theresa Ruth Howard, a former dancer with Dance Theater of Harlem and founder of MoBBallet. Howard began her work with OBT last December with a three-day intensive workshop.
Kautsky said that Howard’s return trip for this spring was cancelled due to the Covid-19 shutdown, but OBT has reconvened the Transformation Team amid the current backdrop. “One of our main priorities is to make ballet training more accessible to students of color,” Kautsky said. OBT, like many ballet companies, maintains a ballet school that raises money for the company through tuition. The students tend to be overwhelmingly white.
“Right now we are looking inside,” Kautsky said. “We have promised ourselves to be honest and authentic. In the days ahead we look forward to sharing updates of our progress through our newsletter and on our website. I hope you will continue to follow us there.”
Bennett is on the Transformation Team, and its conversations have left him feeling both overwhelmed as one of the only Black voices and hopeful as OBT has been brainstorming ways to expand dance education into Portland’s Black communities. “Given that the art form is so Eurocentric, I want to bring hip-hop-centric ideologies into ballet,” he said. “I want to use my slang, my culture’s music and art, and make them a part of ballet. I wanted to bring those things into a white space.”
NW Dance Project If you’re tuned into the community on Instagram, you know that NW Dance Project has been under intense scrutiny for the past several weeks over its summer intensive workshop program, LAUNCH, which also functions as the company’s primary audition to become a fulltime company dancer (two members of the present company did not attend LAUNCH). New York dancer and accepted 2020 LAUNCH participant Peter Cheng released the contents of an email correspondence he had with the company’s executive director, Scott Lewis, after the workshop was cancelled.
The company sent an email to LAUNCH participants informing them they would be offering full refunds, minus $150 “unrecoverable administrative and processing fees.” The workshop costs $985 to attend, which does not include travel, lodging or food costs. Cheng expected to lose his $50 deposit fee, but objected to the extra $100 the company tacked on, a big deal for all gig workers, including dancers, in the pandemic economic collapse.
The Dance Union picked up the story and pushed it forward to its community. Dancers from around the country spoke out in support of Cheng’s original demand, sharing stories of their own grievances with the company. On May 5, after days of public outcry, the company sent emails to all LAUNCH participants informing them the full tuition would be refunded. But the problem was greater than the money. The dancers challenged the idea of an expensive audition process itself.
“Requiring dancers to pay for a program with many other artists where everyone is hoping for a contract is white centric,” NYC dancer and Portland native Casey Hess wrote in a letter to NW Dance Project dancers, staff and board. In the letter, Hess explained the problem clearly: “Wealth in the United States is concentrated in white communities.
White people have more opportunity to take part in LAUNCH because they hold more wealth than Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities as a whole. LAUNCH is a program cultivating the advancement of white people.” When I asked the company about the community’s call to stop charging for auditions, Lewis responded, “We are evaluating if these models will work as we move into the future.”
In early June the entire board of NW Dance Project resigned, except for Lewis, artistic director Sarah Slipper, and Gary Leavitt, who remains as board treasurer. In a private message to Hess, a board member who wanted to remain anonymous commented on their departure: “We tried to change, we spoke up. But it came to a point our names could not be associated with the organization. Scott and Sarah did not want to address the issues we brought up, even though we offered to help.” According to Lewis, the departing board members had issues with how the company was dealing with its furloughed dancers, which were not related to its Diversity, Equity Inclusion work.
Finally, Slipper released a letter on Sunday, June 7, addressing the company’s silence about the Black Lives Matter movement. Lewis wrote that he fully supports Slipper’s personal/organizational statement in response to calls for a needed social and racial justice movement. She said, “NW Dance Project needs to diversify, be more inclusive and accessible, and to better work for anti-racism. We all can and need to focus more on DEI barriers and progress more than ever, dance included, and certainly NW Dance Project.”
Lewis said that the company is working toward a more equitable model—a notion inspired by Arts Workers for Equity, a nonprofit that addresses the issues of racial and ethnic inequity in the arts. Following these workshops the company crafted an equity statement this year. Lewis added that the board, before it resigned, recommended a professional DEI trainer/educator to “guide us further over the course of a year.”
The initial March meeting with the trainer was cancelled due to the shutdown, Lewis said, and he added that the company is eager to engage in ongoing professional DEI training. “In the meantime, we are engaging in listening, resource and information gathering, reading, watching, and processing the important feedback and calls from the community as well as the dance/arts world. We have much work to do and we must do it,” he said.
On June 17, the company released a BLM statement, which you can read here, in which the company admits its shortcomings and speaks of intentions to do better. “Although it’s in our mission to be an equitable and inclusive dance organization, we have fallen short,” the statement read. “We need to ensure that we are an ally to the Black community and a dance organization that is accessible and available to all. We need to work for anti-racism.”
BodyVox Before I reached out to BodyVox to ask about the company’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts, I didn’t see an Equity statement on its website. When I asked artistic directors Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland about that, they explained over email communications that their internal employee handbooks include equity and inclusion statements, but they “never felt it necessary to advertise those principles to the outside world, that our actions and our art would speak to a worldview that is inclusive and non-discriminatory.”
The company dancers and community suggested otherwise. Led by company dancer Javan Mngrezzo, a Zoom meeting was called during which Hampton and Roland took feedback from their employees about the need to stand publicly in solidarity with the BLM Movement. According to dancer Andrés Peraza, the conversations were challenging, as many conversations around race can be.
“I do believe that the larger institutions should be the first ones to speak up, not the smaller ones,” Peraza said in a telephone conversation. “In my mind it reflects really poorly when they do not. I get a sense that a lot of companies are thinking this is just a moment in time, and that next week it will lose momentum.”
