In its latest stage production, a multi-racial youth ballet company in Nashville has decided to tell the story of American slavery and racism.
The decision by Rejoice School of Ballet means that even moments of grace and beauty are informed by an ugly and discomfiting narrative, and that young dancers portray intense scenes — at slave auctions, at work on plantations and even the story of Emmett Till, himself just 14 years old when he was lynched in 1955.
To bring 400 years of history to the stage in Saam Songs: Together Songs, these dancers have had to confront more than just difficult choreography.
“This part of history just wasn’t pretty,” said dancer Emmaline Weedman, 14. “So we have to portray things that we could never imagine going through, like being stacked like sardines on ships — literally inhumane things.”
In rehearsing that scene, she said, the dancers at first requested a bit more space to complete their movements. But, in holding to the truth of the slave trade, their teacher pushed back.
“Because you wouldn’t have had any more room,” Weedman said.
And, she notes, this show is far from Rejoice’s selection last year: Sleeping Beauty.
“The most emotional thing I had ever had to do on stage was pretend I pricked my finger on a spindle,” she said. “Now in one part I’m playing a kid that gets taken away from her mom. And that’s such a different feel.”
A Brave Decision
The dance company’s leaders aren’t pushing their students without also supporting them. Unlike the familiar ballets they’ve done in the past — mostly popular fairytales — Rejoice has built an entire education program around Saam Songs.
That’s included guided readings on slavery and the fight for civil rights, essay writing and frequent group conversations — sometimes springing up in the middle of a rehearsal.
“Some people, especially younger kids, they don’t know a lot about what happened,” said dancer Gabrielle Mitchell-Bonds, 12. “It’s good for shows like this where the dancers themselves know about it … so that when they dance, people are going to get connected to it and learn about it themselves.”
Mitchell-Bonds performs in a dance that shows a family ripped apart by the slave trade and, later, a scene about the coming of the Emancipation Proclamation — that’s one of the rare moments of hope for her on stage, when her character experiences a family reunification.
“I like learning about it. I want to know the history,” Mitchell-Bonds said. “It’s really important to know about this stuff and not be uneducated.”
Yet to hear the show’s co-writer and choreographer talk about, the students also have lessons to share.
“It blows my mind how much context they have for these issues,” said Gerald Watson, a professional dancer with the Nashville Ballet, and a Rejoice instructor.
Watson said he took cues from the student discussions while shaping the show.
And that’s where the demographic makeup of Rejoice allowed for something uncommon in the world of ballet.
Diversity In Ballet
More than half of Rejoice’s dancers are black, and several are Hispanic or biracial, which creates truly diverse perspectives when they talk about race, stereotypes and bullying.
“[Ballet] hasn’t traditionally been open to African-American dancers, and that’s one of the things that we’re really excited about, is that we have Africans, we have Latinos, and they are learning classical ballet,” said Patricia Cross, founding executive director of the nonprofit ballet school.
The school employs diverse instructors and is committed to affordability for all families. At Rejoice, with three-fourths of its families living in poverty, as federally defined, students pay based on a sliding scale. And the company provides much of the ballet attire.
Cross sees these elements as Rejoice’s contribution to the movement to diversify ballet.
Nationwide, almost all professional principal ballet dancers are white. An exception is black ballerina Misty Copeland, who has become a household name and who backs a diversity initiative called Project Plie. Through that program, Nashville Ballet supports Rejoice with donated costumes and tickets to shows, and a connection to instructors — including Watson.
“Being here at Rejoice was the first time in a long time that I felt the gratitude of the students before I even did a step,” said Watson, who’s been teaching at the school since 2012. “It’s really easy to get caught up in who’s able to do ballet … but each and every student, no matter where they come from here, they show that gratitude from the beginning of class all the way to the end.”
Watson, who is black, co-wrote and directs the new Rejoice show. He said it arrives at a time in need of honest depictions of history.
“As we move forward in our society right now we find ourselves forgetting what happened in the past, and slavery and racism is something that’s far too important for us to start summarizing it now,” he said.
Dance Steps To Match
In addition to the challenging subject matter, Watson has pushed his dancers with the choreography, which goes beyond ballet and into modern, social and African styles.
While Watson said African dance is true to the heritage of many of the students, it can still be unfamiliar in a ballet school setting — and often in direct contrast.
“In ballet, you’re trying to be as ‘up’ as possible,” said Weedman, the dancer. “In African, they want us down, on the floor, stomping our feet … bending your knees. And it feels like you’re breaking all the rules.”
For a company like Rejoice, breaking the rules doesn’t seem to carry much stigma.
During one recent rehearsal, four dancers floated through a Civil War-era sequence as Watson watched.
And as he adjusted dancer Eva Pregont’s stance, his coaching felt laden with two layers of meaning.
“You can say a lot with a small position, if it’s intentional,” Watson told her. “If it’s not intentional and you’re just scared, that’s different. But ain’t nobody scared here. Nobody’s scared.”
Performances of Saam Psalms: Together Songs begin Friday night and conclude Feb. 26 at the 4th Story Theater, 2200 West End Ave. For more information, visit www.rejoiceballet.com/saam-pslams.