Choreographer Jeremy McQueen in the Black Iris Project
Jubal Battisti

“Diversity doesn’t stop with people onstage,” says Jeremy McQueen, a dancer, choreographer and educator. “We need black stories in classical ballet. “Don Quixote, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty are great, but we need stories that will resonate in my spirit and reflect my cultural background.”

McQueen has taken a big step toward that goal by launching the Black Iris Project, a dance collective that draws performers from several leading companies and aims to present works that create an African-American narrative in classical ballet. “Where is the ballet about the lives of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X?” he asks.

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In many ways, Black Iris may represent the next chapter in the diversification of classical ballet. Misty Copeland was a major part of that change when the extraordinary dancer became the  first African American to be named principal dancer in the 75-year history of the American Ballet Theatre, one of the world’s leading dance companies. Copeland’s notoriety has extended well beyond the world of ballet; she’s one of the public faces for athletic clothing company Under Armour, and a Nelson George documentary about her life, A Ballerina’s Tale, was released earlier this year. The movie will share a bill with the New York City premiere of the Black Iris Project at Central Park SummerStage Wednesday night. The bill seems timed to the first anniversary of Copeland’s ascension at ABT.

“Misty Copeland really opened the door,” says McQueen, speaking by phone from his Harlem apartment. “Now we really have the opportunity to create some change.”

McQueen, who is 30, grew up in San Diego. He was inspired to pursue a career in dance after his mother took him to see the touring performance of Phantom of the Opera. He attended the San Diego High School for the Performing Arts and trained at the California Ballet School, the San Francisco Ballet, ABT and Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet. He has danced in many productions, most notably in the touring production of the Broadway hit Wicked.

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Three years ago, McQueen won a prestigious Choreographers of Color prize for his work, Black Iris, a piece inspired by his mother’s battle with cancer (she is now in remission). He saw the Georgia O’Keefe painting of the same name and was moved by the contrasts: “There was a kind of yin-yang element to it,” he explained. He saw his ballet as a story about the sacrifices and the journey of black women in America. He recruited Naida Boodoo of the Washington Ballet to perform the work.

After that, he was eager to continue creating ballets in this vein, so he began fundraising and received grants from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, New Music USA and the CUNY Dance Initiative to start the collective earlier this year. He has recruited nearly two dozen dancers from leading companies like the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dance Theater of Harlem and the Houston Ballet.

In addition to the SummerStage performance, the Black Iris Project will perform at New York Live Arts on July 27 and 28, and next year it will present McQueen’s Madiba, a piece about the life of Nelson Mandela, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

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“Ballet is so visceral,” McQueen says. “It has to tell stories that are rooted in the African-American experience.” He pauses and considers his goal. “I want to create work that is authentic to who I am.”

See video footage of Madiba and movements by members of the Black Iris Project below:

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Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter