Black Iris Project Brings Black Skin In Motion To The Stage [Video]

Jeremy McQueen wants to quash the notion that black bodies can’t perform beautiful ballet.

Black Iris Project
Georgia O'Keeffe painting Black Iris III

“While touring the museum, I fell in love with a painting entitled “Black Iris III” by Georgia O’Keeffe. It sent lightning bolts to my heart in ways that no piece of art ever had before,” McQueen said. (source)

Choreographer Jeremy McQueen established the Black Iris Project earlier this year from an idea he developed in 2013. Inspired by his mother – who battled with breast cancer – and strong black women like Nardia Boodoo – a Washington Ballet dancer who’s battled against the thin, white ballerina stereotype – and a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe entitled “Black Iris III”, the Black Iris project explores the challenges and triumphs of being a black woman through the medium of dance.

Black Iris Project

The Black iris Project is a collective bringing 20 minority dancers together to perform dynamic ballet pieces. (source)

McQueen boasts an extravagant career, having trained with the California Ballet School and the American Ballet Theatre as well teaching at the Peridance Capezio Center and the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation. Having produced Black Iris, McQueen sought another experience like it: “I wanted to create more opportunities like this one for collaboration, reflection, connection, and the creation of dynamic works of art that address the black experience or black history. We wanted to develop works of art that our communities would specifically find interesting and would want to see them performed.”

Thus, with the support of multiple grants – including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the CUNY Dance Initiative – the Black Iris performance evolved in the Black Iris Project: a collective of twenty dancers of color from various ballet companies. Based in New York City, the project allows talented minority dancers to embrace their diverse in a celebration of black history. Simultaneously, the project seeks to encourage more youth of color to dive into arts that may not have felt like an option for them, such as ballet.

We live in a world where the stage favors a lighter-skinned body, in spite of breakout talents like Misty Copeland, who became the first black ballerina to achieve the prestigious title of principal dancer at ABT. Fortunately, there are men like McQueen working to change that. He described his inspiring first encounter with Boodoo in an interview with Huffington Post: “When I arrived to the Joffrey Ballet, I fell in love with Nardia Boodoo. She struck me like the painting. She had a quiet confidence that reminded me of myself, and I saw something in her that told me I needed to take a chance on her. After I became better acquainted with her, I started to look at her journey and the journeys of other black women around me. I started to see some fundamental similarities. So the piece went from being a tribute to my mother and the other women who helped raise me to a tribute to black womanhood in general.”

Black Iris Project

The Black iris Project is a collective bringing 20 minority dancers together to perform dynamic ballet pieces. (source)

Ballet is not the only art form that seems to ward off diversity, but it is a style that has always been presented very traditionally to a specific demographic. McQueen sought to show that ballet ought to reflect the diversity present in America right now. He told HuffPost, “I don’t see ballet as one art form that is a better platform over others, but I think there needs to be more diverse ideas on casting, and especially the types of stories that are told within ballet specifically. We’re so used to the stories being European-rooted, or fables and fairytales in ballet. Unfortunately, most of the minority kids that I teach aren’t interested in these stories, especially if they don’t see someone who looks like them dancing the roles. Visibility is huge.”

In his own experience, being able to turn to the arts has kept McQueen away from drugs and violence. Dance enables one to get in touch with themselves and their feelings in such a unique way; McQueen feels the Black Iris Project can play a unique role in reaching youth. The project supplies a positive outlet for the individual challenges we all face. McQueen plans to take the performances to the road, performing for community centers and other places where their targeted audience can be reached. This project is geared to take over the world, one ballet arena at a time.

Black Iris Project

The Black iris Project is a collective bringing 20 minority dancers together to perform dynamic ballet pieces. (source)

Photo source.

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