Two of Atlanta Ballet’s three black board members and a top black administrator resigned in protest in 2018 because they believed the ballet leadership was not committed to addressing the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the company’s dancers.
Celeste Pendarvis, special events manager for the ballet from 2015 to 2018, revealed the resignations in an open letter to the ballet posted on social media late Friday afternoon. “I have lacked the courage over the past two and a half years to speak my truth about the ingrained racism I witnessed firsthand as an employee at Atlanta Ballet,” she wrote. “We all know that ballet has a painful racist past, but it also has a racist present. I thought my silence would protect Atlanta Ballet from backlash, but I’ve learned from watching the brave protests around the world that voice makes change.”
The ballet has four male dancers of color on its current roster. But female dancers are the focus of ballet, and Atlanta Ballet has not had a black female dancer since 2017.
Pendarvis said blacks on the ballet’s board of trustees pushed President and CEO Arturo Jacobus and Artistic Director Gennadi Nedvigin to commit to hiring a black ballerina. She said Nedvigin would stress “fit with the company” to justify not hiring female dancers of color and that became coded language to her. “When pressed on the issue, Gennadi clarified his position in an email to the members of the board,” Pendarvis wrote. “Atlanta Ballet was not committed to addressing the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the ballet. Fallout was swift, but painstakingly quiet. Two of only three members of color on the board resigned in protest. I also resigned from a position that I had been so passionate about.”
Former Atlanta Ballet board member Jamila Hall McKnight posted a comment on Pendarvis’ Facebook page that confirmed her resignation from the board in 2018. “I resigned . . . because of their lack of true commitment to diversity, especially in their ballerinas, the focal point of any ballet company,” McKnight wrote. “Only after you, I and the other board members resigned in protest did I hear that there had been any movement in the conversation on diversity. And here we are, two years later, and still no black ballerina in the Atlanta Ballet. It is a stain on the city that I pray they finally resolve.”
The second former board member who resigned is Akpo Igherighe, who is married to Pendarvis. “To most people in the ballet world, they look at the ballerina as the star,” Igherighe said in an interview. “The metric of progress in Atlanta should be centered around that. We don’t have to argue, just go to the stats. If it’s not there, it’s something you need to discuss internally because I think people will notice. In a city that’s more than 50 percent black, there’s a gap between that and what you’re seeing onstage.”
Atlanta Ballet’s leadership responds
Atlanta Ballet posted a response to Pendarvis, saying that the company has offered contracts to black female dancers, but lost them to larger companies. “We want you — and all black ballet dancers who see this post — to know that black female dancers are WANTED at Atlanta Ballet,” the response said. “In large part due to the systemic racism that continues to plague our country, the pool of professional-level, classically trained black female dancers is limited.” The ballet said the competition for those dancers is high as companies across the world look to diversify.
In a Zoom interview Monday, both Jacobus and Nedvigin said Atlanta Ballet is “working diligently” to bring more racial diversity to its dance company and programming. “We’ve made diversity one of our three imperatives in our strategic plan: patron loyalty, diversity and inclusion, and balanced programming,” Jacobus said. “We’re committed to it and believe we can be change agents. But it does takes time. Until you can show tangible results, it’s a little bit difficult to express all the things you believe in and all the things you have done. It’s always hard to express in the emotionally charged environment that we’re in right now.”
Nedvigin said he is committed to hiring black female dancers, and the ballet has started programs that are aimed at building a pool of black dancers through its school and pre-professional Atlanta Ballet II program. The ballet also held open auditions last year in an attempt to identify potential dancers of color. “It all comes down to not seeing the changes we’re trying to make onstage,” he said. “That does not mean that we’re not doing everything possible in order to make those changes. We need to do a better job communicating what has been done because we’ve done a lot apart from looking for dancers to add to the company.”
Atlanta Ballet is part of The Equity Project, a national program aimed at increasing the number of black dancers in ballet. The company recently hired Claudia Schreier, an African American, as its choreographer-in-residence. It did a program last February during Black History Month that featured the Spelman College Glee Club and a program by choreographer Dwight Rhoden, who is African American.
The ballet also has started a “Decade to Dance Initiative” that offers dancers of color as young as age 7 the training, mentorship and academic support required to sustain an aspiring dancer’s decadelong journey to becoming a professional.
