As SF Ballet Enters a New Era, Calls for Diversity Reemerge

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A dancer on stage leaps in the air with a red ribbon.
Kimberly Olivier left San Francisco Ballet in 2021 after convening discussions on diversity within the company. (Erik Tomasson)

On June 2, 2020, like many other institutions that Tuesday, San Francisco Ballet’s official Instagram posted a black box, promising to use the time to reflect on “how to commit meaningful change.” For the next week, the Ballet posted various archival panel discussions, links to Black artists in the ballet world, and a statement from its leadership acknowledging Black contributions to ballet. It pledged to share “next steps and actions.”

But as protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder continued all over the country, many employees felt the company hadn’t been doing enough. In their eyes, at San Francisco Ballet (SFB) and in the ballet world at large, an examination of racism was long overdue.

“We had not heard one word, and so just to see it on social media was extremely frustrating,” says former corps de ballet dancer Kimberly Olivier, who stepped away from SFB in 2021 after 12 years with the company. “It was very much so a performative act.”

This inaction brought internal discord, and a letter of demands circulated around the organization. A public Instagram account detailed dancers’ and staff members’ accounts of inequities. Amid the fallout, Executive Director Kelly Tweeddale, hired in 2019, stepped down in 2021.

Fast-forward to 2022, and the English National Ballet’s Tamara Rojo has been appointed to succeed longtime Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson. Rob Sánchez Nelson has been hired in a new role as the chief diversity officer, and an executive director hiring is imminent. And as the 89-year-old institution enters a new era, its leadership has an opportunity to make good on the promises it made during the racial justice uprisings of 2020.

Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson works with dancers on stage during a rehearsal for 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, on Wednesday, March 4, 2020. (Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

‘I Felt Very Alone’

As the momentum from 2020’s protests waned, Olivier felt frustrated with SFB leadership’s lack of initiative. The dancer decided to call a meeting in June 2020, which about half of the company’s dancers attended over Zoom. SFB leadership followed up with additional meetings open to all staff, which former Diversity Executive Toni Wilson, former Executive Director Kelly Tweeddale, and soon-to-be former Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson attended. (According to Olivier, Tomasson only came for one or two meetings.)

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As one of only three Black-identifying company members at the time, Olivier found herself shouldering the task of representation. “I felt very alone, and I felt like there was a huge burden for me to represent the dancers,” says Olivier. (In full disclosure, I trained with the San Francisco Ballet School 10 years ago, and as a Black-identifying person, I recognize the dynamic that Olivier describes, both in the classroom and on stage.)

In December 2020, an anonymous group of dancers and other employees wrote a letter to SFB leadership with a list of demands. They also created an Instagram account, @sfballet2021, to air their grievances and those of others. Posted without attribution, the grievances described a company that hadn’t valued the contributions of Black and brown staff, though it featured them prominently in marketing materials.

Other posts accused SFB of failing to meaningfully engage with diverse choreographers, and took issue with the company selecting works that perpetuated racist and sexist tropes. Several posts charged that SFB’s leaders, most of them white, were treating DEI work as an afterthought. (The Instagram account has been inactive since February 2021, and messages to the account from KQED went unanswered. No current dancers with SFB who were contacted agreed to be interviewed.)

The @sfballet2021 Instagram page also publicly listed the internal letter’s demands. Those included SFB issuing a public apology to BIPOC employees, publishing an annual DEI report, requiring 13% of employees at all levels of the organization to be Black, releasing employees from nondisclosure agreements, hiring a Chief Diversity Officer, and creating safe spaces and funding for Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to support employees of color.

(Talks of a proposed meeting between the employees behind the letter and SFB leadership broke down, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, when the employees wanted to preserve their anonymity by meeting through a mediator, and leadership wanted to meet face-to-face.)

The letter additionally called for the resignation of Executive Director Kelly Tweeddale. Upon Tommasson’s announcement that his tenure would end in 2022, the group also demanded transparency in the succession plan for the next artistic director.

