Things to Do

Dance Is Back at the Kennedy Center with Vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello, Tap Star Michelle Dorrance, and a Week of Black Ballet

The arts organization is ready to celebrate its 50th anniversary with a jam-packed dance season.

See the Michelle Dorrance-choreographed The Nutcracker Suite this season. Photograph by Christopher Duggan.

If you’re desperate to see dance beyond watching TikTok, the Kennedy Center has just the thing: live performances. It recently announced the 2021-2022 season with exciting debuts (classical Indian dance company Akram Khan), big-name collaborators (Meshell Ndegeocello), and some reliable favorites (Alvin Ailey, The Nutcracker). Looking ahead to next summer, the lineup also features a special week dedicated to Black artists within ballet, called “Reframing the Narrative.”

In October, New York-based Ronald K. Brown—known for his bold work fusing modern, West African, Afro-Caribbean, and other dance genres—will bring his company, Evidence, to present a trilogy of pieces. Grace and Mercy both tell a mystical story of a goddess seeking to share her gifts on earth. In Grace, hear music by Duke Ellington, Fela Kuti, Jennifer Holliday, and others; Mercy will incorporate a live performance by singer and bassist Ndegeocello. A new work focused on social inequality, called The Equality of Night and Day, features an original score by Jason Moran, the center’s jazz director, with spoken word by Angela Davis. The dancers will “embark on a physical journey towards justice in response to assault that resolves in joy and surrender,” according to the center’s press release.

"XENOS" by Akram Khan. Photograph by Jean-Louis Fernandez.
XENOS by Akram Khan. Photograph by Jean-Louis Fernandez.

That same month, catch an ode to choreographer Paul Taylor’s masterful legacy in modern dance from his eponymous company. See Taylor’s renowned Bach-backed Esplanade, in which he captures the ways pedestrians move, and Company B, a World War II-related piece that the Kennedy Center co-commissioned in 1991. In November, you can watch London-based artist Akram Khan perform the Indian dance kathak in “XENOS,” a work about a colonial soldier in World War I.

In marking the center’s upcoming 50th anniversary, organizers Alicia Adams, vice president of international programming and dance, and Jane Rabinovitz, director of dance programming, also wanted to highlight its decades-long history with prominent companies, like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (February 2022) and the American Ballet Theatre (starting March 2022). Kicking off the festivities in September, Ragamala Dance Company will bring an elaborate water installation to the REACH to perform the free outdoor show, Fires of Varanasi: Dance of the Eternal. The following weekend of fun will feature a family-friendly celebration of National Dance Day (September 18) in collaboration with American Dance Movement and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.

When the holidays hit, there will be not one, not two, but three different Nutcracker shows. In November, the Miami City Ballet will bring the classic George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker; December will see The Nutcracker Suite, a tap-heavy jazz version choreographed by MacArthur “Genius” Michelle Dorrance; and in January, the National Ballet of China will present Chinese New Year (A Ballet in Two Acts), an folkloric adaptation centering the Lunar New Year.

To put together “Reframing the Narrative,” the week of events highlighting Black Ballet dancers, choreographers, and leaders, Adams and Rabinovitz invited two guest curators: Theresa Ruth Howard and Denise Saunders Thompson. Dance legend Howard is the founder and curator of Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting Black ballet dancers and sharing the under-told history of Black dancers within the traditional form. A career arts leader, Thompson runs the Silver Spring-based International Association of Blacks in Dance, a service organization that connects Black artists across dance genres. Howard and Thompson are working with three major companies—Dance Theatre of Harlem, Ballethnic Dance Company out of Georgia, and Collage Dance Collective, out of Memphis. Scheduled for June 2022, the program will emphasize ballet’s varied and diverse roots, spotlighting historic dancers who transformed the form, including Arthur Mitchell, the icon who became the first Black ballet dancer to lead a prominent troupe in 1955 (New York City Ballet) and cofounded Dance Theatre of Harlem.

A.I.M. by Kyle Abraham will dance to D'Angelo. Photograph by Carrie Schneider.
A.I.M. by Kyle Abraham will dance to D’Angelo. Photograph by Carrie Schneider.

Other highlights include: Kyle Abraham, a darling of the field, will get audiences nostalgic with his company’s physical interpretation of the inimitable R&B catalogue of Richmond, Virginia-born D’Angelo (April 2022). Closer to home, there are two Washington-based artists to look for (show dates are still TBD). Quynn Johnson, Howard alum and cofounder of the SOLE Defined, will choreograph a piece celebrating the lesser-known history of Black women in tap. Britta Joy Peterson, a Dance Place artist-in-residence who also teaches at American University, will present a multi-room interactive installation where audiences might “find themselves singing along, dancing with giants, or laying on the grass,” according to a press release.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described the details of the Ronald K. Brown performance. The story has been updated.

Rosa is a senior editor at Bitch Magazine. She’s written for Washingtonian and Smithsonian magazine.