Art Pulse: Pacific Northwest Ballet’s only Black ballerina is on point about diversity

Amanda Morgan wants choreographers and companies to move beyond the ‘straight white love story.’

From left, Amanda Morgan dancing in Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto, on point at the PNB studio and performing in Kent Stowell’s 'Swan Lake.' (Angela Sterling; Lindsay Thomas; Angela Sterling)

As the only Black ballerina at the Pacific Northwest Ballet, Amanda Morgan has learned to embrace the fact that she’s different.

Since the Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country last summer, she has been an outspoken activist and a force within her own company, pushing the exclusive art form to take a closer look at itself. Morgan joined the marchers in the streets of Capitol Hill and also on the doorstep of PNB, where she called out the lack of diversity in the company, noting that she is the first Black ballerina in 30 years. A video of her speech gained more than 14,000 views on Instagram. 

“It was a lot for me to realize how many people weren't speaking, especially at my own company,” she says. That public calling out led to some serious conversations with PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal about the company’s work on behalf of Black and brown people.

And while the protests may have quieted, for Morgan, the work continues. “I'm doing a lot more in that organization — changing it by talking about these issues — than I am just protesting,” she says. 

Having grown up in Tacoma, Morgan joined PNB’s corps de ballet in 2017. Before that she studied ballet at Dance Theatre Northwest and attended courses at Boston Ballet School and the School of American Ballet. She most recently danced in PNB’s virtual production of Red Angels, by Ulysses Dove.

Now, Morgan, 24, is bringing her voice to the second installment of PNB’s virtual season, Rep 2 (streamable Nov. 12-16), which showcases women choreographers. Alongside works by established artists Twyla Tharp, Jessica Lang, Penny Saunders and Susan Marshall, Morgan will premiere her site-specific work, “This Space Left Intentionally Blank” (presented as “bonus content” for subscribers). 

Morgan sees her piece — the first she’s ever set on PNB dancers — as a sort of palate cleanser at the end of a tumultuous 2020. Set in stadium bleachers, an alleyway, a parking lot and a grove of trees around Seattle, “Intentionally Blank” gives the 12 dancers and the audience space to think freely about what it means to be yourself. “There's not a strict narrative,Morgan says. “It's up for interpretation.”

The ballerina has never let ballet conventions constrict her art. Instead, she’s branched out, starting an Instagram dance initiative called The Seattle Project, with the aim of fostering collaboration among Seattle dancers and making their work easily accessible. Morgan contributes her own short solos to the mix — some filmed in and around her apartment. In 2019 she won the Dance Film Challenge Residency (co-sponsored by Northwest Film Forum and Velocity Dance Center), which resulted in The How of it Sped, a multipart dance film she choreographed. In it, dancers in street clothes perform a series of delicate contemporary ballets outdoors, enhanced by the cityscape’s gloomy skies, lush greens and choppy waters.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Originally from Tacoma, Amanda Morgan has been dancing since she was 2 years old, and joined PNB's corps de ballet in 2017. (Lindsay Thomas)

Originally from Tacoma, Amanda Morgan has been dancing since she was 2 years old, and joined PNB's corps de ballet in 2017. (Lindsay Thomas)

You've been dancing since early childhood. What led you to start choreographing?

One of the reasons was because a lot of times I was not cast or given opportunities to dance [at PNB]. Partially because I move differently than a lot of people in the company — I'm really tall, I'm also a Black woman. There's a lot of things that don't fit in the traditional mold or standard of what we think of as a ballet dancer. So I was like, “I'm going to try to get my voice out there in a different way.”

How has your experience as a dancer affected the way you work as a choreographer?

As a dancer you're used to being told, “This is the role that you're going to do, this is the casting, this is what you're going to learn, this is how you should do it.” It's completely different being on the other side of that. From my experiences being told to be a certain way, I try not to do that with anything I make on people. I want them to do it naturally as they are, because that's the most genuine aspect. Why would I want them to be something other than themselves? Even when I'm setting something on them that's essentially my movement, I want it to slowly turn into their movement as well.

What can you tell me about your upcoming PNB piece, “This Space Left Intentionally Blank”?

