Two dancers I’m thanking the ballet world for this Thanksgiving

Thursday, November 19, 2020 - 6:10pm

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Design by Samuel Turner

2020 was hard. Most of it was not fun, and some of it was downright miserable. I am aware that this is neither a beautifully written nor insightfully derived statement, but I’ve spent the last several hours sitting on my couch trying to come up with a way to convey this sentiment that is not overused, boring or absolutely run-of-the-mill. I feel sure that if I write or read the phrase “unprecedented times” one more time, the world beneath me will open up and I will fall into an Alice in Wonderland-type hole that will no doubt lead me to a cold, damp dungeon where I will be resigned to live out the rest of my days. This dramatic alternative universe doesnt even sound that crazy anymore — when the unprecedented becomes precedent, where do we turn next? 

In my more optimistic moments, which are usually guided by several hours spent on the therapist side of TikTok, I tend to conclude that gratitude is, and will always be, the answer. Even in the dead of night when the ghosts are howling and there is no moon in sight, one can remember the sunlight from the day before and think of the brightness that is to come in the morning. In this spirit — and in the tradition of the forthcoming holiday based on thankfulness — I’m pushed to consider what I am grateful for in the year of canceled shows and COVID-19. 

Two women come to mind: Theresa Ruth Howard and Megan Fairchild. Though both in ballet, they come from different places and offer quite different contributions to this community. Both are valid, and both made my year so much better. 

 

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Howard founded Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet in 2015 in an effort to curate the largely undocumented history of Black artists in ballet. Her website offers a “roll call” of over 500 past and present Black dancers alongside a visual timeline that graphs the appearances of Black performers going all the way back to George Washington Smith in 1846. Her work shines a light on the deep roots of white supremacy that still permeate ballet — many of the figures on MoBBallet’s site are left out of the history books used in my own dance classes this year. 

Howard knows this, and she also works as a diversity strategist for a long list of major companies. In late August, she organized a virtual symposium that pushed those in ballet’s leadership to think more critically about approaches to race in schools, companies and beyond. She then launched a digital learning hub where users can access resources for the cultural reset so desperately needed within ballet’s hallowed halls. 

Howard does all this with enthusiasm; her message is never hostile and always inclusive, curious and eager. At a talk earlier this year, she ended with this: “It’s vital that people of color know that they don’t need to be invited in. They’ve already been at the dance. In fact, they helped create it.” I’m thankful for her tireless pursuit of a more colorful future in the face of a deceptively whitewashed past and present.

 

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Fairchild is a principal dancer for New York City Ballet. After NYCB’s first cancellations in March, Fairchild started a series of long-form interviews with her colleagues that she posts to YouTube. The videos range from 45 minutes to well over an hour and come with no frills, no pomp and no embellishment. There is no “like comment or subscribe,” no thumbnail image, no sponsored product — Fairchild simply posts the recording of their Zoom call under the title “Interview with…”. She then adds one post to Instagram to let her followers know, and that is that. You could not get more authentic, and the conversations that ensue are just as genuine. 

Fairchild’s interview subjects are free to talk about anything, and they do — burnout and bullying, heartbreak and dreams fulfilled. The videos are more about dancers as people than as artists, and through this Fairchild delivers a highly underrated message: Dancers are people first. As ethereal and elite and beautiful as one may look onstage, their lives are just as confusing and normal and weird as the rest of ours. It’s a sentiment that often goes unsaid; I’m grateful that Fairchild is willing to say it. 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Wear your masks, get your tests and think about the people who have worked to push your artistic community forward in this year of loss. The sun will shine once more — hopefully this time on a more just and better facilitated world. 

Daily Arts Columnist Zoe Phillips can be reached at zoegp@umich.edu.


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