Even with a 25-year track record, Ballethnic still turns obstacles into opportunity (Part 3 of 3)

Nena Gilreath and Roscoe Sales in the Spanish dance. (Photo by Kris Roberts)
Nena Gilreath and Roscoe Sales in the Spanish dance. (Photo by Kris Roberts)
Nena Gilreath and Roscoe Sales in the Spanish dance. (Photo by Kris Roberts)
Nena Gilreath and Roscoe Sales in the Spanish dance. (Photo by Kris Roberts)

(Editor’s note: As East Point’s Ballethnic Dance Company celebrates its 25th year and prepares for its annual production of the Urban Nutcracker November 19-22, Cynthia Bond Perry takes an in-depth look at the company and its founders, Waverly Lucas and Nena Gilreath, in this three-part series. Part three looks at the future of Ballethnic; read part one and part two.)

III: “I’m not going to let anyone take away my joy.”  

After making the decision to form Ballethnic Dance Company, Nena Gilreath, Waverly Lucas and their fledgling company set about building a repertoire of classically based signature ballets in their own multicultural style.

In 1991, at Morehouse College’s King Chapel, Ballethnic presented portions of The Leopard Tale and Act II of Urban Nutcracker. This adaptation of the traditional ballet recast the Land of the Sweets as the Land of Sweet Auburn, inspired by a child’s fantasy of a bustling drug store soda fountain. Gilreath was Brown Sugar, the African-American Sugar Plum Fairy; Lucas was her partner, the Chocolatier. 

A year later, Lucas reimagined Act I, set in a prosperous 1940s-era Auburn Avenue household. Each character was drawn from the culture of the time and place. The protagonist, traditionally called Clara or Marie, was renamed Sarah; her first-act brother and second-act prince was named Leroy.

Gilreath and Lucas in the Ballethnic adaptation of Pearl Cleage's Flyin' West.
Gilreath and Lucas in the Ballethnic adaptation of Pearl Cleage’s Flyin’ West.

In 1992, Gilreath and Lucas relocated to Soapstone, an arts center in a former school building in East Point. The couple worked in the space for five years in a neighborhood where options for young people were limited. Gilreath and Lucas offered an alternative to gang activity; even the drug dealers recognized their positive impact there and told others not to bother the “ballet people.”

Within five years the organization had grown and needed more space. Down the street from Soapstone was Jean Morris’ dancing school. Morris, a longtime teacher of ballet, tap and jazz, was ready to sell the building and retire. She had offers from other types of businesses, but she wanted her building to remain a place for dance. 

She helped Gilreath and Lucas to afford the property, first by assisting them with monthly rent for a year. Morris then took out a second mortgage on the building so the couple could afford to purchase it, and the Cheney Street headquarters has been filled with active, creative energy ever since. 

Today, the school offers classes in ballet, modern dance, jazz, tap and hip-hop as well as African techniques and Ballethnicize, a class where their signature style and voice continues to develop. Students must be proficient in both ballet and African techniques, studied separately, before they come to Ballethnicize class. For company members new to Ballethnic, it takes two to three years to master the style.

To live drumming, dancers experiment with polyrhythmic isolations, moving the hips, heads, shoulders and spines. They rise fluidly up onto their pointes and roll down through the feet, playing with on- and off-balance moves. The rhythm, fluidity and exuberance of African dance merges with the architectural lines of ballet, creating a sense of dynamism and jubilation of spirit. 

In the studio today, the walls above the wooden ballet barres are sprinkled with photographs that document some performance highlights. There’s a photo of Laila Howard as a child dancing the role of Sarah in the Urban Nutcracker. She’s now an adult company member rehearsing Brown Sugar’s grand pas de deux for this year’s production. 

Dance practice in East Point.
Dance practice at Ballethnic’s headquarters in East Point.

Shots of several National Black Arts Festival appearances include a solo performance with Maya Angelou narrating her poem, Still I Rise. This solo later found its way into the 2010 production Flyin’ West, Lucas’ adaptation of the Pearl Cleage play. Photos of the 1996 Cultural Olympiad include Trouble, an evening-length collaboration with choreographer Irene Tassembedo of Burkina Faso. 

In 1999, African dancer, choreographer and scholar “Baba” Chuck Davis invited Ballethnic to perform at his DanceAfrica festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, bringing the company national recognition. They subsequently performed at DanceAfrica Chicago a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks. It was the last time the company had resources to send 12 of its members to a two-week festival. After that point, corporate funding sources began to evaporate, and they’ve never fully returned.

