2015 saw a tremendous increase in awareness and conversation around the subject of diversity in ballet. Award-winning producer and director Frances McElroy seeks to broaden the discussion with her timely documentary, Black Ballerina. The film tells the decades-spanning stories of five dancers: PHILADANCO founder Joan Myers Brown; groundbreaking pioneers Delores Browne and Raven Wilkinson; Ashley Murphy, now a dancer with The Washington Ballet following 13 years with Dance Theater of Harlem; and Bianca Fabré, whose struggle against structural barriers is representative of many young dancers’ overwhelming challenges. The World Dances spoke with McElroy about the documentary, its message, and her hopes for the future of ballet. To contribute to Black Ballerina, click here.
What inspired you to undertake this project?
I have a great interest in ballet and have since I was six years old. I’m drawn to the subject naturally, but I also have a strong social justice streak. The more I read articles and heard people discuss the lack of diversity in ballet, it kind of combined these two interests—love of ballet and also fairness. Once you start meeting people and interviewing them, they tell you about someone else, the story grows, and you get more and more into it.
How did you select the dancers to highlight?
We did some of the historical stories for context. The pioneering dancers’ stories go back to the 1950’s. We’re talking 60 years ago when they experienced really blatant racism. The longer piece brings us up to date. We focus on two younger dancers. The first is Ashley Murphy, who was until recently a premiere dancer at Dance Theater of Harlem. The other is a former dancer named Bianca Fabré. She sort of represents all of the young people who want this as a career and face all the problems. She didn’t have the resources to get first-rate training. That effected her being able to have a prominent career and she gave it up. Her story is very compelling and sad.
The first subject with whom I spoke was Joan Myers Brown, the founder of PHILADANCO. Ms. Brown, when she was young, actually wanted to be a ballerina. This was back in the ’40s. The racial situation at the time was such that it was really not possible for her to break into the ballet world. As a result, she formed her own company. She suggested I speak with Delores Browne. You meet one person who’s important to the story and meet someone else through that person and it just sort of evolves.
What is Bianca doing now?
Bianca’s an airline stewardess. She’s one of the loveliest people you’d ever want to meet. She’s doing what she has to do, even though I think she’s still struggling. She’s in her mid-twenties, which for ballet is up there. She’s being very mature about facing reality. Her story is so compelling. It’s not just about dancers of color; it applies to all young dancers who have had this dream and find that it’s not an easy dream to catch.
When will the documentary be released?
We’re getting close to the finish. It will have been five years by the time we get it running. The launch date is probably mid-2016 for festivals and distribution to interest groups.
What has been your greatest challenge in making this documentary?
The biggest challenge is raising funds. For non-commercial documentaries, it’s really difficult, and it becomes even more difficult when you’re doing documentaries about the arts. We send out dozens of proposals. You just have to wait and wait. A few say yes but more say no. It slows you down. That’s why it’s taken five years. But we’re very fortunate. We received two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, which has allowed us to carry on. We recently got a grant from Women in Film, which will help us do our audio mix and some of the final things you need to do to get it broadcast.
After five years working on this project, what do you think are the major barriers today?
I think there’s still this great interest in tradition. Until people can think about classical ballet as not an all white, all identical-looking group of people, “the way it’s always been” is a barrier.
How do you feel about the dance world’s progress in this respect?
I really do think things are looking more positive. Some of the older dancers with whom I’ve spoken may not agree with that. They’ve been living with this for so long and I think they’d like to have seen more change by now. Change doesn’t happen quickly, but I really do feel there’s been significant progress made. People are talking about it and acknowledging it. I think documentaries like ours help focus that attention. The more people who see it, the more people at least think about it and hopefully talk about it. People talking about it leads to change. When you have someone like Misty Copeland, that brings in a more diverse audience. That’s a good thing too. You get more and different people’s voices in the conversation. It snowballs—not quickly, but I’m optimistic.
What do you hope people take away from having seen the documentary?
I hope that it increases people’s awareness about this beautiful art form. But "Black Ballerina" is a documentary about more than ballet. It's about diversity, inclusion and opportunity in all aspects of our society. Our hope is that the documentary will stimulate a broader conversation.
Photo: Amanda Smith, Charlotte Ballet