Diversity, Equality and Inclusion at Elmhurst Ballet School

Tuesday November 10th 2020

Throughout October we commemorated Black History Month and reinforced our commitment to seeing a more inclusive landscape across our Edgbaston, Birmingham home.

We continue to engage in local, national and international conversations to ensure our activity that tackles issues around diversity, equality and inclusion aligns with those of our multicultural home city, the pledges of the wider dance and arts sector and the global rhetoric that is justly demanding change.

Jessica Wheeler, Principal of Elmhurst Ballet School, said:Although at Elmhurst we recognise the monumental importance of Black History Month, we want to exceed this once a year moment and embed our conversations and actions into the whole school calendar and beyond.

By engaging in open, honest and collaborative dialogue with Board members, staff and students, it is our aim to see the entire school community work together and create an environment that is safe, fair and inclusive. We want everyone who walks through our doors to feel represented by what they see and do in our studios and classrooms. We want to keep finding ways through, for example, networking and outreach work, to encourage and support more Black, Brown and Asian students to feel confident about pursuing a career in dance.”

Home to almost 200 UK and international full-time students, Elmhurst trains professional dancers to take their places on the world stage. As the world justly focused on the tragic death of George Floyd and sadly others before and after him, the pace of the anti-racism Black Lives Matter protest increased and Elmhurst stood in solidarity with the entire Black community. Along with its many dance associates and friends, the school acknowledged it was time to reflect on its own practice, educate the entire school population and learn from partners whose call-to-actions have already garnered attention for galvanising change in dance and further afield.

The opportunities to reflect, educate and learn during Black History Month, complemented and built on past activity at the school. Theresa Ruth Howard is a diversity in dance advocate, consultant and strategist and assists arts organisations to better understand, design and implement Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programmes and initiatives. She is the founder and curator of Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet, a digital platform established to preserve, present and promote the contributions and stories of black artists in ballet.

Howard’s relationship with Elmhurst began in summer 2019 after Wheeler was captivated by her keynote speech during the Young Talent Festival Symposium at the Royal Opera House in London. Later that year she was invited to the school to engage with all students and staff and worked directly with the Upper School on the students’ perceptions of diversity culture, aesthetics, genderism and personal development in ballet. Elmhurst continues the conversation with Howard, most recently during Black History Month.

In September 2019, Snéha Khilay, Managing Director of Blue Tulip Consultancy, captivated and inspired all staff during a bespoke training day on diversity, equality, inclusion, unconscious bias, bullying and harassment.

In October 2020, the school welcomed more prominent guests who offered their perspective and narrative to inspire students and staff to delve deeper into Black History. Doctor Rob Power of Powerful Histories is a strong advocate for social justice and an expert in Black History and African History. He worked with Elmhurst students to promote an awareness of the history of racism and the Black presence in Britain.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Director, Carlos Acosta CBE, also a Vice President of the school, and Principal dancer Brandon Lawrence presented a socially distanced open rehearsal at Elmhurst, just days before the company returned to the stage and in front of a live audience for the first time in seven months. Lawrence, a Principal dancer at Birmingham Royal Ballet, recently worked with spoken word artist Davy Lazare. The two artists from polarised art genres worked together to co-produce and co-star in BODIES. The film, recently nominated for Best Microshort Film at this year's Birmingham Film Festival is a ‘dance expression driven by spoken word poetry, reflecting the nightmares of today’s world on racism and hate’.

Students watched the film in Elmhurst’s theatre space on Saturday 14 November and enjoyed an inspirational Q&A with Davy on Zoom, and Brandon in person at the school. They were also joined by the film’s producer, Kim Lawrence, and composer and musician, Alexia Bergman.

In Elmhurst’s almost 100 year history, the population of the school has been predominantly white, echoing the ballet sector as a whole. The school has been working to improve representation across all areas of its community, which has changed significantly over the past few years. Determined its drive for change is more than a lip service, Elmhurst is committed to being part of sector-wide conversations and actions helping to realise equity in dance and dance education. The school is inspired by the work and voices of a growing number of individuals and organisations including Ballet Black and their ‘Equality Resources’ and most recently Scottish Ballet’s ‘commitment to anti-racism in ballet’.

Closer to home, Elmhurst’s links with Birmingham Royal Ballet and its Dance Track talent identification initiative has become a pathway for young Black and Asian dancers to progress to the school’s Elmhurst Young Dancers programme- weekend classes in Birmingham, Manchester, Sunderland and Plymouth, leading to opportunities to audition for a full-time place at a vocational school.

Wheeler, adds:There is still so much more to do to see diversity and equality in ballet and dance education. We are not perfect, but along with so many partners and allies, we are passionate and driven to implement change, not only for the good of the school but for the greater good of society. We will continue to learn from positive actions happening across the professional setting. By bringing these ideas back to our board room, studios and classrooms we can shape our own strategies and practice and continue to turn out students into dance companies and the wider world with shared values and goals.”

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