Dancers’ Collective folded near the turn of the millennium. With fewer festivals presenting dance, the recent recession — and subsequent slashes to state arts funding — it seems each Atlanta-based dance company is “on its own island,” Lucas said, and trying to hang on to what limited funding they can get. 

In 2004, Ballethnic’s annual operating reached its peak at $700,000. They’ve had to adjust the budget considerably since the recent recession, but it has remained consistently balanced and steady at around $375,000. 

Despite these and other setbacks, nationally known authorities have praised Gilreath and Lucas’ tireless work.

In September, the School of American Ballet, with backing from the Ford Foundation, afforded them an extraordinary opportunity. 

Arthur Mitchell, their former mentor at Dance Theater of Harlem, came to visit the company and school as part of the School of American Ballet’s Diversity Initiative to cultivate racial and cultural diversity in classical ballet. Mozel Spriggs joined Mitchell and his wife, Lydia Abarca Mitchell, who was the first ballerina in DTH.

Gilreath taught the Youth Ensemble while Arthur Mitchell coached the young dancers, sharing gems of wisdom and pushing the young dancers to bring out their best. Gilreath and Lucas felt proud to be in the room with people whose work and artistry had made so much history. 

It was a validating, full-circle moment, Gilreath said. “For our mentor, the person that we love and respect, to come in at 80-plus years old, and to say, ‘You’re doing a good job,’ was pretty amazing.” Gilreath has since been awarded one of five fellowships given this year by the School of American Ballet’s National Visiting Fellows Program, also part of the Diversity Initiative.

In another milestone, Gilreath and Lucas paid off their mortgage on the studio last January. They considered moving into a neighborhood where more of their middle-class students and families lived, but decided to stay. They set about making small but effective improvements aided by a grant from the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation — the largest grant in the company’s history. 

Ballethnic brought dance and music to Cleage’s Flyin’ West. (Photo by Sirkus Photography)
Ballethnic brought dance and music to Cleage’s Flyin’ West. (Photo by Sirkus Photography)

The shipping containers outside will save the organization $440 per month on storage rental expenses; the co-directors plan to expand studio space to accommodate more young aspirants, so company members will have more teaching opportunities on site.

A security system and fencing outdoors, as well as remodeled restrooms, will make families feel safe and comfortable.  

Gilreath and Lucas have taken countless hurdles in stride, and the past few months have been no different. 

Last spring, Lucas’ left Achilles tendon “snapped up like a window shade,” said Gilreath. A post-surgical infection put him in a cast for several months, even as he choreographed Theatrical Outfit and the Aurora Theatre’s joint production of Memphis. Despite limited mobility, Lucas’ choreography — rich in 1950s-era African-American dances like the Lindy Hop, Jitterbug and Gator Dance — enlivened the hit show from start to finish. 

In March, Gilreath received an email from the Ferst Center for the Arts, the theater where they’d presented Urban Nutcracker for the past 21 years. The message simply told them that their usual dates had been lost due to a scheduling snafu. Suddenly, one-fourth of their annual budget revenue was up in the air. The Ferst Center offered to move another performing group off the calendar, and give them a different date, but Gilreath said, “Why would we want to do the same thing to somebody else that was done to us?”

After considering several venues, the co-directors struck a deal with the Riverside EpiCenter, a beautiful new theater in south Cobb County. The stage area doesn’t have fly space, so they’ve had to rebuild sets, at a cost of a few thousand dollars, and redesign lighting to create the magical feel audiences have grown to expect. 

But it gives Ballethnic access to new audiences in a location that’s not saturated with performing groups. An option to sign a three-year contract complete with publicity assistance sealed the deal.

This season, Gilreath and Lucas hope to build a core of about six dancers, similar to the group they started with 25 years ago. They’ll add new repertoire by Detroit-based Paulette Brockington and by Salvatore Aiello, the much-loved choreographer, now deceased, whose style combines classical lines with syncopated rhythms. Also this season, they’re making plans to collaborate with Chuck Davis so that younger dancers will have a better grasp of the company’s roots. 

One day, Lucas hopes to choreograph a version of Spartacus, and the bravado role he always wanted to dance. It’s the kind of story ballet Ballethnic likes — where people triumph in spite of obstacles. “Because we feel like that’s always us,” Gilreath said. “Like working with Maya Angelou in Still I Rise. In spite of all these things, we still have to rise.”

“I always tell people, when I get pushed up against a wall, I push back,” Gilreath added. “I don’t lie down. And that’s what excites me. Now in our 25th anniversary, it’s been very, very tough to reinvent ourselves, but that’s also what’s given us the legs to stand on.”

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