Now, the dancers have been calling on BodyVox to pick up momentum in the fight against systemic racism. “In order for things to change, we are going to have to acknowledge the shortcomings of these big institutions in Portland, BodyVox included,” Peraza said. “Unless they are ready to first acknowledge and realize, we can’t change.”
Peraza also commented to me on the urgency to be clear in messaging and stance when addressing the movement. “The word neutral needs to be thrown out,” Peraza said. “It’s crucial to show solidarity. It sends the word to your patrons and your donor base that this is what we stand for.”
The company later committed to donating a week’s worth of online dance class profits to organizations aligned with BLM. “Recent events have made it clear that there is an opportunity to be another affirming voice in the midst of this movement, indeed that it is expected of a public performing arts organization,” Hampton said. “We are in the process of a complete website redesign, and I expect it will include an equity statement.”
BodyVox Dance Center posted images of their studio, where the staff and dancers used the windows and doors to post names of lives lost to police brutality. The motion comes after a week of staff meetings and discussion prompting the company to speak up.
A task force was created under the leadership of Mngrezzo to move forward as a company together. The purpose of the group? To examine the company’s principles and practices. Participants include representation from artistic, administrative, and teaching staff, and the Board of Trustees. It is in the formative stages, with the goal being to engage in honest assessment of BodyVox’s practices, attitudes, actions, climate, structure.
Javan Mngrezzo in BodyVox’s Pearl Dive Project show, performing in “Grief.” Photo by Randall L. Milstein
“I’ve been in such a negative mindset,” Mngrezzo said. “Having this to pour energy and passion into—I hope—will redirect some of that anger and inner fire into true change for the better.” That includes other social issues around “feminism, LGBTQ+ equity, and homelessness.”
“Change is scary, but it’s beautiful that we as humans can change things, we can evolve over time,” Peraza said. “Everyone just needs to realize that this is much larger than having one conversation. I remain committed to holding BodyVox accountable as an employee.”
White Bird White Bird is Portland’s largest dance presenter, one of the remaining 13 dance-only presenters in the US. I’m especially familiar with the company, as I was an employee there for two years. Under the direction of co-founders Paul King and Walter Jaffe, White Bird has brought a wide range of artists of color to Portland during the past 22 years. It has presented the work of Black artists including Dance Theater of Harlem, Alvin Ailey, Kyle Abraham, Camille Brown, and Reggie Wilson, just to name a few.
Untitled America, Performed by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Choreography: Kyle Abraham, Photo (C)2016 Paul Kolnik firstname.lastname@example.org Still, the company has faced calls to speak up publicly and take a stand against systemic racism, both inside the organization and out. Shaun Keylock, artistic director of Shaun Keylock Dance Company and one of White Bird’s Barney Commissioning Prize Awardee (alongside myself and Trevor Wilde), has led the conversation on Instagram, noting how white the company’s board, staff, donors, and audience are. Keylock is white himself.
After posting on social media questioning why White Bird hadn’t posted an Equity statement yet, Keylock said he received an email explaining that White Bird was working on a statement and it was “running the draft of the statement by someone we highly respect in the Black community.” Keylock said the response included a comment that the presenter was unsure why Keylock “felt compelled to call us and other dance organizations out.” The work that still needs to be done is what’s pledged in the company’s equity statement, “Break down the structures,” which the company released last year. And the company also released a statement against systemic racism on June 2.
“Everything White Bird does must happen through the lenses of our Equity Statement, Mission and Core Values,” Jaffe and King said. “The diversification of board and staff are major priorities, and we will continue to work hard to accomplish both,” King and Jaffe commented in an email correspondence this week. The racial composition of their staff, before the Covid layoffs, had already begun to reflect this. They also said: “Finger-pointing, bullying, shaming, and performative allyship have no place in this extremely important effort to unify our community and create profound and irrevocable change.”
***** Many People of Color argue that plain talk and hard conversations are essential to change. In her book White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo challenges white people to put down their defenses. She says, “When we try to talk openly and honestly about race, white fragility quickly emerges as we are so often met with silence, defensiveness, argumentation, certitude, and other forms of push back.”
Questioning the white-centric nature of the performing arts isn’t new for the dance world, though our conversations at large are evolving. Back in 2016, Dance Magazine published an article titled Dance in the Age of Black Lives Matter. “Pride and pain have always been intertwined for black dancers and choreographers in America,” it said. “Dance has sometimes eloquently expressed this dichotomy. It has also at times reflected the country’s indifference to ongoing racial violence and discrimination, allowing discourse to lean on the wobbly pillar of ‘diversity’ instead. But as the Black Lives Matter movement has returned race to the center of the national debate, it has galvanized some artists of color and challenged white dance audiences to confront their discomfort with racial issues.”
That was four years ago. What makes today’s BLM in the dance community different? This movement is turning the spotlight on the institutions, organizations, presenters, companies, and schools that make up our dance world.
Black Lives Matter is asking our dance institutions the same question it is asking the police department: Is it better to disband and rebuild in a different way, or are you capable of “reform”?
If it’s the latter, BLM activists say, we’ve got questions we want answered. Reform was always on the table. Why hasn’t it been done yet and/or what’s taking so long? Why are the staff, board, dancers, patrons, donors…still…white?
The solution will not be immediate. Radical change takes time, and support. Radical change takes leadership. Malcolm X said, “The future belongs to those who prepare for it today.” So here’s to beginning today for Portland’s dance world. DiAngelo, too, offers guidance on next steps: “The key to moving forward is what we do with our discomfort. We can use it as a door out—blame the messenger and disregard the message. Or we can use it as a door in by asking, Why does this unsettle me? What would it mean for me if this were true?”