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Shifting the Ballet Culture: A Conversation with Theresa Ruth Howard

Theresa Ruth Howard is the youngest of nine children. When her siblings went to ballet classes, little Theresa Ruth wanted to go with them. She trained at Philadanco, in Philadelphia, then attended the Pennsylvania Ballet's school. Howard went on to a professional dance career, but ultimately, she built her reputation as the founder and guiding light of a project called Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet or MoBBallet. Howard chronicled and distributed stories of Black ballet dancers, work that led her to another career guiding the world's ballet companies on ways to make themselves more welcoming to dancers of color.

What would happen if we shifted the culture so it was healthy for everybody? What if we fixed the culture so it felt good to be there?

Howard talked with Marcie and Vivian about her own path to ballet, and her vision for an art form that welcomed everyone.



A Black woman with stylish braided hair to her shoulders smiles into the camera wearing a black turtleneck
Theresa Ruth Howard, image credit Eva Harris


ABOUT THIS EPISODE'S GUEST


The New York Times has hailed Theresa Ruth Howard as a "force for change." In 2015, she founded MoBBallet (Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet), a dedicated initiative preserving the contributions of Black artists in ballet. Theresa is a visionary in the realm of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Anti-Racism (IDEA), and she has played a pivotal role in reshaping the ballet landscape.


With a background as a ballet dancer, educator, journalist, and scholar, Theresa is a sought-after international organizational consultant and diversity strategist. Her comprehensive 360° approach allows her to address the entire ecosystem of the field, with a central focus on organizational culture reform.


In 2021, she introduced the Cultural Competence and Equity Coalition (C²EC), a membership-based organization providing organization-wide education through cohort learning. Theresa's Pathways to Performance initiative, aimed at cultivating Black Ballet choreographers, will make its performance debut in July 2024 at the Kennedy Center and Jacob’s Pillow. Both institutions have made a multi-year commitment to support this program.


Theresa Howard's motto, "If you want the world to be a better place, be a better person in it. Be the change you want to see!" encapsulates her profound dedication to positive transformation.


Learn more about Theresa and her work on the MoBBallet website


 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (00:00):

Hey, I'm Vivian Phillips.


MARCIE SILLMAN (00:01):

And I'm Marcie Sillman.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (00:03):

And this is, doubleXposure Is DoubleXposure Exposure. <laugh>


DoubleXposure is a podcast where we've plumb the deepest depths and the tiniest cracks of our world to understand how culture and creativity shape our lives.


MARCIE SILLMAN (00:27):

On this, the final episode of season three for our podcast, we're gonna talk with Theresa Ruth Howard. She's working internationally to make real change at ballet companies when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (01:03):

Well, hello there, Marcie Sillman. How are you?


MARCIE SILLMAN (01:07):

I'm doing okay. Day by day. I am…


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (01:10):

Yeah.


MARCIE SILLMAN (01:10):

Able to drive and I can walk and my scar doesn't look like Frankenstein anymore. It kind of looks like just a big red gash. Oh. But I'm excited because this week you and I are, have a date to go to the ballet.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (01:27):

But wait, before we get to that, I mean, you just threw out there. My scar doesn't look too bad. <laugh>,


MARCIE SILLMAN (01:32):

I mean,


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (01:34):

<laugh>,


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (01:37):

That could require a little bit of context, maybe. I don't know?


MARCIE SILLMAN (01:40):

All right, let me, let me back up. I had my knee replaced in the, the end of September, so it's about five weeks from when you and I are speaking. And people had told me that it was a slow process rehabbing, and they were correct.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (01:59):

And I think this is funny, I was thinking about this. Um, in this case, you have to walk before you can crawl <laugh>, how to be able to start that all over again?


MARCIE SILLMAN (02:09):

I know. I can't do yoga, I can't do Pilates, I can't get on the ground, so, and I can't swim, which is something that I'm missing a lot. 'cause I realize it's all about my mental health in addition to sort of beefing up the rest of my body. So it, it's interesting. In any case…


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (02:29):

I am excited that we're going to, you know, connect and experience some dance. Um, and we'll both be sitting there going, God, I remember when my body might have been able to do one of those things.


MARCIE SILLMAN (02:41):

I was watching a video that PNB, that's where we're going to Pacific Northwest Ballet just by the by. But I was watching a video that the dancers <laugh> were doing some sort of thing for Halloween, and they were all dressed up like NFL halftime show, and they were kind of doing a little hip-hop dance and they can pretty much do any kind of dancing. And we are gonna see an array of offerings in this program. So that's exciting. But in addition to an array of offerings, Vivian, as you well know, we're gonna see an array of people.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (03:20):

Yes. I'm very excited to go back to Pacific Northwest Ballet, particularly after having this conversation with Theresa Ruth Howard, who is just fascinating.


