The Black Iris Project Is Shining A New Spotlight On Black History Through Classical Ballet

"To continue pushing boundaries and moving forward, we have to find ways to break that mold."

Choreographer Jeremy McQueen is breathing new life into classical ballet. Through The Black Iris Project, artists and stories of color have taken center stage.

With grants from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, New Music USA, and the CUNY Dance Initiative, McQueen has founded a unique "ballet collaborative and education vehicle which creates new, relevant classical ballet works that celebrate diversity and Black history." 

His project began as an idea for a single ballet three years ago after McQueen learned his mother had breast cancer. While visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art later with a friend, he came across Georgia O'Keeffe's "Black Iris III." 

His mother's illness and that painting inspired McQueen's entry into the prestigious Joffrey Ballet's Choreographers of Color prize. "While thinking more about this painting and knowing how I was feeling about my mother, it all just clicked," he told The Huffington Post. "I needed to find a way to release this frustration, sadness, and confusion through art." 

McQueen's passion and vision earned him the award and the opportunity to bring his idea to life. "The first ballet I ever created en pointe — 'Black Iris' — was a tribute to my mother, my godmother, and my aunt. They have truly been the root of my support system," he told A Plus. "I wouldn't be where I am today without them." 

McQueen's mother with Georgia O'Keefe's painting. "Two of my biggest inspirations," he wrote on Instagram

While the ballet began as a tribute to the women in McQueen's family, it evolved into a tribute to Black womanhood in general after he met Nardia Boodoo, another dancer in the program. Like McQueen, Boodoo was a minority who had beaten the odds to succeed in not just a competitive industry, but an overwhelmingly White one. 

He also met Pierre Lockett while at the Joffrey Ballet, and the trio formed an unbreakable bond. "It was very special and powerful to connect with them and find inspiration and encouragement through one another," he added.

Though winning the Choreographers of Color prize was a major coup — or rather, coupé — it was only the beginning.

Now, McQueen is taking his next grand jeté with The Black Iris Project.

McQueen's desire to celebrate diversity through ballet comes from years of experience. Though he attended a magnet middle school and high school filled with students from many different backgrounds, once he began dancing at the California Ballet School, McQueen realized an unsavory truth: not many other dancers looked like him. Later, he told A Plus, "I was one of two Black ballet dancers at the San Francisco Ballet. It was a challenge." 

Having to navigate different — and often more — obstacles than most of his peers, McQueen found a role model in Jeffrey Gerodias, a successful Filipino-American dancer with The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. "He served as inspiration as a minority that made strides toward being a professional dancer," McQueen said. 

Misty Copeland has also provided inspiration to many young dancers of color, including McQueen. "I think her visibility and talking about what she's gone through has diversified the conversation," he said. "Misty Copeland has definitely opened the door for many of us." 

McQueen applauds Copeland's public participation in American Ballet Theatre's diversity program, Project Plié, and her immortalization in Barbie form as ways for young people of color to see themselves in the arts. But he believes increasing visibility of minority artists isn't enough. "We shouldn't just put Black dancers in White roles and say that's diverse," he said. "It also has to be the subject material." 

Most ballets focus on European-based fairy tales and fables, such as Cinderella and Swan Lake. Despite what Disney would have you believe, not everyone can — or even wants to — relate to those stories. "When I teach young minority students, especially those from low-income families who don't often have the ability to see ballet," McQueen said, "There isn't a strong interest in fairy tales and fables." 

That's exactly why The Black Iris Project isn't just about creating more performance opportunities for dancers of color, but reshaping the dialogue with more narratives that relate to the lives of both the artists and audience. One of his new ballets, Madiba, tells the life story of Nelson Mandela while the other, Brown Baby, centers on model Beatrice Reynolds Cox's evolution to accept her biracial identity.

Because McQueen wants each of his ballets to be an educational tool, he asks himself: "Which types of stories do I think are most necessary right now? Which issues do I feel need to be addressed for young people right now?"

He choreographs with a sense of urgency and importance. In light of the national outcry over police brutality, one of the reasons McQueen chose Nelson Mandela as a ballet subject was because he spent 27 years in prison. "There are so many things someone of any race can learn from his perseverance," McQueen said, "All the challenges he endured and overcame." 

He hopes his audience sees his ballets as a jumping off point that starts a conversation and sparks an interest not just in ballet, but in the people and time periods his work profiles. 

While McQueen's subject material is more modern and realistic, his choreography stays true to classic and traditional ballet. He made this creative choice because so many Black dancers — including himself — are encouraged to pursue only contemporary forms of dance. 

"Even as a kid growing up in dance schools, I often felt pressured by my teachers to join The Alvin Ailey Company," McQueen told A Plus. "I think they were doing that because the company is primarily Black, and they thought I would fit in there but also because of the lack of diversity everywhere else." 

But for McQueen, nothing allows him to express himself the way ballet does. "Classical ballet is something that I've loved since childhood," he said. "It' been the foundation of my career and provided me with discipline and focus."

Instead of avoiding ballet's diversity problem, he has created his own solution.

"We shouldn't have to segregate ourselves. To continue pushing boundaries and moving forward, we have to find ways to break that mold," McQueen told A Plus. "Ballet is an art form that has not been touched in terms of diversification … [It] often seems very elitist, and I'm trying to address that. In other art forms, there's a lot of diverse perspectives that are shared, but ballet targets one primary audience and one primary story." 

McQueen recognizes that for real change to occur, it needs to go beyond the stage. "If they want the audiences to reflect more diversity," he noted, "The administration needs to reflect more diversity."

With The Black Iris Project, he's made a point of working exclusively with minority designers and composers. "All the success of this project is rooted in the team I helped create," he added. "There's something to be said of bringing Black artists together in a unique way." Before meeting Carman Moore, the composer of Madiba, McQueen didn't know of any Black classical composers. He had to do his research, but once he stumbled upon Moore's score, the story and choreography fell into place. 

Besides bringing together dancers, designers, and composers of colors with unique collaboration opportunities, McQueen is also inspiring the next generation.

One of his biggest goals with The Black Iris Project is to encourage young people of color to express themselves to express themselves through the arts. Just this past Saturday, he taught a ballet class for Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City. "They had their annual Empowerment Day, so I went in and taught a master class through Madiba that talked about creativity and individuality," he said. "I taught them ballet, and I also taught them about Nelson Mandela and the things he's been through." 

A little later in the class, McQueen let his students create works of their own before sharing them with each other. 

The Black Iris project also goes to public schools and works with The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. According to McQueen, most of the company's events are free. "We really want to make this project accessible to the public and not just let them see live dance, but also have a conversation about what they're going through and hear what we're going through," he said. 

The Black Iris Project is always looking for new ways to connect with more communities. "It's great to see how our work has already provoked a discussion and inspired young people," McQueen said, "But we're still looking for support. We always need help." Whether that means donating to the project or simply getting the word out, McQueen is grateful for anything that helps him continue to do what he loves for the people he loves. 

"I didn't realize how important this project was until I was doing it ... Despite all the challenges I've faced, I've continued to push through," McQueen said. "I think it's time for a change, and I'm proud to be a part of that."