Black choreographer makes history at New York City Ballet
On September 30, talented young black choreographer Sidra Bell made history when her new ballet was one of two world premieres in a program featuring exciting artists from the dance and fashion worlds during The New York City Ballet’s Ninth Annual Fall 2021 Fashion Gala. at Lincoln Center.
As a choreographer, Bell’s work, often performed by his company Sidra Bell Dance New York
(SBDNY), was described as fascinating, exuberant, daring, captivating, out of genre and at the forefront of innovative contemporary dance. After watching a SBDNY concert infused with visually vibrant imagery and unrestricted innovative physicality that struggles with such poignant and provocative concepts as identity, intimacy and community, one reviewer described Bell’s work. as comprising the “lively rhythms of street dancing, the deep, eerie glamor of a fashion show, the enigmatic drama that doesn’t stop.”
Today, this talented artist, whose work sits at the dynamic intersection of ballet, seminal modern techniques and the energetic, funky innovation of hip hop, has made a historic leap. With the debut of her work at NYCB, which also features a collaboration with Louisiana-born and Brooklyn-based fashion designer Christopher John Rogers, Bell became the first black choreographer to work at the NYCB since the company’s inception in 1948.
When asked what inspired this historic movement, NYCB Associate Artistic Director Wendy Whelan said Bell has been on her radar for some time, noting Bell’s love for design elements in her job. Body, lighting, clothes, music. She’s bold and curious and loves the process and the game. In fact, while Whelan was in talks for her own historic stance, she said when the discussion turned to designing a season, “I knew then. that when I chose new choreographers, you had to be a black woman. It had never been done and I just knew it was a voice that needed to be heard, to have a stage and a platform. While that was some time ago, it is finally happening in 2021.
Work on the project began, Bell says, in 2019, when Whelan invited her to choreograph for the 2020 Fashion Gala. She immediately set to work bringing together the disparate elements needed to create a distinctive work, by choosing dancers, costumes and choreography. Then COVID happened. The 2020 gala was postponed but, in the meantime, Whelan asked Bell to attend NYCB’s 2020 Digital Festival, a natural fit for a choreographer who has previously worked with technology and whose adaptability matched the unique challenges of COVID protocols. . Bell also worked with another familiar element: music composed by his father, jazz musician Dennis Bell. The result, a delightful, quote-specific piece that deepened the experience of collaborating with NYCB, a sense of collaboration that seems to have continued in working with the company and, of course, designer Christopher John Rogers, creating what Bell calls a “super fun and very happy process.”
When Bell describes her journey, she seems made for this defining moment. “I started with an entrepreneurial spirit,” she says, recounting how, even as an undergraduate student at Yale University, she founded the Alliance for Dance at Yale College, offering performance workshops, working in partnership with the school administration to bring the art of dance. on campus while raising awareness with community organizations. After graduation, she founded the nonprofit SBDNY, which focused on performing live performances, educational programming, and teaching at Harlem-based community centers, including the Joseph P. Kennedy. Performing Arts Center on 135th Street. Bell attributes the entrepreneurial, innovative, adaptive spirit that allows him to work “outside the box in different types of spaces” to his training, which began at the age of seven at the Dance Theater in Harlem. where she studied until the age of 15. old. “There is a lineage and a story that I feel part of. I have always been connected to Arthur Mitchell’s vision and the impact of founding DTH. It permeated this environment where, as students, we were able to observe every day an exemplary level of excellence among women and men. There were so many amazing women of color to admire as a young lady, so I’m so grateful that I was put in this situation. Arthur Mitchell’s story is so significant.
Bell uses the phrase “against all odds” and explains what she means by referring to her experience as a woman of color in the traditionally white space of ballet, saying: “For me it has always been. a little against all odds although I was always raised to believe that I could do anything. Still, I guess I know it’s always been through thick and thin in some ways. I have always had this huge vision. I started working when I was in high school and at that time I was at Alvin Ailey School. So I have the vision of these incredible huge Black-Lead organizations. Bell says the Ailey organization and the Dance Theater of Harlem have helped strengthen her sense of possibility. She remembers Denise Jefferson, principal of Ailey School who, according to Bell, “was a mentor and role model to me… I had this inspiration from people who did and did it for love.”
Today, as a young choreographer with her own company and a historic commission for the New York City Ballet Fall Fashion Gala 2021, like her mentors and models, Sidra Bell does and does. for his sake while at the same time, serving as a role model for other aspiring young African American choreographers.