MARCIE SILLMAN (03:33):

Well it is fascinating. One of the things I was thinking about before we logged onto this call together was, you know, there's so much talk about doing diversity, equity and inclusion work. DEI work, but nobody really ever talks about how you do that work or what's the best way to do that work? Theresa Ruth Howard isn't just doing DEI work, she's very specifically doing DEI work at ballet companies around the world. She's just fascinating to me because she didn't go to any kind of like business school or she operates on, on intuition and knowledge about people and what people need. And that I found this so thought provoking, so fascinating.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (04:18):

So true. You know, Theresa Ruth Howard is the founder, I guess is the right word of MoBBallet, which can be found at M-O-B-B-A-L-L-E-T <laugh> dot org. But it's all about curating the memoirs of Blacks in ballet. And there are a couple of things that she says here that I hope our listeners take particular note of when we talk about the culture of dance and shifting the culture of ballet. She just had some profound things to say about how the culture of the dance supersedes the culture of ethnicity. And it, it was just a really great new way for me to think about all of the shifts that we're, we're witnessing in arts organizations bringing in more diversity, equity, and inclusion. And to just keep in mind that the craft is what's at the center, and that's what everybody will actually be attracted to and try to elevate their expertise in those areas. So I I I, I just have not been able to actually get that out of my head along with a lot of other things that she said.


MARCIE SILLMAN (05:36):

She's wise. One of the things that she said that I wrote down in my little purple pen here, what if we fix the culture so that it felt good to be in the room? Yeah.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (05:49):

Making sure that everybody feels like a human.


MARCIE SILLMAN (05:53):

I mean, that seems simple, but that is really profound. Yeah. Because that isn't how any of our business organizations are really set up in this country. It's not about feeling good. It's about, you know, lots of things, maximizing profits or, you know, saving money or whatever. And the idea that there would be a place where, where the ballet dancers could put on these little white hoods and, and dance and then have somebody in a red outfit, not just somebody Zsilas Michael Hughes, who's an amazing dancer, just rocking out because Zsila is a ballet dancer who, who is also part of the Kiki scene and is just like clubbing it up and we don't think about that. That you can own the multiple selves that you are.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (06:43):

Right.


MARCIE SILLMAN (06:43):

That's one of the thing that I really like. So...


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (06:46):

It kind of connected back to some of the things that Mark Bamuthi Josephs had to say as well about the culture of art and culture and what if that was the primary thing that we actually attach ourselves to in every area. You know, capitalism all the way through. So there's a lot of information, there's a lot of intelligence and a lot of foresight. And I hope that people take note of all those things.


MARCIE SILLMAN (07:20):

Theresa Ruth Howard, we are delighted, more than delighted that you could join us for this episode of DoubleXposure. And you have so many current projects that you're working on. You write, you teach, you're an advocate and an activist for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the world's ballet companies. And we are gonna talk about that work, but I'm so interested in people's origin stories. All the little bios say, oh yeah, she danced and she did this and did this, and then we move right ahead. So take us back to the little Theresa Ruth Howard who wanted to be a ballerina. When did that start and what was that like?


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (07:57):

Generally, I, I hate doing this, but the thing that I do like about it is that it really, I'm a, I'm a daddy's girl. My dad, my father has passed, but I had a, a ballet father. So in that way I enjoy talking about my origin story because it highlights him actually. So, I'm the baby of nine. We're six girls, three boys, and most of my sisters danced. We all did something. I'm from Philadelphia originally, so Philadanco was like literally right down the street from us and that's where we all kind of, if we took classes, that's where we went. And my, one of my elder sisters actually danced in the company for a moment, and my mother loves to tell the story that when I was three years old at the Academy of Music, at my sister's re uh, recital, I held onto the thing saying like, no, I don't wanna leave until you promise that I can do this.


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (08:53):

So, at three, you know, I was enrolled in ballet at Philadanco. By the time I was eight, I was dancing with like the 16-year-olds, and my teacher was Marian Suge. You know, you don't know this when you're young, but this is, uh, literally was a living legend. Um, and she pulled my father aside and said, take her to Pennsylvania Ballet because she could be a ballet dancer. And so that's what we did. I went over and I auditioned, and I was accepted and, you know, so I began my, my sort of more strict ballet training at Pennsylvania Ballet. Although for a while I did both, you know, so you do your little jazz and at Philadanko, and then I would do my ballet training at Pennsylvania Ballet, which was being directed at that time it was Benjamin Harkarvy was the artistic director, and Lupe Serrano was actually the director of the school.


MARCIE SILLMAN (09:45):

How different were the two experiences as a student, Philadanco and Pennsylvania Ballet?


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (09:51):

It's really interesting because for me it was just what it was, right? It's the 1970s. It was either White is right or Black Power <laugh>, right? You either came from one of those sort of, that's where Blackness was in that space. My father told me, you know, you will not speak with an accent, you will speak like a newscaster because that way, you know, it was a belief that if you could assimilate, if, if you could be, uh, closer to white presenting in any capacity, that that was a way of having opportunities expanded. So, I went to a private girls school, I went to Baldwin Academy for Girls, did the ballet. And so, in those two divergent, um, dance experiences, one was very much Pennsylvania Ballet was very pulled up. You're representing something larger than yourself. And Philadanco felt very much like home, right?