In the pieces I've made before, there's always some type of narrative, with actual speech or dialogue. The piece I made before this was “Musings,” for Seattle Dance Collective, which described the Black femme experience specifically in Seattle. I didn’t know what to make after I poured my whole personal self into that other piece. But this piece is much more abstract. I decided this time around that I wasn't going to say anything because I think that's something that people are tending to expect from me now. It's good for me because I'm pushing myself in my choreography to try to do something a little different.

What’s it going to look like? 

My movement is a little more angular this time. It's a little more harsh, and there's this energy behind it that is a little uncomfortable. I kept thinking about the arts community. We're still going, making things, trying to get by, even with all this chaos. At times I think artists, especially ballet dancers, tend to get into this machinelike way of producing work. And because of this pandemic — and that pause — every artist has realized that money is not the reason why they do that, it's because we're passionate about it and because we can express ourselves.

What did you take away from the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer? 

There are a lot of people that support Black Lives Matter, but there is still this tendency for white voices to be centered, which I don't appreciate. I think that we need to focus on centering the Black Indigenous voices. A great thing that I saw was Black people including the Indigenous communities from Washington state in the movement, because it's not just about this, it’s about so many other things.

What would the ballet world need to do for you to be impressed with its commitment to anti-racism? 

People keep thinking you need to hire more Black dancers or hire another Black choreographer, but I think it needs to be throughout every single part of the ballet company. So having more diverse artistic directors. I think Peter [Boal] is a great artistic director and luckily he has these extra talents. But I don't think I can say the same for every single artistic director out there, with all due respect. 

How can choreographers make a difference? 

Choreographers right now are so important — what types of stories they're trying to tell and what dancers they're using to tell those stories — because that's a way that brings in audiences that may not be used to seeing their story or themselves on stage. Not just telling the straight white narrative, the straight white love story. If you keep doing it the same old Eurocentric, old-school type of way, ballet will die. It will actually slowly become less important if they don't start telling different stories.

What were you working on right before the pandemic hit? 

I had my first choreographic show [the film The How of it Sped] at Northwest Film Forum in late February. So the pandemic happened and I was like I'm gonna enjoy this and take time and not freak out. It’s fine, I'm used to things going wrong already. I think that's what people need to realize, especially about Black and brown communities, POC in general. They're used to not feeling part of society, to having things thrown at them left and right.

Do you think about your own art differently now? 

There's times where I don't really feel going to a ballet class is important because I’m needed in other areas of my life. Me not taking a ballet class isn't directly affecting my life as much as me maybe getting my rights taken away. Obviously ballet is important to me and I love it, but I am trying to mend certain ideas of what the ballet world taught me about myself. I’m trying to discredit those ideas because they always told me I was never enough, always. In fact everyone is literally enough, but it's hard to uncondition yourself from thinking that way. I'm trying to slowly go into it with a different mindset. 

You recently performed in PNB’s virtual presentation of Red Angels. How did that feel compared to when you performed it live a few years back? 

That was my first central role I'd ever done at PNB [three years ago]. I remember when I first found out I was cast to do it, I actually started crying. I thought I would never do anything here. That part means a lot to me. Virtually, the energy that you give out has to be a little bit more forced out of you, because it's going through a camera and not to a live audience member. It was also weird because we were rehearsing it wearing masks forever, and then we got on stage and it's like, “Take off your mask just for the run.” Then you do it, there's no applause, they say cut and you put your mask back on and you're done. 

Do you think the coronavirus measures have changed the way people value art and culture? 

I hope that people realize that artists are always the people that are creating hope or inspiring people during tough times. Without artists we wouldn't have movies, we wouldn't have music, we wouldn't have dance, we wouldn't have writing. We wouldn't have so many different types of things that we have constantly been relying on during this time as a way to feel something other than scared or hurt or different.

How do you imagine the art scene will come out the other end of this pandemic?

It's really going to be up to each company, each artist, to push themselves in how they think innovatively and creatively in displaying and showing their art, and having it reach the masses. Dance companies are adapting. They had to adapt. I'm interested to see what will happen when we return live, if all of that online stuff will just disintegrate. Hopefully it stays around in addition to the live dance because then it reaches more people. 

Fill in the blank: 2020 will go down as the year in which Seattle’s arts and culture scene … 

Got a wake up call.

This story has been corrected to note that Amanda Morgan is the only Black ballerina at PNB, not the only Black dancer.

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