ABT Negro Unit’s Black Ritual and Edith Ross

Click to view American Ballet Theatre; Negro Unit and Black Ritual Orbit
Image of Edith Ross
Edith Ross (far left), Beryl Murray, and Lavinia Williams.

The American Ballet Theatre’s all-Black Negro Unit, which was founded in 1940 as part of the Federal Theatre Project, included Edith Ross, along with Lawaune Kennard, Lavinia Williams, Anne Jones, Dorothy Williams, Elizabeth Thompson, Evelyn Pilcher, Valerie Black, Leonore “Azelean” Cox, Edith Hurd, Mabel Hart, Maudelle Bass, Clementine Collinwood, Carole Ash, Bernice Willis, and Muriel Cook. The Negro Unit only performed one ballet during its existence—Black Ritual or Obeah, which was choreographed by Agnes de Mille and premiered in 1940.

Edith Ross had previously danced with fellow Negro Unit members Valerie Black, Dorothy Williams, and Lavinia Williams in the American Negro Ballet, which debuted in 1937 and disbanded in 1940. Additionally, Ross was part of the original cast of Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1939 with dancers Muriel Cook and Edith Hurd. In 1940, she appeared in Cabin in the Skystaged and choreographed by George Balanchine—with Negro Unit members Evelyn Pilcher and Lawaune Kennard. Ross also performed alongside Dorothy Williams, Evelyn Pilcher, Valerie Black, Edith Hurd, and Mabel Anderson in the Broadway show Carmen Jones in 1943.


Edith Ross and George Balanchine

Cabin in the Sky Playbill - November 1940George Balanchine didn’t create pieces for the Negro Unit of Ballet Theatre, but he served as choreographer with several members of the company during production for Broadway’s Cabin in the Sky. The cast included Lawaune Kennard, Evelyn Pilcher, Edith Ross, and Lavinia Williams of the Negro Unit as well as other notable dancers Katherine Dunham and Talley Beatty. Cabin in the Sky tells the story of Little Joe, who has earned a chance to redeem his soul after a near-death experience.


Cabin in the Sky, Playbill
Cabin in the Sky, Wikipedia



More about Edith Ross

In addition to the Negro Unit of Ballet Theatre, Edith Ross was a member of Eugene Von Grona’s American Negro Ballet and the Katherine Dunham Company from 1940 to 1943. 


Black Ritual (Obeah), American Ballet Theatre
Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War by Carol J. Oja
Edith Ross, Playbill
Jackson, La’Toya Princess. “Black Swans Shattering the Glass Ceiling: A Historical Perspective The Evolution of Historically Black Ballet Companies— From Katherine Dunham to Arthur Mitchell.”
Maher, Erin K. “Ballet, Race, and Agnes de Mille’s Black Ritual.” The Musical Quarterly, vol. 97, no. 3, Fall 2014, pp. 390-428.

McClain Groff

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