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (10:51):

With the aunties and everybody knowing your name and making sure that they held onto your ballet slipper or you got fed it. It was very different. And so the work that I do presently, it's almost like I'm trying to get larger ballet institutions or schools to feel like the mom and pops. Racial culture is only one aspect of it, but the mom and pop studio feel is something that's universal, right? The parents are a little too involved, the kids are a little too relaxed, but there is a sense of belonging. And so those are my earliest moments.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (11:27):

You talk about your, your dad being a ballet dad, and I read that he, you know, sewed up your toe shoes and was, um, the advocate representative, if you will, for you, when you were dancing at the young age as a professional at like 12 before becoming a a teenager, were you dancing with any other Black ballerinas? And at what point did you discover, I think that you were a Black ballerina?


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (11:56):

So, my generation of ballet students with me, it wasn't as if I didn't have anybody in the space that I could say, oh, you know, we do this. And then of course, at a point, um, Deborah Austin came to Pennsylvania Ballet as a principal dancer. So I didn't have the, the concept of my Blackness until, I think I was probably about nine or ten years old. It was Nutcracker season, and I was on the cast list for boot maker's daughter and for Paul Chanel boy. And, you know, to do the party scene as a young student is always really, it's coveted because you get to like rub shoulders with the company members. And so, I was so excited. Um, I go up and I had been sitting there watching my, my colleagues go up before me, so I knew they did first act and then they did second act in terms of fitting.


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (13:00):

And so I got up there and she said, Paul Chanel boy. And I was kind of like, wait a minute, hold on there, we missed something. So put the costume on it fit. She was like, thank you very much. And I stood there, and she goes, that's all dear. And I was like, oh. And then I kind of like slowly walked off and I saw her call this white, blonde hair, blue eyes. She just happened to be <laugh> young girl up. And she said, you know, boot maker's daughter. And I was like, and the tears, right? So I walked down the hall, I go down the stairs, I told you I had a ballet father who was sitting there, right there with ironically Christine Cox, who is the founder of, of Ballet X. We were in the same class together. So, her mother and my father were, you know, they're smoking their cigarettes and waiting for the kids.


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (13:49):

And he's like, what's wrong? And I told him what happened. And then he went and found Benjamin Harkarvy, the artistic director. I don't know how he did it. I mean, this is Walter T. Howard. He found him, told him what happened. And now I'm between Benjamin Harkarvy and my father being carried back up the stairs. I was like, Ooh, I should just cut my mouth shut. And there were some words had, and I got fit for the costume. And this is the story of how I integrated Pennsylvania Ballet's party scene. And the next year it was myself and Grace Rodriguez, who was a Filipino girl, were also in the party scene. So that was the first time that I realized that race was a problem, because I was always raised with, of course it's, it's trite, but it's true. Be twice as good because you're gonna get half as as much, right? So, I was just like, put your head down, do the work, be undeniable, and then there should be no problem. And that was the first time that, that I, I said, oh, okay, there might be something to this Blackness thing.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (14:53):

What an interesting story. And I would imagine that Walter T. Howard was pretty proud once you wound up dancing with Dance Theatre of Harlem. And then you went on to co-found a company, Armitage Gone Dance, as well as guesting with dance artists, including our very dear Donald Byrd who's now at Spectrum Dance here in Seattle. What kinds of dance attracted you the most? And did you have a set of professional goals as you became more mature in your craft?


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (15:23):

I always just loved ballet. It just made sense to me. I remember being eight years old watching, we called her Madam Suge giving Combinations. And what she did was she actually had us study the pedagogy. There was this book, I think it's uh, I think it's called Classical Ballet. And it had, you know, the, the images with like the body was half white and half black, so you could see the legs, the differences between the legs. And she did 15 minutes of, of technical teaching out of a book. And then we would get into class. And I remember watching her intently going like, I need to get this because this is what I'm gonna be doing. There was just something that clicked with me that I knew that this was what I was supposed to be doing. I was very much a bun head, and I don't even think that I was really enamored with the archetype of the ballerina.


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (16:14):

I don't even think that was it. Um, I had an easy body, right? But I loved the feeling and the mathematics, right? Almost like the science, the technique of the form. And as far as goals, I remember I auditioned, it was, I think it was eight years old. Arthur Mitchell came to Philadelphia with a show called Doing It, and they held an open audition for children. And there were 200 kids there. I was one of them that got picked. And it was my first time seeing like a whole company of people who look like me. And I was like, oh, wait, okay, this is a thing, right? And then get to, to be backstage with them and to, I just thought they were all so beautiful. I can remember. So that's where I was like, oh, that's where I wanna be. Right? That's the first time I felt connected to, to something. It's a vibrational thing. There was something that felt like home that I just understood because I understood ballet in a context, but it was almost like an exhale to be around these people that you go, ohh.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (17:27):

I would imagine that that really allows you to soar in many ways, to just be able to breathe and get into your technique, your dance, your, along with your culture embracing you.


