Augustus van Heerden

Wisconsin Ballet Company (1973)
Boston Ballet (1974-1981)
Dance Theatre of Harlem (1983-?)

Photo via The Orlando Sentinel.
South African dancer Augustus van Heerden was born ca. 1953 in Johannesburg and studied at the University of Capetown Ballet School. He stated that, as a child, he knew he would not be able to get a job dancing in South African so “to grow as dancers, we had to leave eventually” (Wisconsin State Journal 77). So in the early 1970s, van Heerden studied at University of Wisconsin at Madison and performed with the Wisconsin Ballet Company.
He joined Boston Ballet in 1974 and later resigned due to issues arising regarding his race. To The Christian Science Monitor in 1981, van Heerden listed several incidents that guided this decision; though he was a principal and frequently danced leading roles, he was often removed from opening night cast lists or moved to the second cast without warning from directorship.
Though the company attempted to persuade the dancer back, he joined Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1983. With DTH, van Heerden toured throughout the US, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean. He appeared as a featured dancer in the DTH premieres of Michael Smuin’s Songs of Mahler (1984) and A Song for Dead Warriors (1993), Glen Tetley’s Voluntaries (1984), Arthur Mitchell’s Firebird Finale (1993), and Ron Cunningham’s Etosha (1994). He helped Arthur Mitchell choreograph South African Suite (1998) along with Laveen Naidu. Van Heerden choreographed Memento Mori (To Remember Death), which DTH performed in 2000, and Passion of the Blood in 2001.

Van Heerden has served as DTH’s ballet master and is now the associate director of Dance Theatre of Harlem School’s Lower/Upper School.


Augustus van Heerden and Laura Young in Tom Pazik’s Trio, 1978. Photo via Jacob’s Pillow, The Houghton Library.


Dancer Augustus Van Heerden will be the first black…, UPI
Dance Theatre of Harlem Repertory List, Columbia University Libraries
Boston Ballet Company stumbles over issue of race, The Christian Science Monitor
Who We Are, Dance Theatre of Harlem
Racial Inequity in Ballet World, Orlando Sentinel
‘Black Swan’ Quits Ballet, Cites Racism, The Daily News
Ballet is Brought to Silver Lake, Manitowoc Herald-Times
African Dancers Find New World, Wisconsin State Journal
Marquee, The Boston Globe
Some are optimistic, others not, about future of blacks in ballet, The Orlando Sentinel

See also:

The Boston Ballet in South Africa, The Boston Globe

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