Celebrating Famous BIPOC Dancers

Alicia Alonso (1920-2019)

The first ballet dancer we would like to highlight is Alicia Alonso, a Cuban prima ballerina, and choreographer who started the company Ballet Nacional de Cuba. She was highly regarded for her convincing portrayals of leading roles in the great works of classical and Romantic ballet, especially for her lively, precise

Giselle and for her sensual, tragic Carmen. She is known for her artistry and longevity as a performer and artist and her battle with a chronic vision problem, which never deterred her from dance.

She started dance in Spain, leading her to study ballet in Havana. She enrolled in the School of American Ballet at the age of 17 after moving to New York City in 1937. In 1940, she enrolled in the Ballet Theatre –– later American Ballet Theatre –– and danced the lead of Giselle. While still with Ballet Theatre, she suffered a detached retina. However, Alonso refused to abandon dance. Her vision improved, but later, it worsened and became a chronic problem, eventually leading her to become virtually blind. A lot of the time, she couldn’t fully see her way around the stage while performing, but she didn’t allow this to be her setback in dance. Alonso said, “I don’t want my audience thinking that if I dance badly, it is because of my eyes. Or if I dance well, it is in spite of them. This is not how an artist should be.”

In addition to this, Alonso portrayed lead roles in many classical ballets with a vast emotional range and technical precision. In 1948 she co-founded, with her husband and his brother, the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company in Cuba. Here, she became prominent as a choreographer, running from variations on classic works such as Swan Lake to the comic ballet A Voyage to the Moon. She was an artist of atypical range and power, who, despite her chronic visual problems, continued dancing until her 70s.

Alicia Alonso The Independent ("Alonso excelled in the Black Swan pas de deux from 'Swan Lake’, 1955(Granger/Rex))"

Arthur Mitchell (1934-2018)

The next prominent ballet dancer we are going to be talking about is Arthur Mitchell. A Black American ballet choreographer and dancer who was the first African American to become a principal dancer with a major ballet company –– New York City Ballet. Later, he co-founded the renowned Dance Theatre of Harlem.

When he was younger, Mitchell attended the High School for Performing Arts in New York City and began performing Broadway musicals. He became the only Black dancer in New York City in 1956 and was promoted to principal dancer in 1962. Choreographer George Balanchine created two leading roles for Mitchell: one in “Agnon” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Mitchell will forever be remembered for displaying outstanding performance and agility in these roles.

However, Mitchel noticed the discrimination against Black dancers in the ballet world and was persistent in creating a company with all black dancers. In 1969, he co-founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook. In 1971, the company debuted in New York City; Mitchel choreographed numerous ballet before it disbanded in 2004 –– however, it was revived in 2012. Arthur Mitchel displayed a brilliant presence, fantastic artistry, and powerful sense of self and showed the way for Black dancers.

Arthur Mitchell The New York Times

Maria Tallchief (1925-2013)

The last dance figure we will talk about today is Maria Tallchief, a Native American prima ballerina who is the first Native American to have held rank. She also founded Chicago City Ballet with her sister. Her energy, speed, and grace enhanced her already elegant technique. As the muse of choreographer George Balanchine, she is considered one of the greatest ballet dancers in the United States.

At the age of 17, Maria Tallchief moved to New York City to pursue her dreams of becoming a dancer. She traveled from various dance companies to other dance companies to look for work. Although many companies discriminated against her because of her Native American ancestry, rejection did not stop Tallchief.

After being selected as an understudy in the Ballet Russe, the premier Russian ballerina company in the U.S., she became one of the lead ballerinas in 1942. As her career began to take off, many tried to persuade her to change her last name so that dance companies wouldn’t discriminate against her; however, she refused and continued to perform as Maria Tallchief. She later married famous choreographer George Balanchine, who created her signature Firebird role. She also became prima ballerina of the New City Ballet. Tallchief’s best-known role was as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. In 1960, she also performed at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, making her the first American.

Tallchief and her sister founded Chicago City Ballet — a ballet school and dance company. Even after retiring, Tallchief spoke about injustice and discrimination for Native American ballet dancers. As a prima ballerina, she broke through the barriers for Native American dancers and eventually became one of America’s most famous ballet dancers.

Maria Tallchief The New York Times



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