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (17:41):

Yes. At first, it's like the newness of it. But then I, this is also ties into the arc of like the work that I do now, what was interesting to me at that time, I did not have words for, was when as a, a teenager going to dance in ensemble and in the company, the thing that I didn't realize, or that you come to realize is that the culture of ballet supersedes the culture of Blackness. So, all the same things, whether that's respectability politics in the ballet sense, like what you're, what you are supposed to present as, as ballerina… body type, all those things. Whether that's, I won't call it misogyny, but, but we'll talk about how the, the female is positioned that all existed inside the context of Dance Theatre of Harlem, and also colorism, right? So on a different level, you're still experiencing the same thing you would outside in the world, except like it's friendly fire. Yes, you felt at home. But we also know that homes can be abusive <laugh>. And I'm not saying that that Dance Theatre of Harlem was abusive, I'm just saying, or I should not, not abusive, dysfunctional. That's the, that's actually the more appropriate word. It's like there's still levels of dysfunction. You, it looks like a utopia from the outside, but the closer you get to anything, you start to see cracks and flaws. And the reality of the situation presents itself.


MARCIE SILLMAN (19:21):

How long did you dance there?


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (19:23):

Probably four years in total. Two in the company. I have been exactly who I am, <laugh> since I was three. And so oftentimes, uh, Mr. Mitchell and I definitely bumped heads. I was unyielding in my self-definition, let's put it that way.


MARCIE SILLMAN (19:46):

Was it at the same time that you, you sort of reeled off a number of names of dancers that you saw as a student? When did you start looking at people like Arthur Mitchell or other dancers and deciding that you were going to collect them to make them accessible, to spread them out to a wider audience?


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (20:09):

The work that I started doing technically with MoBBallet started in 2015. But there was one day I was taking the tear, a tear sheet out of Dance Magazine to put in my book. And I went, happened to like flip through some of my previous articles, and I realized that I had this outlook in different ways, always. And I think that, that it was just a perfect storm in 2015 with the ascending of Misty Copeland and the conversations that were being had that show that, oh, there was a, there was an area that needed to be addressed, and I had the big mouth. And so it was like, sometimes the universe is like, when you're like, somebody needs to do that. And then the universe is like, oh yeah, it's, you.


MARCIE SILLMAN (20:57):

Just so I clarify in my mind, you were writing about Black dancers, but it wasn't officially a thing until 2015.


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (21:06):

Okay, let me say that Blackness always recognizes itself. Whiteness always likes to discover, likes to think that it discovered something, right? Like a, like a, the, the Native Americans, the Indigenous people of America really didn't exist until white people discovered them. So no, I mean, it has always been a conversation that Black intellectuals, Black artists, Black people have been having. It was just something that white people decided to start listening to and questioning or being called into that conversation to say like, what about this? Right? For me, I've never been a linear person. The universe moves me and I'm, things are revealed, and I just go like, oh, I'm supposed to go over there. Okay, that's what I'm supposed to do. I'm not formally really trained in anything probably, but dance. But I have the ability, right? So if you put something in front of me, like Eleanor Roosevelt said, when somebody asks you if you can do something, say yes, and then be about the business of learning how to do it, I do have the ability to, how do you say, curate all of my experiences and arrange them in the proper, proper order to be able to do certain things, right?


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (22:23):

So, whether that's, I take dance and my ability to communicate and write, to be able to, and analyze things, to be able to have this particular conversation. And so, I think that that's what you're seeing now. Like, I'm in that phase where I just go like, I've been a student, I've been a teacher, I've been a writer, I've worked in large organizations, I've seen those structures, and I'm observant. So, I can tell you exactly what the problems are. And I've, I love puzzles, and exactly how to solve it from my perspective. So, I have always felt like I was screaming on mute. And then somebody found the remote and they were like, what's this button? And then I was like, oh, you can hear me now.


MARCIE SILLMAN (23:24):

Our conversation with Theresa Ruth Howard continues in a minute.


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (23:28):

Our music is courtesy of Big World Breaks, many thanks.


MARCIE SILLMAN (23:32):

And this year we welcome our sponsor, LANGSTON, cultivating Black Brilliance from their home at Seattle's Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in the Historic Central District.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (23:55):

When and how did you get involved in working on diversity and equity at ballet companies? And I think, you know, part of the fascination that I have and I've shared with Marcie is I, I actually saw the result of some of your work. And I was awestruck when I went to the Pacific Northwest Ballet for the first time afterwards, and I was like, this is not my grandmother's ballet. But tell us about, about how you got involved in working on, on diversity and equity with the ballet companies.


