Black Swans Shattering the Glass Ceiling: A Historical Perspective the Evolution of Historically Black Ballet Companies— From Katherine Dunham to Arthur Mitchell
Jackson, La'Toya Princess
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CitationJackson, La'Toya Princess. 2019. Black Swans Shattering the Glass Ceiling: A Historical Perspective the Evolution of Historically Black Ballet Companies— From Katherine Dunham to Arthur Mitchell. Master's thesis, Harvard Extension School.
AbstractThis thesis is an intervention in the ballet field, seeking to provide an Afrocentric historical perspective on the evolution and history of ballet in the United States. Drawing on the work of Brenda Dixon Gottschild, I explore African diasporic traditions and Africanist aesthetics in classical ballet, and I reconfigure Katherine Dunham and Arthur Mitchell to situate their works within the American ballet canon. I explore Katherine Dunham’s role as founder of Ballet Négre (the first black ballet company in the United States) and Arthur Mitchell’s role in the evolution of the “Black Ballet Aesthetic.” I also examine the “Classic Black” era to document the histories of American Negro Ballet, First Negro Classic Ballet, and New York Negro Ballet. I give historical context leading up to the founding of Dance Theatre of Harlem. I analyze the emergence of the Black Ballet Aesthetic and how companies like Ballethnic Dance Company have taken the torch from Katherine Dunham and Arthur Mitchell to found a sustainable classical black ballet company and bring it successfully into the twenty-first century.
This thesis also documents my original field research into the origins and history of five classical black companies: American Negro Ballet, First Negro Classic Ballet, New York Negro Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem and Ballethnic Dance Company. Field interviews with artistic directors, founders, and dancers from these companies reveal the challenges they faced even as they were determined to preserve their history, their art, and their legacy.
In additional investigation, I examine how early black ballet companies established and maintained their classical ballet foundation and performed classical works in spaces that typically did not welcome black dancers. My research sheds new light on how early black ballet companies have been left out of history, while simultaneously providing insight into why it is important to preserve the work of these companies. I analyze how the Black Ballet Aesthetic evolved within these companies while also documenting how the companies that were created sparked a Black Ballet Renaissance by creating their own original works and story ballets that speak to the black experience. I seek to preserve their work while also providing a comprehensive history lesson that will further cement their legacy not just within the context of black history but more widely within the canon of American history.
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