When you Google the title of Syreeta Hector’s groundbreaking contemporary solo work Black Ballerina, the search immediately returns results for Misty Copeland — who, in 2015 (yes, 2015), became the first African-American ballet dancer to be promoted to principal dancer in New York City’s American Ballet Theatre.
Hector has noticed this, too. "Yes — and it’s so interesting because there were actually Black ballerinas before Misty Copeland," the dance artist and educator says over the phone from her home in Toronto.
And that’s sort of the point. Hector, 37, wanted to create a work that explored her identity as a Black Indigenous woman in relation to classical ballet, a Eurocentric artform that remains stubbornly white. What does it mean to love an artform that doesn’t always love you back?
The full-length version of Black Ballerina, which debuted virtually in 2020 to critical acclaim, will make its live Winnipeg première this weekend at the Rachel Browne Theatre, presented as part of Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers’ 2021-22 season. The genre-spanning, full-length work pulls inspiration from everywhere, reflecting all parts of Hector’s dance experience. (At one point, she performs in one pointe shoe and one sneaker.)
"It’s a very big mix of movements," Hector says. "Sometimes it’s classical ballet and petit allegro. Sometimes it’s influences of krumping and Memphis Jookin, so street-style dance. Sometimes it’s influences of Martha Graham that you’ll see within the work. All of these dance styles are within me and within my dance practice. So, I’m really, really curious about, what if we take all of these things and we make something, and we don’t deny parts of who we are and parts of our dance experience, and dance education and training, but what if we make it into something that actually invites all of the self?"
The seeds for Black Ballerina were planted when New Brunswick-born Hector was working on her Masters thesis at York University in Toronto. Her research delved into her family history and heritage — Mi’kmaq, Black Loyalist and French Acadian — as well as her relationship to race and dance.
"I was like, OK, well, I need to take this off of the academic research paper and put it into performance, because that’s what I’m based in. I’m a performer by heart." As a short, work-in-progress solo, Black Ballerina created serious buzz at Toronto’s SummerWorks Festival in 2019 and won the Stratford Festival Lab Award for Research and Creation.
Hector has been practising ballet since she was a teenager living in North Carolina. She took dance as an elective in high school, drawn to the athleticism of it. "It was a way to physicalize my emotions and, like, all of that teenage grit and gristle," she says with a laugh.
Still, it wasn’t easy. Hector was immediately confronted with the overwhelming whiteness and discrimination embedded in classical ballet’s institutions — right down to the use of pink tights and slippers to create the illusion of a longer leg — and encountered racism from her classmates.
"Some people in my high school said, ‘You don’t belong there. You don’t belong doing classical ballet, what are you doing? You know, you shouldn’t be doing that because of who you are.’ "
But ballet also connected Hector to Alycia Long Allen, a Black dance teacher who recognized Hector’s talent and encouraged and supported her. "She said, ‘Syreeta, I think there might be something for you in this form. Don’t worry about the money, go to this class. See if you like it, and I’ll figure it out.’ And then I did — and then I never stopped."
That’s the thing: Hector loves ballet. More than that, though, she believes it can change.
"I always like to recognize that it’s not that I hate ballet — that’s not the point of Black Ballerina," Hector says. "It’s that we must continue to reimagine what we’re seeing and who we’re seeing. When I think about Black Ballerina when I’m dancing it, I’m always thinking about that. It’s not that I’m saying ‘institutions should be doing this, this, this.’ But I like to think of Black Ballerina as a proposal for reimagination, really. Where are we at right now, and what can we do better? And how can we do it — and now? How do we hold ourselves accountable?"
Black Ballerina runs Nov. 26 to 28 at the Rachel Browne Theatre. Tickets are available via winnipegscontemporarydancers.ca