ABT Negro Unit’s Black Ritual and Lawaune Kennard

Click to view American Ballet Theatre; Negro Unit and Black Ritual Orbit
Photo of Lawaune Kennard
Kennard (left) with Muriel Cook in Black Ritual. Photo by Carl Van Vechten.

The American Ballet Theatre’s all-Black Negro Unit, which was founded in 1940 as part of the Federal Theatre Project, included Lawaune Kennard, along with Lavinia Williams, Anne Jones, Dorothy Williams, Elizabeth Thompson, Evelyn Pilcher, Edith Ross, 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.

Lawaune Kennard, 21 years old at the time, performed the role of the “sacrificial victim” in Black Ritual. This character danced “into a frenzy in the midst of her executioners” (Maher, 396). In The Butler Record, critic Marian Graham wrote that “one senses her [Kennard’s] terror and utter despair under the inescapable ritual of her tormenters.” The New York Post declared that Kennard danced the role “excellently,” though it was reported that de Mille was “disappointed” by Kennard’s talents (401, 411).

Kennard performed with members of the Negro Unit in other works. She performed alongside Clementine Collingwood, Muriel Cook, Edith Hurd, and Bernice Johnson in the original Broadway cast of Swingin’ the Dream, which premiered in 1939. Additionally, Kennard performed with Evelyn Pilcher and Edith Ross in Cabin in the Sky in 1940.


Lawaune Kennard 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 Lawaune Kennard

Photo by Carl Van Vechten

Lawaune Kennard, born in 1919, studied with Martha Graham and Franziska Boas and was a member of the Negro Dance Company, in addition to the Negro Unit of Ballet Theatre. 

In addition to performing in Swingin’ the Dream (1939) and with Katherine Dunham’s company in Cabin in the Sky, which was filmed in 1943 and starred Lena Horne, Kennard appeared in Dunham’s 1943 (or 1944) Tropical Revue; in the 1945 Broadway musical Carib Song; as a lead dancer in the 1946 Bal Negre; and Show Boat in Chicago of 1948. From 1949-1950, she toured with Talley Beattys revue throughout Europe and North American. Beatty described Kennard as “a fantastic dancer.”

Kennard married the actor Rex Ingram in 1941 and was then known by Lawaune Ingram.


Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War by Carol J. Oja
Carib Song, Library of Congress
Bal Negre, Library of Congress
Muriel Cook, Dorothy Williams, Maudell Bass, and Lewanne Kennaro [sic] in “Black Ritual”, New York Public Library
Lawaune Ingram, Playbill
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



Madeline Crawford


Leave a Reply