Ballet school in Memphis one of few in country; teaches ballet through telling Black stories

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — When the Collage Dance Collective performs their signature show in a few days, they’ll do it as one of just a few of the Black dance companies in the country.

The performance, slated for Feb. 4 and 5 at the Cannon center is called “Rise,” and tells a story that is about being Black in America and is told through ballet.

In each movement, there is story; in each bend of the knee, with every extension, or every time a ballet slipper slides, all of it merges to become one fluid, carefully constructed representation about being Black in America, through a lens that reaches back decades.

It is told in Memphis, a city with decades of black history, where today, some may consider the story’s method, ballet, unconventional.

Memphis, a city that sees a quarter of its residents living in poverty and where misfortune and loss can lead news cycles.

“When I started dancing, there were not many who looked like me,” said Kevin Thomas, the founding artistic director. “We always get that other representation of crime of poverty, and, you know, uneducated; what about the other side, where we are beautiful people?”

“There’s so many dancers of color who have trained classically, shouldn’t we be able to tell our own stories?”

It is his effort, shown in hours of rehearsal and choreography, that lead the Collage Dance Collective, one of three Black ballet companies in the country, Thomas said, where more than a dozen dancers of color are employed, embarking on international tours.

“It changes people,” Thomas said. “I think it changes the community. It’s our job to also uphold history and culture.”

The performers were in Canada when we spoke with Thomas in January.

The Collective is located at the corner of Tillman St. and Sam Cooper Blvd. in Binghamton, based in a neighborhood with a large Black population, where its ballet school teaches people of all ages; its youth ensemble also tours to perform internationally; it actively engages in Memphis schools to bring the arts to even more communities, connecting through stories about people of color.

“I can’t say that we get 100%. But we get a very large percent,” Thomas said.

“They think they’re about to do movement that’s going to feel very soft. And all of a sudden, they realize, ‘Oh, no, I’m actually feeling like I’ve been playing football.’”

“When people ask me why ballet, I like to say you know, why not ballet?” he said. “The stories that we talk about are about us. So, when you see it and it’s about you, you understand it and you love it.”

Visit the Collage Dance Collective’s website by clicking here.