Jacobus and Nedvigin acknowledged many of those initiatives have yet to translate to the stage. “I understand and agree that it’s important to have a company that reflects a city,” Nedvigin said. “I hope in the very near future we will be able to hire a black female dancer. Trust me, this is very frustrating.”
Jacobus and Nedvigin said Atlanta Ballet’s goal is to build a diverse company. “We will continue to try through auditions and every means possible,” Jacobus said. “Everyone is completely committed. It will pay off.”
The need for representation
The lack of black dancers, particularly female, is an industry-wide issue. Ballet was born out of European traditions, and historically has been almost exclusively white in terms of leadership and dancers. When New York City’s American Ballet Theatre promoted Misty Copeland to principal dancer in 2015 it was major news because she was the first black female principal dancer in the company’s 75-year history.
Pendarvis and others say the lack of onstage diversity is especially noticeable in Atlanta, which is more than 50 percent black and viewed as the spiritual center of the civil rights movement. “Gennadi said at the time his preference was to nurture black dancers through the ballet’s school and Atlanta Ballet II,” Pendarvis said in an interview. “That may work long term, but it doesn’t represent now. There hasn’t been a black ballerina the past three seasons.”
She oversaw the company’s annual Ballet Ball and other donor events before she resigned. “With everything that’s going on, I decided to speak up,” Pendarvis said. “Black people have done ourselves a disservice by not talking about these issues. I just want the organization to do better. I want the community of Atlanta to hold them accountable to do better.”
She said she felt valued and respected as one of the few people of color on the administrative side of Atlanta Ballet. “I was always treated with utmost respect; that’s not the culture of Atlanta Ballet in that respect,” she said. “But onstage and with Gennadi’s vision, that’s a different story.”
The issue of black ballerinas came to the forefront in 2018 when Nedvigin decided not to renew the contract of the company’s lone black female dancer. “That was received by the board as an artistic decision,” said Pendarvis. “But the question was asked, ‘What are you doing to do to make sure there is representation going forward? If she’s not going to be onstage, who’s going to be onstage?’”
Pendarvis said she found Negvigin’s response “personally offensive” and that he passed on numerous black applicants over the next year. “His stance was, I’m not seeing any talent out there in terms of black female dancers,” she said. “The word ‘fit’ came up a lot. That was really offensive. Tremendously offensive.”
Nedvigin said he didn’t target the word “fit” at African American dancers, that it is a general term he uses for any dancer.
Pendarvis said that McKnight reached out to dance contacts in New York City to find potential black female dancers for Atlanta Ballet. “She found some pretty talented young ladies; one was being called the next Misty Copeland,” Pendarvis said. “They didn’t get callbacks or invitations to audition.”
All that led to the resignations of Pendarvis, Igherighe and McKnight.
In a comment on Pendarvis’ post, Atlanta choreographer Ja’ Malik applauded the company for hiring Schreier and for commissioning the Rhoden work. “The fact still remains in 2020 Atlanta Ballet has no black female ballerinas,” Malik said.
He said he had arranged auditions at Atlanta Ballet for classical-trained black female dancers who didn’t make the cut, and later found jobs with other companies in America, Europe and Canada. “To hear that these highly trained women were not a ‘fit’ when so many other nonblack [and] less skilled women were is problematic,” Malik wrote. “It’s also problematic when the company does not reflect the city in which it serves.”
One disconnect that Pendarvis sees is that no one in the ballet’s leadership is from the South. “They don’t fully understand the history of our city and how we are leaders in the civil rights movement,” she said. “Institutions in Atlanta have to embrace that, do their homework and show our faces onstage. I want them to understand that. I want them to embrace that.”
She cited the High Museum of Art, the Alliance Theatre and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as examples of white-led arts institutions that emphasize inclusiveness and regular programming that involves the black community.
Pendarvis said diversity onstage is especially important to the next generation of aspiring black ballerinas. “It’s vital,” she said. “If you don’t see anyone onstage who looks like you, that triggers the feeling of ‘I can’t make it.’ Misty Copeland isn’t enough. She’s fantastic, but it’s got to go beyond her. She can’t carry all this.”
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