A Black woman in a black turtleneck in a black-and-white headshot pose.
Theresa Ruth Howard is a former ballet dancer and diversity strategist. The New York Times calls her 'one of the most vocal proponents for racial equity in ballet.' (Eva Harris)

Dismantling Ballet’s ‘Antiquated Culture’

Tweeddale stepped down in June 2021, and Rojo, who was unavailable for an interview for this story, was appointed last month. But uncertainty remains about the lasting effects of these changes in leadership—partially because the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) process can often appear abstract.

For clarity, I spoke with Theresa Ruth Howard, a former ballet dancer and now an independent diversity strategist based in New York. As the founder of Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet (MoBBallet), a collective of artists that “preserves, presents, and promotes the contributions and stories of Black artists,” Howard has worked closely with numerous ballet companies, including SFB, to facilitate their DEI strategy and process. The New York Times calls her “one of the most vocal proponents for racial equity in ballet.”

Years of conversations with dancers, artistic and executive directors, and the boards of companies have given Howard insight into ballet companies’ slow pace of change. She encourages ballet companies to go beyond “difficult conversations” and take concrete steps to dismantle what she calls the “antiquated culture” of ballet.

Part of Howard’s work is bridging the gap between a company’s culture and its board of directors, who hold a great deal of power over company leadership and monetary donations—but are often disconnected from the daily work.

In order to reach the deepest levels of change, “you need to talk to the most vulnerable person in the organization to really understand the culture,” says Howard.

Tamara Rojo (center) as Frida Khalo with artists of the company in English National Ballet's production of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's 'Broken Wings' at Sadlers Wells Theatre on April 12, 2016 in London, England. (Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty Images)

A New Chief Diversity Officer

Interim Executive Director Danielle St. Germaine-Gordon says that SFB is committed to the DEI process “for the long haul,” and cites Howard’s collaboration with the company as invaluable. Throughout late 2020 and early 2021, SFB created longer-term working groups as part of their Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity, and Access (IDEA) initiative, which included dancers and other employees of the organization.

As part of their commitment to DEI work, SFB has hired their first-ever Chief Diversity Officer Rob Sánchez Nelson in Oct. 2021, “and we have an intentional focus to bring more diversity into our leadership positions,” says St. Germaine-Gordon.

Sánchez Nelson has a background in LGBTQIA+, housing and disability rights advocacy—not ballet or the arts. But that also means they aren’t as entrenched in the art form’s norms and biases. “[SFB] really wanted a fresh approach,” they say.

Sánchez Nelson wants to expand and give more power to employee resource groups, and complete SFB’s first-ever annual diversity and equity report, which will include a full demographic survey. Acknowledging the lack of communication between the employees and the board, Nelson sees themself as the liaison between the two groups. They say staff wants to see more transparency in communication from leadership. 

“There is a history of information being siloed,” they explain.

Sánchez Nelson participated in the interview process in Tamara Rojo’s hiring, and they anticipate being part of SFB’s search for a new executive director.

Rojo, who is Spanish-Canadian, is the first woman to hold the position of artistic director at SFB. Nikisha Fogo’s recent appointment as principal dancer means there are two Black-identifying dancers in the company instead of one. SFB has also recently partnered with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to develop a fellowship for Black musicians.

At the moment, the executive directorship is yet to be filled, which means there’s another opportunity to diversify leadership and implement lasting DEI policy. And there is much to be anticipated in terms of featured artists and choreographers for the 2023 season.

“We can’t do anything externally until internally we are on solid foundation,” Sánchez Nelson cautions.

A Hope for More Representation

As for Olivier, she felt that during her time at SFB, the organization never got beyond the “difficult conversations” phase of the DEI process. Additionally, Olivier says, “There was a huge separation between what the dancers could know and what you know, those in leadership executive positions knew.”

Olivier left SFB last year. And while she has not been invited back as a consultant for their DEI process, she does hope to see more Black and Brown representation on stage and for BIPOC voices to be heard.

“So much healing could happen by small gestures and invitations,” Olivier says, adding that ultimately, SFB left “a lot of voices unheard, including my own.”

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