The trajectory of excellence of what is Collage Dance Collective actually begins with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968. Founders Kevin Thomas and Marcellus Harper explain how Arthur Mitchell, who was the first African-American dancer with the New York City Ballet, decided after the assassination to leave his position as principal dancer at that top-tier company, where he had been since the pre-civil rights days of 1955, to start Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), a school and company dedicated to showing that Black people could indeed do classical ballet.
In this film, Thomas tells us that he was empowered by his experience with DTH where he first danced with other people of color. As a young dancer in Canada, he had often been the only boy or person of color doing classical ballet. So when DTH went on hiatus in 2005, Thomas, who was by then principal dancer there, was moved to create another ballet company of color. That year, he and Harper, a native of Washington DC, founded Collage Dance Collective in New York City. Its mission to inspire the growth of ballet led to the company’s relocation to Memphis in 2007 and its addition in 2009 of a conservatory which today serves 215 children. In 2011, Collage also started Turning Pointe, an outreach program that provides students in under-resourced communities with access to classical ballet training and arts enrichment activities.
Collage is committed to extending the reach of classical ballet training and performances and to transforming its community through dance. Thomas says that watching the young dancers perform inspires him. This inspiration arises from seeing their possibilities, what they can do and where they can go, after they begin to understand that they are important and that they count because they have seen someone like themselves on stage. Collage is also reaching non-traditional ballet audiences. Over 50% of performance attendees say that they have never watched ballet before. And, those who have are moved as well. All who watch stories told through dance learn to empathize and understand. What a treat it is to be included in the community that Collage is building here in our city.
We visited rehearsals and a performance of the company and conservatory’s RISE concert. RISE, choreographed by Thomas after an emotional visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, is an ode to Black History month and a celebration of MLK. One piece features the text from King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address. The program traveled to Washington DC after it left here. The work of Collage is inspired and inspirational. We are grateful that Thomas and Harper chose Memphis as the place to build this special community and to be able to witness its rise.