The Carolina Ballet Theatre had long planned a performance at the Kroc Center to commemorate Black History Month. After all, that fits in with its mission to provide performances and classes to expose people to the art of dance regardless of social or economic barriers. But the theater’s artistic director, Hernan Justo, was at a loss when it came time to create the show. The Argentinian-born Justo had created all manner of productions since joining the Carolina Ballet in 2000, but he was coming up empty this time.
“When the project came along, I really didn’t know if there was a take that I could do,” Justo says. “Because I come from a country where … don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if we don’t have racial issues, but we don’t have as many as America. So when I came here, I had to learn about Black History Month and why it was created. I’m not African-American, so I have no idea what they go through.”
Eventually, Justo turned to what he knew to create the Ballet’s production, which is called “Black & Beautiful: A Tribute to African-American Dancers.” The nucleus of the performance, which takes place in different acts, is a tribute to dancers like Arthur Mitchell and Misty Copeland, who were great influences on Justo’s own career.
“I realized how much African-American culture impacted me in my dancing,” he says. “I realized how much it impacted me in my taste in music, so I did a tribute to all of that. It’s really a tribute to how much African-American culture has enriched America itself. I had to think about what was relevant to me, and it was the great African-American artists in dance.”
The show begins with a piece called “We the People,” in which a solo male dancer traces the history of African-Americans in the United States. “It gives a timeline of how they came to this country and went from slavery to the election of a president,” Justo says. “Along the way there are tributes to Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Martin Luther King, all of these great people. This dancer becomes all of them through till the end.”
“Black & Beautiful” then moves into a section that echoes the great performances of Mitchell and Copeland. Mitchell in particular is a source of inspiration for Justo, who was once able to work with the great dancer. Mitchell’s list of achievements could be an entire article themselves, but among other things, he created a ballet training school; founded the first African-American classical ballet company, Dance Theatre of Harlem; was recognized as a MacArthur Fellow; and has received the United States National Medal of Arts.
He was also one of the most prominent victims of discrimination, at a time and place where things were supposedly changing for the better.
“The first time he did a dance onstage, he did a duo with a white woman [in 1957], and many people were very upset about that,” Justo says. “And this was in New York City, not Alabama. People were upset. And in ballet, when your donors are upset, they can take their money away, which means your company can collapse.”
The concluding performance of the evening will be a popular dance piece set to Queen’s classic hit “Somebody to Love,” a performance that portrays humanity as one universal race and calls for unity.
Justo says the ultimate goal of the show is to demonstrate that African-Americans have as much place in ballet and other forms of dance as anyone else.
“Beauty is beauty,” he says. “You don’t have to have a blond girl to be in ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ As long as you can dance beautifully, that is what is important.”
The Carolina Ballet Theatre presents “Black & Beautiful: A Tribute to African American Dancers”
When: Wednesday, Feb. 28, 7 p.m.
Where: The Salvation Army Ray & Joan Kroc Community Center, 424 Westfield St., Greenville
Info: 864-421-0940, http://carolinaballet.org/