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (24:29):

Really, it's my big mouth that got me into it. Like I wrote this article, “The Mysterious Case of the Vanishing Ballerinas of Color,” where had they gone? And it basically took to task the mythology of Misty Copeland as the first and the only Black ballerina. And in it, in my brain, the way I was seeing it, I saw probably her PR team as one aspect. I saw journalists as another aspect, and I saw I even took Dance Theatre of Harlem not managing its own legacy to task. So, it's, it's a perfect storm of like, in the absence of the history being held up, journalists telling the stories properly, it, it allows for this one thing to emerge coupled with societally, how inside systemic racism, there could only be one at a time for Black people, right? And so she's emerging as this one. Then I also uplifted the history.


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (25:30):

So, inside that article, which was like, it went viral for our field, it ignited conversations in a different way, in different spaces. And then I was invited to, to do a breakout session at, at Dance USA in Miami. That's where I, I launched or announced MoBBallet. And from there, that's where I met Ellen Walker, the Executive Director of Pacific Northwest Ballet. So, from there, the conversations began to happen. The other thing that happened was, uh, again, Aunt Joan from from Philadanco called me and said, I wanna do, uh, a audition for Black Ballet dancers at IABD, the International Association of Blacks in Dance. And I said, I'm happy, like I'm in, let's do it. I was like, this could be the first sort of activation that MoBBallet does. And I said, look, we're gonna have all these artistic directors. The first time the artistic directors were really coming together, I said, this is unprecedented. Let's do a meet and greet and lock the doors. I said, let's lock the doors. Because if we tell them that they're coming and have a conversation about this, they will not come. But if you tell them they're coming for Danish and coffee and you'll lock the doors, they have no choice. This, that's how that really started.


MARCIE SILLMAN (26:44):

So you have the group conversations, I, I know in 2020 you publicly challenge ballet companies to actually make real change, not just talk about making. So, you're having conversations. I guess what I wanna know is how do you judge real change? How do you measure? It's not just numbers, is it?


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (27:05):

No, I have a very, very specific process to judge change. One of the things, having been in this work now for almost a decade, right? And, and obviously seeing some of the fruits of the labor, seeing some of the change becoming real and basic, you know, it's still here, it's sustainable is, is maybe a bigger word than what we have right now, but we we're seeing it, it, it build roots. One of the things that I was trying to do, especially when we went down to, into lockdown and the world was on fire, and I did two, um, virtual, uh, symposiums. One is a town hall with the community, and then the, the second one right behind it was for the artistic directors who had been a part of what was the equity project, which was a, a three year program to increase the presence of blacks in ballet, all of whom had failed.


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (28:01):

<laugh> in the wake of George Floyd, you know, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, like they had failed, they weren't using their tools. And these were people that I knew had tools because I helped them build the box, right? We helped them build the box. So I said, you know, you need to come and sort of make amends. You need to, the community needs to hear you. Part of that is after, as we were in lockdown and coming out, a lot of the things that people saw as advancements in progress were deemed performative because they were in the wake of the, the BLM flashpoint when in fact they had been seeds that were really, we were actually due for a harvest, right? But the pandemic and BLM kind of inserted itself. So a lot of those things got read as being performative and, oh, you are just doing it because, which I knew wasn't true, and I honor people's work.


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (29:03):

So part of what I try to do is to help people learn how to read the sign. So on my Instagram, I have a, a, a saying that says, look for evidence that the work is working, because I think our eyes are more attuned to look for what's not happening than to perceive what is. So they're all different types of barometers. I have an equation that says, okay, for a ballet company, what looks like right for you? Right? It's not a blanket, it's all individualized. If you look at a, a company like Pacific Northwest Ballet, you're in Seattle where I think the, the black population is what, like 8%, right? You have demographically, perhaps your, your company should reflect your demographics definitely in the lower schools, because that's, that makes sense. The upper schools, you have more, depending on your budget, there's more of a possibility to invite or recruit in a way of, of getting diversity. If you are a company that, like most of the larger companies have clear pathways, you've gotta go through our school sec PD second company into company in order to be considered. So pipelines become very important of, uh, certain companies. For other companies that don't have a rule like that, then recruitment can be a way or even actively headhunting for black and brown dancers can be a way to do that. There are different ways of gauging what progress looks like.


MARCIE SILLMAN (30:46):

The other thing that has struck me a conversation that you and I had about a month or so ago was you talking about putting human beings at the center of organizations. And just thinking back on the beginning of this conversation, talking about Philadanco and that mom and pop feeling, it's not just enough to have numbers, but you also have to change ballet's culture. That culture that you were talking about at dance theater, even at Dance Theater of Harlem, that sort of rigid hierarchy and, and just be quiet and dance attitude.


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (31:20):

Absolutely. And, and again, I fell into this. I'm not an expert. I'm a student always. I know what I know and I know there's a lot that I don't know. And what I do is I actually respond to the current situation. You can't keep speaking to the difficult conversation moment because we're not in that moment anymore. Like most people that have had difficult conversations. So I stopped baking those cookies. You don't get those anymore. I have a different expectation. And I think that what I learned was, okay, diversity is an issue, but then if you also center the experience that the black or brown dancer is having in that environment, you get to a different point of like, what's really important? If, if retention is low, then what is the point? It's not human sacrifice. So what would happen if we actually shifted the culture so that it was healthier for everybody?


