In the Moment: Conversation about Diversity with Laveen Naidu, Artistic Director, BalletNova

It started with a conversation with Laveen Naidu, artistic director for Northern Virginia’s BalletNova. Naidu said he wanted to change this observation: “ballet is often perceived as being for and appreciated by a select few, mostly those of European decent and of privilege.” Now that got my attention. Naidu went on to chat about “building new audiences as a priority for all arts organizations.” Now I was totally hooked. And then we even skipped into a quick chat about Naidu seeing Fiddler on the Roof when he was younger and still living in South Africa.

BalletNova Artistic Director Laveen Naidu. Photo courtesy of Laveen Naidu.

Our conversation led to this column about diversity in the arts including the need for new audiences and new performers to see themselves with their own cultural stories on stage. In the increasingly diverse demographics of the various jurisdictions of the Washington, DC metropolitan area, there are surely cultural stories depicting the changing populations awaiting to be told on mainstream stages.

Even within political jurisdictions, demographics can widely vary. Here is one example of that; seen through public school student demographics for Arlington County Public Schools. I will daresay other jurisdictions are not dissimilar.

So, let’s quickly go to interviews with Adrienne Geis, board president, BalletNova and then with Laveen Naidu who came to Northern Virginia after performing with Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) and later becoming BalletNova’s executive director.

One other note: reaching out to the local community can involve performing where community audiences are and not just where an arts organizations physical venue is. BalletNova will be performing its upcoming Spring Repertory Performance in a South Arlington community landmark, Wakefield High School.

David Siegel: Please introduce the mission of BalletNova to readers:

BalletNova Board President Adrienne Geis: BalletNova is dedicated to bringing the art and joy of dance to all members of our diverse community! We strive as an organization not only to reach out to those not historically associated with the arts, but to bring a mixed repertoire of classical and contemporary works to the community with every planned performance. Much as scales are foundational to learning to play a musical instrument, or developing hand-eye coordination is foundational to becoming a great athlete, ballet is the foundation to mastering the art of using one’s body as an expression of music.

BalletNova has a history of exploring and teaching virtually every type of dance imaginable, while remaining true to a disciplined curriculum that will enable our alumni to pursue a career post-high school should they so choose. We believe strongly that dance, and Ballet in particular, is a language that everyone can learn to speak, regardless of their cultural, ethnic, or economic circumstance. We look forward to providing instruction in this language to our community for many years to come.

How did you come to make a goal trying to dispel what can seem to be a limited concept about ballet?

BalletNova Artistic Director Laveen Naidu: Ballet is often perceived as being for and appreciated by a select few, mostly those of European decent and of privilege. Not entirely surprising since ballet began in the Italian and French courts. That perception remains hard to break!

I believe that ballet can convey ideas and stories that speak to people of diverse backgrounds. It is a language (and a tradition) without words that can spark feelings and memories or move us in unexpected ways. When we share these experiences with others we connect and are inevitably brought closer. We need more of this today!

Back line from left: Karis Collins, Tess Cogely, Megan Fuglestad, Sarah Mirrow, Avery Nelson. Middle line from left: Liis Viira, Emma Weaver, Kaya Chun, Grace Cogley. Front line from left: Madeline Ames, Lea Winston, Grace Sisel. Photo by Ruth Judson.

How is BalletNova attempting to interest diverse students in dance as a form of expression?

BalletNova aims to present works that people can “see themselves in.” A big part of exciting new audiences is relevance. A repertoire that draws on different cultural influences and styles is vital, as is presenting the classical vocabulary in different ways – like a cosmopolitan city where everybody speaks English but with different accents imbued by their culture and nationality. When a person senses a connection with what is happening on stage they are likely to return and tell others.

How is BalletNova trying to build new audiences for Ballet?

BalletNova’s Sabrina Atkin and Zachary Scott. Photo by Ruth Judson.

Building new audiences is a priority for all arts organizations. We must introduce new people to live dance and theater. Our free arts education and free ticket programs, along with keeping ticket prices as low as possible, are important parts of making that a reality. BalletNova provides over 250 free tickets each year to students and families who otherwise may not be able to attend. In addition, BalletNova provides tuition assistance and scholarships to deserving students from our community who wish to study ballet seriously.

We know that those who have meaningful experiences with arts in their formative years are more likely to become future ticket buyers and advocates for the arts. As importantly, studying ballet (or any art-form), develops important life skills like perseverance, confidence, work ethic, problem solving, and imagination. Every child should have an arts education.

What can patrons expect at the BalletNova Spring Repertory?

We will present four very different pieces. The beloved Swan Lake, Act II, staged by Carmen Perez, captures the spectacle and drama of traditional ballet. The Swan Queen, Odette, shares with Prince Siegfried the magical circumstances that keep her and her friends’ captive under the moonlight. The Soiree is a new work by Kristina Ancil Edwards. It is an invitation to go back in time and wander through a party filled with sophisticates and star-gazers. Audiences can immerse themselves in big band tunes from the American Songbook of mid-20th Century America.

“Burgundy, performed by guest artist Gin Dance Company is choreographed by artistic director Shu-Chen Cuf. It takes a deeper look at the roles that women play in this society as strong, confident, capable, and sensitive individuals. South African Suite, a work I co-created for Dance Theatre of Harlem with Founder Arthur Mitchell and Augustus Van Heerdan, explores the cultural tapestry of South Africa through classical ballet combined with Indian classical and African dance movement and music.

The ballets will be performed to recorded music. The dancers range from approximately 14 to 30 years of age and hail from Northern Virginia. Each ballet involves between 10-25 dancers.

BalletNova Spring Repertory Performance plays three performances only; Friday, May 18, 2018 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, May 19, 2018 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, May 20, 2018 at 3:00 p.m., at Wakefield High School Theatre – 1325 S Dinwiddie Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call 703-778-3008, or purchase them online.

Note: Patrons are invited to stay after the show on Sunday, May 20th for the Post Performance Talk Back with choreographers about their inspiration, meaning, and history of the pieces.

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