Pacific Northwest Ballet is looking more like our society these days. Over the company’s 50-year history, its roster has included very few Black members; in the past, popular dancers like the late Kabby Mitchell III (who danced with the company in its early years), Kiyon (Gaines) Ross (now the company’s associate artistic director) and audience favorite Karel Cruz were generally the only Black faces onstage. But there’s been a change in the past few years: PNB now has 10 dancers in the 46-member company who identify as Black.
On a recent afternoon, five of those dancers — principal Jonathan Batista (who joined PNB in 2021), soloists Dammiel Cruz-Garrido (2016) and Amanda Morgan (2016), and corps de ballet members Audrey Malek (2021) and Ginabel Peterson (2021) — took a break from rehearsing the upcoming production of “Giselle” to gather around a table at PNB’s library and talk about their experiences. (Other Black members of the company include corps de ballet members Ashton Edwards and Zsilas Michael Hughes, and apprentices Rosalyn Hutsell, Larry Lancaster and Destiny Wimpye.) Excerpts from that conversation follow, edited for length.
On being inspired, as a young dancer, by other dancers of color
Cruz-Garrido: I grew up at SAB [School of American Ballet, affiliated with New York City Ballet], so there wasn’t a ton to look at. It wasn’t really until I got here and I first saw Karel Cruz [former PNB principal dancer] just completely take over the stage, every time he took it. I had a moment where I was like, oh wow, this is someone from a similar background, doing what I hope to do. I was a teenager.
Peterson: When I started my professional training I was at the Kirov Academy [in Washington, D.C.]. It’s an extremely white institution and there was no company attached, so there wasn’t really dancers to look up to. I had to reach outside of that. The only person really was Misty Copeland [the first Black woman to reach the rank of principal at American Ballet Theatre] to look at.
Batista: [As a young dancer,] I didn’t see many Black dancers being protagonists in ballets. It wasn’t until I left Brazil for England, I saw Carlos Acosta [who danced with multiple companies including London’s Royal Ballet], one of the most successful Black dancers in the world. He talked about being a Black man and was very much self-affirmed, which is something that’s very challenging to do, because we didn’t see many of us onstage becoming the prince, telling the story or leading the story.
Malek: Growing up I would say Ashley Murphy-Wilson [of Washington Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem] was the big inspiration for me, along with Lauren Anderson [of the Houston Ballet]. I’m from New Hampshire, it’s mostly white, so there wasn’t much representation or someone around me that I looked up to in that kind of way. It was like a dream come true that when I became a teenager and attended the Washington School of Ballet [in D.C.], Ashley had just joined the company and I got to stand behind her at the barre for like three or four years.
On how change begins
Batista: Amanda [Morgan] has been a staple when it comes to the work of diversity and inclusion. She has continuously used her voice and her platform, opening doors for many of us who came to PNB. After the protests that we had due to George Floyd’s death and the lack of justice, I think that we’ve really started focusing on what we can change. We [Black dancers] have always been here, but we were not seen as princes and princesses. Historically we are princes and princesses and kings and queens, we have our own history, it’s time that we reflect that throughout our art form.
Morgan: I’m taking an arts-management class through Seattle University, and one thing we’re really looking at is how as artists we’re not always seen as leaders, but to lead is also an art form in itself. 2020 not only opened these doors for people to really see us and hear us, but also just allowed all of us to become our own leaders for our community, to ignite this shift not just in dance but in culture in general. We saw so many people speaking out, and we realized we have a lot more autonomy in how we can ignite change within an organization.
None of us would be here without all these other people who came before us. I think of Maurya Kerr, who was one of the first Black women ever to be in this company [in PNB’s corps de ballet, 1988-90]. I didn’t even know she was in this company. She was one of the original members of Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet [a longtime contemporary dance company based in San Francisco]; I auditioned for that company when I was 15 or 16, and she said, “I see so much promise in you.” I wish I had known then that she was the first Black woman here. There are a lot of us; we’re all just trying to do the best we can and seeing it paying off, which is really wonderful.
Batista: I have been in seven ballet companies, and this is the first time that I am starting to enjoy my career, because I feel like I’m in a safe environment, because I do see myself represented in every rank. So when you have that environment, you can breathe, because you’re not the only one.
Morgan [on seeing herself on a PNB billboard]: It feels pretty great! Even the fact that they put all our photos on the wall at [McCaw Hall], and you look and you see this colorful company. You don’t see that in other companies at this moment.
Batista: Now our work is to extend that legacy, to every Black kid that is out there.
Morgan: I think it can be hard when it comes to [PNB School], that’s another accessibility point. It’s so expensive to go to school here; I would never have been able to go to school here if I didn’t have a full scholarship. Even just transportation, getting to and from the school, sometimes you need to have parents who can bring you, all that stuff comes into play.
Dance Chance [PNB’s program, with Seattle Public Schools, to expand equity and access in classical ballet training] is really wonderful and a good introduction. I would love to see more programs like that implanted in other parts of the state, Tacoma, Bellevue, Renton, all these different places, I think then we’d have a larger pool of kids that would want to stay in the school.