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (32:14):

Because we know that when things are bad, they affect Black and brown or marginalized people disproportionately, what if we actually fix the culture? So it felt good to be there in general that the idea of having the tools to be able to engage individuals as humans and see them. If everybody had those tools, then your race, your gender, your color, your creed wouldn't matter because we're seeing a human in front of us instead of just an artist. So it's a different goal. That's my back door because if, if I say we need to talk about race in ballet, then everybody gets really, their booty gets tense. They're like, oh, here it comes. Right? But if I say, let's talk about some of the cultural issues, the problems that ballet has, whether that's certain types of abuse or abusive behavior, whether that's the type of language used around the body, around, you know, the idea that you're never good enough or whatever that is. I can sit in a room, and I can have everybody agreeing about the things that coming through the system you experience. So now we have a common denominator that we can start from and from there we can begin to work. I, I found that starting from the place of unity, like we all agree is a better, faster way. Right? Then I can double back on race and get you to see it from a different perspective.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (33:51):

I can't stop thinking about Shayna Alexander's The Nutcracker, having read that book years and years and years ago and all the things that you were talking about around the culture of ballet and how the work that you are doing is really about not changing the basic structure of the craft, but changing the culture of the craft. And you mentioned, you know, working with Pacific, I mentioned you working with Pacific Northwest Ballet, you also did, and I'm wondering what you found when you arrived there in that overall culture and how that has changed. I mean, looking at it as an audience member, I know how I feel differently, and that must come from backstage to the front of the stage and then all the way out into the audience. But what's the, what's the contrast that's present there for you?


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (34:46):

This is one of my favorite things to talk about because like I said, Ellen Walker waited, she stalked me, after I did that breakout session, and she would just never let me go. Like, now we're like sisters, right? <laugh> Both in this work, but in, in life, right? I think that when she first engaged me, the company was obviously basically all white. And I remember she, when they came to City Center, it must've been like 2016, Ellen and I sat together and Peter was behind us and at the interval he stood up and he whispered in my ear, that is a really white company and I could only, I could only see that because of you. And I was like, Hmm, okay. One of the main things was I have the 12 steps to ballet’s recovery. It's based on the AA steps. And the first one is, is admit ballet has a problem.


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (35:42):

So that was it. I see the problem because if you don't see that there's a problem, then there's nothing to fix, right? So, one, it was both leaders understanding that that was problematic to have a company that looked like that in America in 2015/16, at that time, there was something wrong with that. The second was that they were really open and willing students, they were not perfect. Even their, their co-leadership model, right? Grew and shifted. They had to learn how to be with one another differently to support this work, right? So they have a very symbiotic relationship when it comes to this work that then kind of rippled out across the whole organization as a whole. But the other thing that that happened in Seattle was Seattle as a city had its own initiative. So they were like bombarded. They couldn't escape it, right?


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (36:42):

They were like leaning into it, but also the incentives were everywhere. There wasn't like a lull ever. The other thing that they do very well was they spread out and empowered people at all levels inside the organization to not just engage with the work, but take ownership of the work to move different aspects of it. So it's not just them as leaders making decisions. So like if they get busy then the work stops because they're too busy to have this meeting. There are a number of people throughout the organization that are able to not only carry this work, right, but talk about it. They're my gold standard that might be going to platinum. They've done hard things too. Like when, when things are not working, as Ellen would say, we're gonna fail, but we're gonna fail forward. There's a whole system at work where they had to struggle with embodying their principles.


MARCIE SILLMAN (37:49):

What are some of the other challenges? Not just for you, but for, for companies like PNB?


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (37:56):

My challenge and, and a challenge that I'm seeing in the work is that artistic staff members and dancers are often not integrated in the learning. I have a, a coalition, I have the, uh, the Cultural Competency and Equity Coalition. We gather once a month. There's a whole thing. But basically, we have these meetings. Generally, artistic staff and dancers are always in the studio during the time that we're having these meetings. It often happens when organizations do certain types of training that oftentimes they are also not available because they're in the studio. I think where we talk about that cultural piece, especially studio culture, it requires the artistic staff not just getting training, but in a way, there needs to be a little bit of reprogramming on the dancer side. There's a high-level level of expectation for things to change, but a low level of activity and sweat equity.


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (38:59):

So, dancers are often like, you all need to be doing more. And then when you ask them to do something, you know, it becomes, well wait, I don't have time or X, Y, Z. So, I would love to see dancers activating their activism and taking part in not just creating the culture, but holding the culture of the organization in a way. And I would love to see artistic staff really, um, afforded the investment of, of, of them being educated and there being some real contemplation around the value system and the philosophy of, of teaching and coaching.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (39:47):

You know, I hate to come to this point in our conversation because it has been absolutely amazing to be able to sit with you and chat about all things ballet, all things ballet culture, and to be enlightened in so many ways around what changes we see and what changes we should be expecting to see in that area. And I just wanna say thank you so much for joining us today on DoubleXposure.


