We're not finished, but we're good!
And sometimes I wonder, are we a community theater or a professional ballet company? The struggle of every visionary is knowing the difference between what is and what can be. As a visionary turned Chief Executive and Artistic Director of a growing non profit organization, I sit in this space quite often. Before I proceed I want to acknowledge the difference between doubting yourself and taking an accurate inventory. We have to be able to see ourselves. Mirrors are a staple in every dance studio though you’d be surprised to know how many people have a hard time using them. Sometimes the hardest thing we can do is see ourselves. Sit with our inadequacies and take a good look at our areas for improvement. That is what I am doing.
As I profess so boldly and often, being responsible for Revolution Dance Theatre, Cincinnati’s only professional black ballet company in residence at the Aronoff Center. The first “ballet company” to offer a paid contract to a black woman in this city in over 16 years. The picture in people’s minds becomes that of the esteemed and well deserving “Dance Theatre of Harlem.” Or one might come to our performances expecting the Cincinnati Ballet, same repertoire and skill level, just black. Revolution Dance Theatre is neither a replica of DTH or a “black version” of the ballet. I was reminded of that this morning as I watched some of the promotional reels for the ballet’s upcoming performance. “We don’t do that” I thought to myself. Some may even say, “we can’t do that!” and in our current form, you’d probably be correct.
I used to struggle with this fact. As a younger director, I created a toxic environment for my dancers, always comparing them to artists in other companies. “This is the vision!” I would say. “This is what we have to give people for them to take us seriously.” I set near impossible expectations. Not impossible because we were black, but impossible because we were different, (and black, but I’ll get to that later). If I could notice these differences, surely other people could too. If people come to our performances expecting “that”, then they will leave sorely disappointed I thought. Entrepreneurs, your marketing can be on point but you better make sure your product lives up to the hype.
At a point, I got lost in everything RDT was not. Not quite as polished. Not enough costuming. Our dancers are CRAZY TALENTED, like seriously beautiful, but there's just always going to be a difference between someone who's trained extensively across countries, attended countless intensives, and had access to world class training, than those who for now are still in High school!
But what I almost missed was everything RDT was, and when I saw it, I couldn’t have been more proud! I thought, “we truly are Cincinnati’s professional BLACK ballet company”. We embody black in every sense of the word. We take what we have and who we are (which are often, one in the same), and we create something beautiful. I learned in High School that professionals are those artists who get paid to do their work. Didn’t a live orchestra just pay to have your dancers accompany them live on the Music Hall Stage to bring in the New Year!? Aren’t you boasting several sellout performance events where audiences excitedly pay to see RDT perform? Aren’t you fielding multiple booking requests and teaching offers so people can get a piece of Revolution Dance Theatre?
Yeah, okay, we’ve generated some buzz, but the fact remains that your “company”, right now is primarily made up of a 13 year old and a 17 year old High School Student. You perform sometimes but quiet as it’s kept, you know that you didn’t take your first ballet class until you were a junior in high school. You didn’t train like the others and where’s that impressive ballet company resume? Looking in the mirror, taking it all into account, I ask myself again, are we just a community theater or a professional ballet company. And again, I find myself in the latter. My ability to do that comes back to what I said in the beginning.
The visionaries ability to see what is vs. what could be is not just a curse, but a gift. Whether you take it as Truth or not, consider the story of creation. At each step of the process, God at the end of the day looked at the world and said “this is good.” That means, even in it’s incomplete stage, He was able to see enough of where it was, know that it was on track with where it was headed, and called it good. It doesn’t have to be finished, it needs to be on course.
I see me, I have had to get comfortable with the uncomfortable act of looking in the mirror. I see the young company members. I see the unpolished. I see the threats and the weaknesses too. Yet and still I say it is good. We are Cincinnati’s professional BLACK ballet company. We have taken what we have (which up until very recently was literally nothing), and created something beautiful. We know we’re not done. We know we still have a long way to go. But the point is we’re going there. Every single day, we move closer to the vision than the last.
We’re not a community theater. We are a team of professionals who work a schedule every week training each other, creating new works, teaching classes, developing curriculums, and performing across our city. We see the differences between “us” and “them” and we celebrate them. We have accomplished what we’ve accomplished not in the luxuries of million dollar buildings, but in the bitter cold of a West End Warehouse without HVAC. We don’t have associate artistic directors, ballet masters, rehearsal coaches, faculty, staff and administrative backend supporting us and filling in our gaps. Yet and still, as black folk have done for ages, we show up and might I add we show out. We have not only entered rooms, but we’ve proven ourselves worthy of staying in them.
Perception is reality, and I realize that I may be perceived as bitter when I make these remarks. I say none of this in angst against other established organizations. Particularly the two mentioned in this article are two organizations that I adore. I am sharing in vulnerability the thoughts I had to overcome, the things I had to look beyond, to finally see not just RDT, but to see me. I share this for two reasons. You have to take an inventory of yourself. You have to be able to see those who are better in the field than you. But when you do those things beware, insecurities, doubt, imposter syndrome, and the voices of haters (those who can’t see the full picture) will creep up and try to get you to give up, don’t. You’ve come farther than they know. They’re coming in during the middle of your story. They may notice it’s unfinished, but you know it’s not complete. You know that you only get better by experience. You know that even though it doesn’t look like it will look 5 years from now, that it already doesn’t look like it did 5 years ago!
In closing it’s worth saying, in case it’s what you’re hoping for, years from now Revolution Dance Theatre still won’t look like Dance Theatre of Harlem, nor will it look like Cincinnati Ballet. Even once, God willing, we ever get the same level of funding, get to hire and cultivate a roster of seasoned dancers and mature athletes, you can expect the work to be very different. Don’t come over here looking for Swan Lake. We have other stories to tell. We will always be a company using our gifts and talents to create opportunities for African Americans, uplifting black culture, giving face to the underrepresented, and giving a voice to the unheard. We will train in and respect the technique of ballet, but we will not limit our storytelling capabilities. We will be a professional ballet company that inspires pride in our people, but we will keep our people first and take our pride in our community. We will do what our name suggests. We will use theatre and dance the spark a revolution. Today, that looks like 2 young black women shaking up a city single handedly. We’re not finished, but we’re good.
Enjoy this performance clip from our ladies performing at a private event at 21c Museum and Hotel.