Mental Health and The Black Lives Matter Movement Take Center Stage In Powerful New Ballet

“We really do need a support system of people to help us build back up to where we need to be and where we want to be.”

Choreographer Jeremy McQueen was rehearsing his new ballet A Mother's Rite with dancer Courtney Celeste Spears when Stephon Clark was shot and killed by police in his backyard. News of the tragedy held extra weight for McQueen because his ballet centered on a mother's grieving process after losing her son to police brutality. "We needed art in that moment. We needed dance and movement in that moment to express ourselves because we were just so sad and frustrated," he told A Plus. 

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Now, the founder of the Black Iris Project, an "unapologetically Black" ballet collective, is bringing that art to others who may need it. In New York City's free SummerStage performance on August 16 at Marcus Garvey Park, Spears will embody the Black Lives Matter movement in a powerful 37-minute solo. 

Photo Courtesy of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts

Inspiration for the ballet struck McQueen at a Solange concert in 2017. Though he had begun working on the ballet a year earlier, that all changed when the R&B star performed her song "Mad." 

"I had an entirely different kind of vision of what I wanted to do. I knew that it involved Black lives and a shooting of some sort, but this ballet really transformed when I went to go see Solange," he explained. "... She was talking about 'I have the right to be mad,' she started to get really upset and just engulfed in her experience … and that's when it just kind of hit me. I started thinking about what do we have the right to be mad about as Black people? As a culture? As the individual that she is?" The urgency in her performance spurred McQueen to contemplate the different stories that were meaningful and impactful to him as reasons he, too, had to be mad. 

That, as well as his own father's passing in 2016, compelled McQueen to tell this story through dance. "I started thinking about grief and understanding my mother's process through grief and my process, and before I knew it, I got on the train, and I felt like I had this entire ballet laid out in front of me," he said. "I wanted to share and showcase a mother's grief, a mother's anger — her resentment, her frustration, her sadness, her depression." 

Photo Courtesy of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts

While an artist-in-residence at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, which co-commissioned his ballet, McQueen and Spears worked for about three months straight developing the ballet section by section. He also collaborated with playwright Angelica Chéri to create a fictional story inspired by real events. "We found specific moments in the storyline that we wanted to connect with musically so … we honestly kind of put this together like it was a play," he explained. "... We really wanted to create a sense of authenticity with the story, and we felt like the only way that we could really do that was if we fully developed this idea." 

To that end, McQueen researched the stages of grief so he could bring each one to life on stage. He also read Rest in Power, the autobiography of Sabrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin's mother, to educate himself on the uniquely devastating experience of losing a child to gun violence. "It was a very transformative experience," he explained. "And it's also been very transformative for me learning so much about all the different mothers throughout history that have lost their children to not only police brutality, but also racially based violence and how that is so transformative for the mother and for their families." 

Photo Courtesy of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts

McQueen believes it's necessary to use a traditionally delicate artform like ballet to tell these tough stories because they are more culturally relevant than the fairy tales audiences are accustomed to seeing. "I think we are in this place where especially ballet companies are very much at the forefront of the conversation of wanting to diversify who is in their companies and who we see onstage, but we have yet to really diversify the stories that are being told," he said. "And I think that the spotlight really helps push that conversation even further. It's not just about putting Misty Copeland in a swan costume. We need to also see stories that identify with her community." 

That's why McQueen chose to choreograph to Igor Stravinksy's The Rite of Spring, a score that has been controversial since its 1913 debut during the Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company. "People were booing; people were so upset because Vaslav Nijinsky [the original ballet choreographer] had really gone out on a limb and pushed the boundaries on how the ballerinas did ballet … a lot of the moves were choreographed where the dancers were pigeon-toed," he explained. 

"It's part of what really changed the landscape of classical ballet and how we look at it. Since then, so many different versions of Rite of Spring have been done that have also been extremely revolutionary ... everyone has kind of used this score as a way of pushing culture forward, and pushing dance and movement forward." 

Photo Courtesy of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts

With A Mother's Rite, McQueen aims to add to that forward movement by provoking conversation about how to come together as a community, specifically within the Black Lives Matter movement, but also spark a larger discussion about mental health in the Black community. 

"With the injustices that happen to young Black men and women, we often come together, but we focus so much on informative change — in terms of policy change and fighting against the judgments that have been made — but I think that we also need to look within our community and find ways that we can strengthen one another," he said. "A lot of times these mothers and these families, they go … kind of unrecognized in a sense of what they're going through. I feel like there's been so much happening in our society … that oftentimes we get caught up in the next political headline, or the next headline of the most recent killing, that sometimes people get forgotten or left out." 

McQueen hopes that, by showing an individual go through the grieving process on her own, the ballet will encourage audience members to not only ask themselves how they can build a stronger community, but how to ask others in their community for help. "I think that this ballet kind of provokes that idea of … we can't just do it on our own," he said. "We really do need a support system of people to help us build back up to where we need to be and where we want to be." 

Photo Credit: Argenis Apolinario

He noted how, particularly in the Black community, going to therapy is often considered "as a sign of failure or a sign of weakness." Growing up, he was taught that going to church was all the therapy his family, and the larger Black community, needed. "But as I got older, and I lived in New York City, I realized how important it is for me to have a therapist and ... holistic medicine and health," he said. "It's so much a part of who I am, in addition to my own religious beliefs, as well. I think it supports even more who I am, and now years later, I finally got [my mom] to start going to therapy." 

But it isn't just cultural attitudes that can hold people back from seeking out help, many people simply don't have the financial resources to afford mental health counseling, as McQueen knows all too well. "When we really look at it, there's also a financial demographic that doesn't really make therapy accessible to communities of color," he said. "And so that's one of the biggest things for me is wanting to find a way to be that therapy." 

At one point in his ballet, the mother contemplates committing suicide because she doesn't know how to go on living without her son. "I think, sometimes, we as people may not often see or understand the pain that someone's going through until it's too late," McQueen said. "And so … I wanted [the ballet] to kind of just shine light on mental health. I think we often hear about people after they're gone, but I think there's still so much more that we can do right now to uplift and to support and to encourage people that are going through depression, anxiety, and all of those different things."  

Photo Credit: Argenis Apolinario

The best way McQueen knows how to do that is through ballet. "Dance is my outlet. Dance is how I can feel better because it just — how it allows me to creatively express myself," he said. "That's the beauty of the arts, and I think that's why the arts are so important, and why we really need to continue to grow arts education because it really does have transformative powers." One of the biggest parts of the Black Iris Project is its #artheals message. 

McQueen is committed to using his chosen art form to encourage others to "find something that allows you to express yourselves so that you don't hold on to the anger and resentment and frustration and things that keep you from moving forward in your life." 

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