Collage Dance Collective is launching into their 13th season with the resurrection of “Rise,” a celebratory performance that honors the vital contributions made by the Black community.
But before we dive into the details of this moving homage, here’s a little backstory behind this revered Memphis-based ballet company that’s bringing more access to the colorful world of dance.
Important to note: I’d been dancing for 22 years before I’d ever seen a ballet production with a majority black cast.
Kevin Thomas, Artistic Director of Collage Dance Collective, shares a similar sentiment, and has dedicated his life to providing an entry point and a professional stage for ballet dancers of color.
“I was 29 when I was accepted into the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and up until that point I’d only gotten hints of feeling like I belonged,” Thomas said. “You know, I grew up seeing Lauren Anderson in Dance Magazine and I remember seeing Ronald Perry who was a principal dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem, and he was chocolate.
And it has been—on stage, on posters, on social media and more. You can see the spectrum—and if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find the diversity represented within that. Memphis is their home-base, but dancers come from all over, representing French Guiana, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic, to name a few.
Collage Dance Collective—now in its 14th year of operation—has not only centered itself as a hub for dancers of color to seek training, but has opened the floor to those outside of their community, demystifying the ideas of what dance can be.
“When we started the school in 2009, I was telling someone that my idea was to get boys into ballet,” Thomas said. “They told me I was crazy—that I’d never get boys here from Memphis to do ballet, but it happened. I had over 23 or 24 third grade boys running to ballet during their academic day. I understand the culture; if you don’t know ballet, this is what you think it is—that it’s all fairy dust and for girls. But if the boys see that it’s athletic, there’s competition, that it makes you strong, it changes the myth. “
Between their company, studio dancers, and those participating in outreach programs at local schools, the team at Collage Dance trains 400+ dancers each week.
Those numbers will continue to grow, only furthering the notion that their work is both needed and wanted.
“I see all these little chocolate kids running around in tights, boys and girls, and they are smiling, and they are sweating, and they are working hard. I say to myself, “Yes! Let’s keep up the work,” because there’s a lot more that’s to come.”
Currently their Turning Pointe outreach program serves 200+ students annually through Shelby County Schools.
“We see a lot of kids and we see a lot of talent; and what’s hard for me is when I see that the talent doesn’t go where it could have gone due to lack of access. We are creating more opportunities that cater to these varying levels; be it a 13 to 14-year-old who is coming to us from Brewster Elementary or a trained professional who auditioned from the International Association of Blacks in Dance. The goal is to be this high-quality training facility, because quality is important. Quality for us is important.”
The caliber of Collage Dance Collective's work speaks for itself and comes with receipts.
“I have kids who are Ailey Fordham on scholarship. I have kids who went to Alonzo King LINES Ballet on scholarship. Our kids have gotten into the American Ballet summer school. One of our boys started dancing on Broadway with West Side Story at age 19. We are showing people how far you can go.”
Set to Dr. Martin Luther King's Final Speech, "Rise" is set to deliver a lovely message of growh, hope, and beauty.
On Saturday, February 4th, and Sunday, February 5th, students from the conservatory will join members of the professional company on stage at the Cannon Center for Performing Arts to perform the piece, choreographed by Thomas himself, alongside Ulysses Dove’s classic work Vespers and Geoffrey Holder’s masterpiece Dougla. In-person tickets are available for purchase as well as streaming access.