MoBBallet founder Theresa Ruth Howard was commissioned to curate an exhibition for The Dutch National Ballet’s celebration of Black Achievement Month on October 20 event.
In keeping with the foundational tenant of MoBBallet, “Making the invisible visible” to honor the Black Ballet dancers that have been a part of the company in its 58 year history, Howard created a photographic timeline highlighting each artist past and present. Working with DNB activist Henrik Lillin, they would quickly discover that it would be no easy feat to bring this concept to fruition. The complexities of Blackness and of Ballet made the task daunting.
It is not uncommon for archival information on Black people (artists) to be scarce or nonexistent, especially for subjects from earlier eras. Historically, the documentation of the contributions of Black people when left in the hands of the dominant white culture has always resulted in inaccuracy if not omission, therefore, it was not shocking to discover that some of the Black dancers in the company were literally phantoms -their time in the company, the sole available data point of documenting their existence in the Ballet world. The complexities of the hierarchical world of Ballet presented other issues. For those who were corps de ballet, never performing major roles where their performances would be photographed or independently reviewed, their footprints were all but untraceable.
Finding images of these dancers proved very difficult until the serendipitous event. One day an archival volunteer brought Lillin a treasure trove of photographs she had in her possession. Apparently these photographs were from a photographer who was granted access to the company during rehearsals during the ’60’ and ‘70s. It was in this collection of photos that the haunting images of a youthful Raven Wilkinson were discovered along with images of Rubinald, Bernard Stanley, Rodrigo Rudaz, and Rob van Woerkom. Without this timely donation there would not have been photographic representation of these artists at all, and completing the timeline would have been nearly impossible and its impact less profound. There was only one artist, Vicente Abad, who danced with the company from 1964-1968 that was not photographically represented. The only image that could be found, was a childhood photo, available through a Google search.
There were some beautiful discoveries, such as, the fact that in 1961 when the company was established, three of its founding members were Black males: Dutch born Benjamin Feliksdal, and American born Sylvester Campbell and Billy Wilson. Wilson found his way to the company through pedagog Karel Shook (best known as co-founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem). Shook was hired by Artistic Director Sonia Gaskell as a teacher and would go on to become ballet master and choreographer for the company. Wilson was Shook’s student in New York and it was Shook who suggested that having a ballet career was possible for him in the Netherlands.
Before joining DNB, Campbell was touring the UK with the New York Negro Ballet when their funder unexpectedly died leaving the troupe stranded in Europe. Where most of the dancers returned home, Campbell stayed in Europe dancing in a variety of genres before being engaged by the Dutch National Ballet.
The exhibition was a culminating moment in an evening that featured an address from Howard and two dance performances. The first, “Embers” choreographed Ernst Meisner, who serves as the director of the National Ballet Academy was danced by Sebia Plantefève and Davi Ramos, both of whom are member so the Dutch National ballet’s Junior Company of which Meisner is also the Artistic Director. Second, a solo choreographed for the very promising Plantefève by Black choreographer Sedrig Verwoert entitled “The Hard Rick Will Seem Too Soft For Us”.
The Dancing Diversity Photo Exhibition will be on display until November 14 on the Bar level of the Opera House.