By Norma Stanley | January 2023
The love of dance and ballet brought Nena Gilreath and her husband and business partner, Waverly T. Lucas, II, together more than 30 years ago when they both were young ballet dancers at the Dance Theatre of Harlem in New York City. That mutual experience blossomed into a personal and professional love story, which still thrives today, as the co-founders of the Ballethnic Dance Company.Now 33 years old, Ballethnic is a professional ballet company that has uniquely set itself apart from other professional ballet companies by blending ballet with African dance concepts. According to Gilreath, moving to Atlanta and almost immediately starting Ballethnic when she and her husband were only about 25 years old was a series of unexpected divine connections with some key Atlanta influencers, combined with their artistic acumen and determination.
“We were dancing with the Atlanta Ballet, but met and consulted with people like Andrew Young, who was Atlanta’s Mayor at the time; Louis Johnson, who choreographed The Wiz and others like Mozell Spriggs and Dr. Peal Primus at Spelman College’s Dance Department. They all helped set a foundation and guide us along the way,” shared Gilreath. “We were blessed to be able to share our vision about starting a black-owned dance company in Atlanta and were coached by some amazing people who had also envisioned this type of dance company,” shared Gilreath. “After seeing our commitment to excellence and willingness to do the work necessary, we were able to successfully launch the second Black-owned professional ballet company and the first for a Black woman, thereby creating another vehicle in the U.S. outside of Dance Theatre of Harlem for dancers of color to be featured,” she said.
Nena Gilreath her Ballethnic co-founder husband Waverly T. Lucas at Dance Theatre of Harlem (where they met over 40 years ago)
Gilreath said she and her husband dove in to the creation process, determined to make a radical shift and change the landscape for black and brown dancers often not afforded access in companies once the token spots of one or two dancers of color were filled.
“Despite the skepticism we faced because we were so young and inexperienced in business, we pushed forward in wanting to change the landscape in studios, behind the scenes, as well as among audiences, dance professionals and students, in the area of Atlanta classical and contemporary dance,” she said. “I learned how to write grants, set up the business infrastructure, and we set about stirring things up and shaking up the status quo,” she said.
A major part of stirring things up for the new dance company, was recreating the artistic and cultural approach to internationally renowned ballet performances like The Nutcracker.
“Ballet is typically a white world, and the Nutcracker Ballet is really white,” shared Gilreath. “We decided to make it more interesting and include some culturally specific elements into it and created The Urban Nutcracker,” she continued. “We added a storyteller, and some cultural references that Black people recognized, like setting the performance on Atlanta’s historic Sweet Auburn Avenue, and it was very well received. In fact, people loved it!” Gilreath said.
Beginning with six dancers, Ballethnic is now one of the most prolific creators of critically acclaimed ballets in the Southeast. Additionally, it has developed diverse dance audiences across the country, as the founders realized their ultimate goal of seeing a fundamental change in the number of Black and culturally diverse dancers in mainstream ballet companies around the world.
Another potential cover - Nena and husband, Waverly (today)
Gilreath said the process, in the beginning, was both surprisingly easy and incredibly hard, but they are very proud of what has come forth as a result of their vision and tenacity. Working with her husband Waverly, Ballethnic’s resident choreographer, they went about creating dances that were more reflective of the black or African diasporic experience, all the while maintaining the classical consistencies of ballet.
An example of this was their unique and popular African Ballet, “The Leopard Tale,” which in the summer of 2022, was showcased at a multi-night performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. as one of three professional Black dance companies participating.
“We broke a lot of stereotypes and brought more young people into the fold,” Gilreath said. “Some of our dancers, like Karla Tyson, have been dancing with us since she was five years old and Layla Howard now teaches; both came up through the process as young children. Everyone involved in Ballethnic knows there’s an expectation of excellence and understood the assignment,” shared Gilreath.
“We have worked diligently to change the landscape of classical ballet by increasing artistic opportunities and possibilities of a professional career for many overlooked and undervalued citizens,” she continued. “By believing that our community needed another alternative for Black dancers, as well as dancers of other ethnicities, we’ve been able to fill a void through our Dance Company, Ballethnic Academy of Dance, Youth Ensemble, and Danseur Development Project,” she said.
Over the years, Ballethnic has successfully presented their performances to international audiences like at The Bermuda Arts Festival, the National Black Arts Festival, etc. Also because of a national search by International choreographer Irene Tassembedo, the Ballethnic Dance Company received the only original commission from the 1996 Cultural Olympiad. The company performed on Atlanta’s world stage, premiering the ballet “Trouble” by Tassembedo and Waverly T. Lucas’ “Alonzo” to critical reviews from the New York Times.
Now more than 30 years since the founding of the successful Ballethnic, it seems Gilreath and her husband, Waverly T. Lucas II, are not stopping or even slowing down.
Ballethnic continues to produce new works each season that speaks to its unique fusion of Ballet infused with African Dance concepts. Some new choreography was most recently seen in “Opposites Attract and Distract” by Lucas and accompanied by original music the cast created during the pandemic.
In addition, a new collaboration ignited by regular meetings with the Arthur Blank Audience Builders Roundtable sparked a collaboration between The Breman Jewish Museum and Ballethnic. Jazzing: Memoirs in Jazz, dance, and photographic celebration of Herb Snitzer – photojournalist of iconic jazz greats – as well as the dynamic hybrid choreography of dance storyteller and ethno-choreologist, Lucas II, recently emerged out of the pandemic.
In addition to being a guest professor at the University of Georgia, Gilreath is also teaching and serving as co-founder and facility director of East Athens Educational Dance Center, which has created an opportunity for creatives, including dancers, musicians, students and professionals, through the Athens to Atlanta artistic pipeline.
“We are proud to be continuing the work of leaving a legacy of achievement through dance, guided by spirited entrepreneurship,” said Gilreath. “Forging a path of collaborations and great art is the hallmark of the Ballethnic Dance Company, and we are pleased to be creating the steps and course for the next generation as they continue to lead Ballethnic,” she said.
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