The Black Iris Project

When we think of ballet, we may think of tutus and pointe shoes, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake—and hopefully, of Misty Copeland and the other rare black ballerinas who have risen to prominence in the genre. But while we celebrate the accomplishment of seeing black and brown faces take center stage, rarely do we consider the details of the often arduous journey it takes to get there.

Similarly, when we consider the suffering of black mothers who have lost children to racially motivated crimes—especially those who have gained national visibility in the aftermath—we rarely consider the non-public moments of grief; the everyday acts that suddenly become acts of survival in the face of unfathomable loss.

A Mother’s Rite is a new ballet that traverses the traditional boundaries of the genre, telling a story that has becomes painfully common: how a black mother copes with the loss of her child to a racially-motivated murder.

Created by dance collaborative the Black Iris Project and co-commissioned by the Bronx Museum of the Arts and 651 Arts, the ballet makes its premiere this Thursday, August 16, at Summerstage in New York City’s Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. In anticipation of the premiere, choreographer and Black Iris Project founder Jeremy McQueen and playwright Angelica Chéri recently spoke with The Glow Up to explain the inspiration and creation behind the piece,

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In creating A Mother’s Rite, McQueen and Chéri researched the experiences of many of the women now dubbed the “Mothers of the Movement,” including Sybrina Fulton (mother of Trayvon Martin) and Gwen Carr (mother of Eric Garner)—both of whom they attempted to interview. The resulting ballet is a composite of various stories of the experiences of bereaved mothers, but also found inspiration in a much earlier source. As McQueen told us:

Mamie Till losing her son was the first time that I can remember or recall hearing about in American history where it was elevated on such a dynamic platform, because she had decided to show her son’s face and body with an open casket, and she wanted society and the people to see what happened to her son .... she wanted to make that very public. And also, there were still many just really heart-wrenching pictures of Mamie Till following the casket or being at the funeral, at the viewing. I feel like it was the first time that I could remember seeing from that time period, a black woman so raw ... I feel like it really opened the door for so many other conversations that we’re having right now about death and mourning and loss and police brutality and racial violence.

But while McQueen had long known he wanted to create a narrative that centered the assault on black lives, it was a Solange Knowles performance that served as a catalyst for A Mother’s Rite, in a sense, giving him permission to channel our collective rage into a powerful performance.

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“Her presence, her energy, it just took me by storm in ways that I had not anticipated,” he said.

The result is a 37-minute solo ballet, set to Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and danced by Alvin Ailey dancer Courtney Celeste Spears. that takes the audience on a journey through one mother’s grief as she attempts to process the sudden loss of her 19-year-old son—and find the will to continue in his absence.

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For Chéri, it was the shock of the loss that formed the basis for her narrative—her first non-verbal narrative. As she told us:

It wasn’t the conventional construction of narrative that I’m familiar with, which is communicating through language; it was mostly about crafting the depth of the narrative underneath the story and thus hoping that all of that detail would translate. ... we tried to make her—the mother—as three-dimensional and real as we could. ...

I think one of the things—one of the horrors of police brutality and violence of all kind, and racism of all kinds—these hate crimes and attacks of hatred is that they happen in the most benign, out-of-nowhere moments. In the blink of an eye, all of sudden your entire universe is changed. All of the sudden you’re pinned up against the car; all of a sudden you’re handcuffed; all of a sudden you’re being shot. And I think that’s been the same cycle of terror is one that has fallen on many children of black women and then, thus given to the black women ... in the blink of an eye, their entire universe has changed, and then they have to shift towards this constant state of reminder that we are being terrorized in our own countries, homes, churches, everywhere—there’s this idea that nowhere is safe, and at any moment the worst can happen and things can change drastically.

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To bring Chéri’s vision to life, McQueen and Spears worked to use “nuance and gesture and facial expression and physicality of movement to slowly bring to life this idea.” Though younger than the woman she portrays, Spears channels the anguish of a mother’s grief, as McQueen explains:

I think the biggest thing for Angelica and I has been sensitivity; wanting to authentically portray the story but also be sensitive to the mother’s experiences, because these are real experiences that people are going through. So I think we’ve had to both dig from our own personal experiences of loss and grief to be able to bring that to life in a respectful way. ... How can I make this tangible and something that’s meaningful to the black community—my community?

This is the crux of McQueen’s work with the Black Iris Project, as well; the ballet-based collaborative was founded to bring together black artists of different genres to create new ballets “that are rooted in black history and/or the black experience,” as McQueen explained:

Ballet, particularly, it does not often create works that reflect our race, our culture. Classical ballets are generally based on your Europeans fairytales and fables—not to mention there are very few black ballerinas and black male dancers in various ballet companies around the country. So this collective brings those dancers together to create a sense of community and also to bring about awareness of each person’s individual journey and story going through the ballet system as “token.”

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The premiere of A Mother’s Rite will be performed in tandem with the Black Iris Project’s 2016 ballet Madiba, in honor of the one hundredth anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birthday this summer. And though A Mother’s Rite is based in tragedy, McQueen and Chéri also want audiences to understand that there is also rebirth to be found, as symbolized by the white roses that punctuate the performance.

“There is life that comes through unfortunate circumstances,” McQueen said. “Now we transform that life into something positive.”