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (40:19):

Well, you're welcome. Can I plug one thing,


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (40:22):

Please?


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (40:23):

So, two summers ago I launched something called Pathways to Performance, the Choreographic Program. Uh, it was a part of our MobBallet symposium that was, uh, took place in Miami with Donald Byrd, Jennifer Archibald and Helen Pickett as mentors. We had, uh, eight choreographers take part. We had four choreographic fellows, which means that they were able to choreograph on our advanced dancers. As a part of that, also we're in collaboration with the Kennedy Center and Jacob's Pillow. So, in July 24, pathways to performance will be at the Kennedy Center in the Eisenhower Theater. And then we'll also have performances at Jacob's Pillow. And in March proceeding that we'll do a pillow, our second pillow lab. This is really an initiative that looks to support, cultivate and nurture Black choreographers who are working in the ballet idiom. Yes, we're seeing Black choreographers be hired by ballet companies, but the majority of them are either modern or contemporary choreographers, which is great.


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (41:34):

Opportunities are opportunities, wonderful. But I'm interested in looking what happens down the road and is that actually going to create equity in the ballet space, in the ballet repertory space? Meaning will we have a Black ballet choreographer who is not just capable of, and when I say that, I'm not saying talent wise, but capable of, of creating a full length story ballet, because that is a real skill. It's a lot of moving parts. It requires a building of experience, right? Building a team, dramaturg, set designer, all of that stuff. It's, it's a massive thing, but you don't get there overnight, right? You have that just stair stepping. Will we have Black ballet choreographers whose works won't necessarily live on those contemporary mixed bills. That's what I'm interested in because otherwise we're creating a, a different level of segregation right, inside the ballet repertory. And you see ballet, Black ballet choreographers in ballet repertories as contemporary,


MARCIE SILLMAN (42:43):

Uh, uh, ballet fan. And anybody who knows me knows that's one of my true loves. I thank you for your commitment to the art form and to modernizing and opening up this art form that I love so much. Thank you so much. And thank you for being with us. I think we could probably talk for 24 hours and not cover everything.


THERESA RUTH HOWARD (43:03):

Thank you for having me. I mean, I, I never take any of these opportunities for granted because I know that I, I'm not technically supposed to be here, so I will give every opportunity stretch marks. That's how I roll <laugh>


MARCIE SILLMAN (43:20):

Vivian, I love that. After all the information that Theresa was giving to us at the very end, she's like, oh yeah. And people should be learning how to choreograph and not just modern works because the choreographers of color need to be able to make the kind of traditional ballets, story ballets that have made the backbone of this art form. And I hadn't thought about that until she mentioned it. Like, oh yeah, you, you wanna be able to do all kinds of choreography, but you have to have the opportunity to do it.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (43:56):

Yeah. It's the way of developing a different kind of choreographic muscle. And if you don't have the opportunities to actually sit in those seats, it's like, you know, learning your drive on the freeway, <laugh>, you know, if you never get a chance to drive on the freeway, you're not just gonna automatically know how to do that because you know how to drive on the streets, right? So, I just think that the way that Theresa thinks resonated with me in so many ways. You know, she talked about cur the, the way that she works is about curating her experiences and then arranging them in proper order as opposed to coming into things from a very, very strategic top-down kind of way. That particularly resonated with me. 'cause I went, Hmm, yeah, that makes sense. And then, you know, just speaking to the necessity of us shifting from looking at all the problems to looking at what the work, when the work is working, and then allowing ourselves to, to start at essentially, Yes. And then, you know, go work our ways back. So, I am so into, I mean, like you have a bunch of quotes from her <laugh> that you've written down. I have a couple of pages myself and I am, um, I I'm, I'm thinking that regardless to what your vocation might be, so much of her philosophy applies.


MARCIE SILLMAN (45:30):

Absolutely. And I, I asked her on another occasion when I was interviewing her, whether she worked across art forms or in other kinds of nonprofit organizations, because this feels like it makes sense to me. It feels sensible in across the board and to center the human beings of an organization as opposed to like some kind of strategy that comes in a book or you hire a consultant. She is a consultant, but she's like the accidental consultant. You know, she, something made sense in her mind and she spoke to it. And as far as Seattle goes, it made sense in Ellen Walker's mind because Ellen Walker told me that she then stalked Theresa Ruth Howard after her talk. Like stood there, stood there until they could engage in a conversation. And because for Ellen it was like, yes, this is how we should do this work.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (46:33):

And the results of that connection have made dramatic differences, even from just on the audience side of the stage completely. I can't even imagine what the organizational shifts that have taken place at Pacific Northwest Ballet as a result of this, this work even looks like, but we can get a glimpse of it. And I'm excited that we're going to get a glimpse of it very soon too.


