KELSEY SNELL, HOST:
Tonight, dancer Calvin Royal III will perform at the Vail Dance Festival. He’s the artist in residence this year, and that’s on top of a big promotion. In 2020, Royal was named Principal Dancer at American Ballet Theatre. As journalist Alexandra Starr explains, he is only the third African-American in history to be promoted to ABT’s most prestigious rank.
(SOUND EXTRACTION OF DINAH WASHINGTON’S SONG, “THIS BITTER EARTH”)
ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: In Vail, Calvin Royal III will be a crowd pleaser. He will dance “Bitter Earth” to a track sung by Dinah Washington. It was choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. A few weeks ago, he rehearsed the play with Isabella Boylston. She is also the director of the American Ballet Theatre.
(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE SONG, “THIS BITTER LAND”)
DINAH WASHINGTON: (Singing) This bitter land.
STARR: The dancers enter from opposite sides of the stage. And then Royal lifts his partner into the air. At one point, their foreheads touch, then they separate again. Royal says he understands why members of the public sometimes burst into tears.
CALVIN ROYAL III: The music takes you there. I feel like every time we lose ourselves in motion and then leave the stage, we say to ourselves, what just happened? (To laugh).
STARR: It had been a while since the two dancers had practiced together. ABT has suspended performances and most rehearsals during the pandemic. Boylston says Royal made a big impression the first time she saw him in the studio over a decade ago.
ISABELLA BOYLSTON: Calvin, just cover your ears, okay? wow. He is superb.
STARR: Royal is a striking presence. Six feet with chiseled cheekbones, he moves with startling fluidity, even for an elite dancer. What makes him more impressive is that he only started ballet when he was 14 years old. He immediately fell in love with this art form.
ROYAL: It’s that energy when you’re with other dancers. I think that’s what really drew me to it and the music and moving together and smiling and having that sense of community.
STARR: Just three years after her first class, Royal won a scholarship to the American Ballet Theater School. He moved from Florida to New York. And suddenly he was surrounded by students who had played most of their lives. He started going to class early to observe.
ROYAL: Even that inspired me so much. And I was taking notes, and I just longed to be in the room like they were one day.
STARR: Kevin McKenzie is the artistic director of ABT. In those early years, he says he could tell Royal had come late to ballet.
KEVIN MCKENZIE: He had things he needed to work on. But what really struck me was that there was something about him, especially when he came on stage, that was just radiant.
STARR: Last fall, at the age of 31, Royal was named principal dancer. This happened just months after the murder of George Floyd. In November, Royal was part of the City Center’s Fall for Dance festival, which was held online due to the pandemic. He wanted to do a piece that speaks to the moment.
ROYAL: We had to ask ourselves, how can we, as artists, be forces of change?
STARR: The dance, titled “To Be Seen,” was choreographed by Kyle Abraham and set to Ravel’s “Bolero.” At first, Royals have their backs to the public. Then he takes off his hoodie and begins a series of sinuous movements. In the middle of the room, he raises his hands in a gesture of not shooting.
(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE “BOLERO” BY MAURICE RAVEL)
STARR: Royal says he suffered a lot of prejudice – at the grocery store, on the subway.
ROYAL: There were many times where I was profiled or treated differently. And they have no idea who I am, but they see who I am first, and they prejudge.
STARR: As a gay black man, Royal didn’t fit the mainstream ballet stereotype. Four years into his tenure at ABT, he was studying hard. He considered leaving.
ROYAL: I started wondering – I would like to dance more. I’ve always liked to dance, and I don’t dance. I look on the sidelines.
STARR: That year, however, he won a prestigious dance scholarship. And Royal says it was when he leaned more into who he is that he became an artist.
ROYAL: It was when I started embracing myself and being honest with myself as a dancer, with my sexuality, with all the things that make me, me. That’s when the magic happened for me.
STARR: As a principal dancer, Royal uses her notoriety to push the boundaries of ballet. Last year, he starred in a dance called “Touche.” It features two men performing a duet together. This is the first time this has happened on ABT stages. In preparation for the play, Royal entered a COVID bubble in upstate New York. There he worked with choreographer Christopher Rudd and fellow dancer Joao Menegussi.
ROYAL: We would talk for hours about life and our experiences as men, queer in ballet and our journey.
STARR: Royal’s journey inspires other dancers of color. During a recent dance competition, a young black man approached him.
ROYAL: He was like, seeing you at ABT makes me more possible. And I just got chills all over my body because I’m like, this is about me being the best that I can be as an artist and a dancer. And that, in turn, inspires someone else.
STARR: ABT will resume indoor performances in October. The royal and ballerina Misty Copeland were preparing to perform Romeo and Juliet before COVID hit. When they perform the ballet, it will be the first time in ABT history that dancers of color will perform both roles.
For NPR News, I’m Alexandra Starr.
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