One thing that’s hard when it comes to PNB, we dance mostly in a theater. That’s hard to access. We’ve added our Thursdays pay-what-you-can for certain [performances] — a huge, huge deal. I don’t see a lot of other ballet organizations doing that. People who really can’t afford it can pay [$5]; other people who are coming might want to donate $100 because it’s important to let people from other socioeconomic backgrounds be able to see the arts. Either way, I would love to see us dancing in spaces that maybe are unconventional, maybe involving ourselves more in parks.
Peterson: When you see more people who look like you onstage, it makes you want to go and it makes you want to bring people with you. If there are people who look like you, it’s more inviting.
Batista: Once we Black dancers were having breakfast in the Central District, and this one Black lady was serving us, at a family-owned restaurant. We introduced ourselves and said we were ballet dancers. She said, “Wow, I haven’t been to the ballet because I didn’t know that you guys were there. I did not feel represented.” And she’s coming to the ballet now, to watch us.
Morgan: That’s happened to me a lot.
Batista: Now we have the opportunity to connect — take your son and daughter, and have the chance to dream.
Cruz-Garrido: It can give them a career.
Batista: It takes representation for you to understand that it is possible to get to that place that you most desire. So when I saw Carlos Acosta for the first time, and also when I saw Brooklyn Mack [of American Ballet Theatre] it was like, wow, Black men! In ballet! In tights! Playing the role of a prince, playing the role of Albrecht! I’m just about to debut in this role [named Albert in the PNB production], in “Giselle” in February, and it was a role that I was once told that I couldn’t do, because it wasn’t “suitable” for me. Today, I’m about to get to that dream, and inform a whole generation in our society that it is possible to become a dancer in the corps de ballet, it is possible to become a soloist, it is possible to become a principal dancer, and it’s possible to become whatever you want to become, whether you’re in a ballet company or sports or the arts.
On what they’d like to dance someday
Peterson: Juliette [in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “Romeo et Juliette”]. I’d love to do Juliette. I love that ballet so much. It’s so beautiful.
Cruz-Garrido: I’d love to conquer Siegfried [in “Swan Lake”] some day. Also, I grew up in SAB, so any lead in any Balanchine ballet — to be able to conquer those roles, after watching them so many times, that would be very fulfilling.
Malek: I would like to do Kitri [in “Don Quixote”] or Odette/Odile [“Swan Lake”] one day, somewhere down the line.
Morgan: The next thing is: Once we get everybody in the room, what stories are we still telling? I love “Giselle,” I love “Sleeping Beauty,” those are great, but it all stems from Europe. Where are our stories, and what narratives are those? If you had more stories like that, that would encourage audiences to want to come, regardless of how they look, they would feel represented. And they would also learn about different cultures, and see the humanity. Anyone can relate to that.
Favorite moments at PNB
Morgan: When I got promoted this past November and did that part in “The Seasons Canon,” having Crystal Pite be there when I got promoted … I remember when I was a Level 7, 15 years old and seeing her work with the company for the first time. Doing “Emergence,” throughout the years, slowly being able to do more and more stuff in her pieces, that felt very full circle for me. Also, doing Sugar Plum [in “Nutcracker”; Morgan was the first Black woman to dance the role] was a really big deal for me. We have so many wonderful dancers, including everyone here. It was so emotional to debut Sugar Plum with Ashton [Edwards] as Dewdrop, and Zsilas [Michael Hughes] doing Candy Cane. It’s huge. Something that’s never happened before.
When I finally got to [dance the role of Dewdrop, after waiting many years], I got to wear my skin-tone tights and shoes, which would never have been the case if I had done it back then. Just these little things that really have so much meaning to not just me but to my community, because it is so much bigger than me or any of us. It’s a huge, huge deal what we’re doing and we should all be so proud of ourselves.
Peterson: “Swan Lake” was a lot of fun, despite it being very painful. It’s four acts, and it’s extremely exhausting!
Cruz-Garrido: I love “Nutcracker,” it’s great. I’m mostly a classical-ish ballet dancer. But whenever I get to perform “Red Angels” [by Ulysses Dove] it just feels like fresh oxygen. I feel like the world is just mine to conquer.
Batista: Siegfried [in “Swan Lake”] was just magic, a dream come true. That was the night I was promoted, and it was just like a movie, going through my head, of all my journey and all of our journeys.
Morgan: I grew up here, seeing so many people get promoted in front of that curtain, and being so excited because you could see everyone’s progress on up to that point. When it was happening to me, I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t believe that I made it. I could envision it when I was little, but to be there and see everyone, it’s a whole different experience.
Batista: The most beautiful moment was when Amanda got promoted, and Peter said she was from Tacoma, Washington. A lot of people from Tacoma, from the late Kabby Mitchell III’s TUPAC [Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center], they were in the audience. And it was like, look there it is. The moment that history is happening, here in the main ballet company of Seattle, which is a top five company in the country. It was just mind blowing.
Morgan: One person that I trained with [Edna Daigre] was one of the first Black dance educators in Seattle. She was the one who brought Kabby Mitchell to PNB. I saw her, a week before my promotion, and I said, “I don’t know if you know but there’s a lot of us at PNB now.” So she came to “Nutcracker,” she was so thrilled for all of us, to see how much the company has grown in diversity. It’s really not happening anywhere else, no other major ballet company, not the way it is here.
This story has been updated to reflect that Maurya Kerr was one of the first Black women dancers at Pacific Northwest Ballet, not the first. Laura Brown was the first, in the corps de ballet from 1980-82.