MARCIE SILLMAN (47:00):

I know, and just to throw in a little bonus on the program at this particular performance that we're going to see, and you'll have an opportunity to see it because it's running two weekends, so you'll be able to see it the second weekend. If you're listening to this, you have a chance to sample more than The Nutcracker Donald Byrd. Our friend Donald Byrd has a big piece on the program, which debuted before the pandemic, and we haven't seen it, you know, could be a hundred years, but it's like four years since it debuted. So that's a chance for a choreographer to work with a company that has changed since he made this dance. I don't know who will be in it, but the company has, has changed considerably since then. I mean, I sometimes I just get all teary when I go into the theater and I look at people that might not have been on that stage five or ten years ago.


MARCIE SILLMAN (47:59):

Absolutely true. And, and to see what they bring to a piece and just all of it. I mean, it's a completely different experience. So now I will try to sell you all tickets <laugh>, because you can go see The Nutcracker and, and if you've never seen The Nutcracker, you probably should see the Nutcracker, but you should also go see dances by living choreographers who also didn't have a chance to, to make their art, to create and to present to big, big audiences. 3000 people fit in McCaw Hall. Yeah. Yeah. So that's, you know,


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (48:42):

That is great. And if you happen to be in the DC area later in the summer, you will get an opportunity to, or I mean, you know, go take advantage of the opportunity to see some of what Theresa Ruth Howard has been doing, working on. She, uh, talked to us about Pathways to Performance, which happens at the Kennedy Center, July 24th, um, I I 24, not July 24th. July, 2024. That's what I meant.


MARCIE SILLMAN (49:14):

Yeah. 2024.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (49:15):

And, you know, again, I just think about Mark Bamuthi Joseph, who is at the Kennedy Center, and how all of this work is happening in a non-linear way, but with a specific kind of connectivity that is just good <laugh>, I can't find a better word. It's really good.


MARCIE SILLMAN (49:36):

Doors are opening. I, uh, had lunch yesterday with a mutual friend of ours, and we were talking about the fact that organizational work that needed to be done, not just artwork, but the bedrock of change is underway now. And some organizations are in the vanguard. I think PNB is probably one of them. There are are smaller organizations that are following their own drum. But what we're seeing is a, a very different kind of landscape than at least what was in Seattle, which is the community I know the best. I would dare say that probably many of the organizations in the city are far ahead because as Theresa pointed out in the interview, the City of Seattle was far ahead in terms of mandating, pushing, leading people to make change in a way that feels holistic. Maybe that's the word I wanna use.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (50:43):

And you know, Marcie, one of the things that I have most enjoyed about this season of interviews and interactions is that we have been speaking to people who are essentially the ones who are gonna be pushing all of this work forward in organizations, in their own work. And I think that the future is looking incredibly much more bright because of the bright brains that have emerged. And they've, so many of them have been with us this season, so I just, I wish I had about 40, 50 more years. <laugh>.


MARCIE SILLMAN (51:22):

Well, I, <laugh> I feel really, okay.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (51:25):

Maybe not


MARCIE SILLMAN (51:26):

<laugh>. I I don't think I could bear it. I would need all, all bionic parts. I wouldn't need just one knee. I'd need like knees, hips, you know, that song, head, shoulders, knees, and toes. I need them all. But I, I do, I will say I'm, this is our last episode this season, episode number 10, but they're all still available on our website, doubleXposurepod.com. Or you can go onto whatever podcast host site you use and find them there. They won't be taken down. They're gonna be there, you know, for as long as they can be.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (52:02):

In perpetuity.


MARCIE SILLMAN (52:04):

Yeah, I hope so. Because <laugh> so many of them, even just to hear, uh, we heard, you know, Quinton Morris's story last week, his pathway to Music. We heard Theresa's path to ballet this week. Yeah. Little Nia-Amina Minor. I mean, I'm, and even Mark Bamuthi Joseph, who, you know, on the streets of New York


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (52:24):

Barry Johnson, Keith Beauchamp, I mean the, it's, it's a stellar season.


MARCIE SILLMAN (52:29):

It is a stellar season,


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (52:31):

If I may say so ourselves.


MARCIE SILLMAN (52:33):

Pat, pat on the back. I, it's, it's worth it. And it's been,


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (52:37):

Pat on something.


MARCIE SILLMAN (52:38):

It's been a blast. That's all I have to say. So I hope you all listeners have enjoyed it and really turn on a friend because we're super proud of what we had to say, what people had to say to us and where we're going with it all.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (52:53):

Thank you so much for listening.


MARCIE SILLMAN (52:59):

DoubleXposure's Executive Producers are me, Marcie Sillman,


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (53:03):

And me, Vivian Phillips, Associate Producer Hilary Northcraft.


MARCIE SILLMAN (53:09):

If you like what you're hearing on this episode of DoubleXposure, be sure to follow us on your favorite podcast app and check out our website, doubleXposurepod.com.


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