Three Black choreographers will inspire Charlotte Ballet’s 50th anniversary performance

Founded in 1970, Charlotte Ballet’s mission is to provide artistically excellent programming to diverse audiences in its home city of Charlotte.

The year 1970 was a pinnacle moment for dance, music and art. The year saw the catapult of “American Bandstand,” the final performance by the Supremes and many other staples in American culture. It’s also the year that Charlotte Ballet — formerly known as North Carolina Dance Theater — was born under the direction of Robert Lindgren. 

Now 52 years later, the company will pay homage to its robust history with “Innovative 1970,” a repertoire show featuring works by three African American choreographers: Ja’Malik, Rena Butler and Andrés Trezevant. The show will be performed throughout February.

The program’s dancers and choreographers range in age from 18 to their early 40s, making them all younger than Charlotte Ballet. None of them experienced the social and cultural touchstones of the 1970s, but they have enjoyed their research into the era.

Ja’Malik, 42, a member of the original NCDT, said he is surprised and honored to find himself back in Charlotte, working with Charlotte Ballet to help choreograph “Innovative 1970.”

“For some reason, I had put it in my mind that it was never going to happen…,” he said. “…This was my dream company when I joined North Carolina Dance Theater. So, it was quite amazing to come back.”

An award-winning, evolving choreographer from Harlem, New York, Ja’Malik is known for infusing ballet with modern, real-life experiences. He has created works for Boston Ballet School, University of North Carolina School of Arts, Festival Ballet Providence and American Repertory Ballet, among others.

In “gypsy moths,” his upcoming ballet for “Innovative 1970,” Ja’Malik draws inspiration from the 1970s Black female group, Labelle.

“These women — Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash — are the blueprint and founders of many of today’s leading female pop and rock groups,” he said.

He said it was important to re-introduce himself to Charlotte Ballet audiences by way of the music he grew up hearing.

“The connection is the timelessness of the music,” said Ja’Malik, 42. “You can jam to it, cry to it, love to it, make love to it. I think that kind of music will last from now until the end of time.”

Ja’Malik, Butler and Trezevant worked individually to each produce elaborate and purposeful original works, tagging a significant milestone for Charlotte Ballet.

“The most exciting part is, we all three have such distinctive and rich voices as choreographers,” he said.” I am honored to share this program with these brilliant dance makers who are, like me, looking to push our art form further and bring audiences closer to what ballet and dance mean to us today and beyond.”

To further his outreach, Ja’Malik founded the dance company Ballet Boy Productions, which mentors and nurtures male dancers through performances, arts and education outreach, lectures and choreographic workshops.

“I literally just created something that I needed when I was a young artist…,” Ja’Malik said, adding that he often had to “figure it all out on my own, which was really, really rough.”

He continued: “I was trying to lessen that for the next generation by having space and opportunity for them to connect with somebody else when they’re feeling isolated and alone.”

“Innovative 1970” was intended to come in 2020, exactly 50 years after the company’s founding, but the Covid-19 pandemic caused necessary delays.

Ja’Malik said he’s excited for audiences to see how far the company has come since its inception. He also wants to redefine dance for new audiences.

“If they just allow themselves to go on this journey, they will get a full, great spectrum of where we are as a society, looking back and how we can move forward,” he said. “And I think they will also see a great spectrum of dance and how we’re trying to break down barriers that ballet is exclusive to just one specific people or a specific culture or a specific economic or sociological background.”

Innovative 1970 runs from Feb. 4-26 at the Patricia Mc Bride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance. Tickets are now on sale and can be purchased here.

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