As a predominately Black city rooted in a history of leading social justice, Memphis celebrates blackness in unique and creative ways year-long. One outstanding ballet company is on a mission to make the art more accessible. We spoke with Marcellus Harper of Collage Dance Collective, one of the few organizations in Memphis claiming space for Black talent, on his thoughts on the arts in our community.
How does your organization aim to impact the community?
Collage’s mission is to inspire the growth and diversity of ballet. For more than a decade, we have worked to increase access to outstanding ballet training, diversity on professional stages, and participation by people of color at arts events. We know firsthand the power of rigorous arts training to positively impact the lives of young people. It’s our goal to make this transformative training accessible to communities that have historically been denied access.
How has your organization brought change to the community?
When Kevin Thomas (Collage Dance Collective's Artistic Director) and I landed in Memphis in 2007, there were zero professional Black ballerinas working or living here. We established the ballet conservatory in 2009 with one student and in ten years, have grown the conservatory to serve more than 500 kids a week. We train more kids of color in a classical art form than any other nonprofit in the city and have built an acclaimed professional ballet company in Memphis of international dancers of color. We have grown the largest ballet program for boys in the city and have been instrumental in making ballet training in Memphis more diverse than ever before.
How important is it to allow people of color to express themselves through creativity and art?
It’s important for all people to be able to express themselves through art and creativity. It’s important for all people to see themselves and their stories reflected in art and media. It’s particularly important for people of color to do so. Due to systemic racism and oppression, artists of color have often used their art form to give voice to the voiceless and imagine a more just and equitable world. Black people creating art can be cathartic and empowering and it also helps non-Black people to connect with our humanity.
What is so special about Memphis’ culture?
Memphis is home to Elvis Presley, BB King, soul music and the blues. We are at the buckle of the bible belt. It’s a city where people of color are in the majority and the city where Dr. King was assassinated. A city that has incredible pockets of wealth and heartbreaking poverty. A city that many creatives will tell you is sadly divided. A city of stark contrasts. Ironically, the very things that disappoint me about my city, can sometimes create this fertile ground for creatives to create meaningful, impactful work. The creative culture in Memphis is a brilliant mixture of these diverging realities. Like with soul music, you have the convergence of the profane and the sacred. The mixture is what makes it so powerful – so special. You’ll find a lot of that in Memphis. This juxtaposition of grit and smooth; classic and contemporary.
What legacy will you leave for the organization and our people?
We are in the middle of a groundbreaking $11M capital campaign that will allow us to build one of the largest-of-its-kind buildings dedicated to ballet and culture in the South. This barrier-breaking facility will provide a state of the art and safe space for generations of dancers to be exposed to the art form. Kevin and I are not the first Black men to land in Memphis and make ballet accessible to Black and brown youth. There are dozens of pioneers who have come before us – many of whom were never on the mainstream radar and many who were working in times when Blacks were not allowed to participate in ballet. They did this work in their basements, in churches, and in makeshift studios. And unfortunately, when they transition, their work and legacy often fade into the abyss.
Cultural institutions and facilities are important. They tell and maintain the stories of people. There are so many predominantly white cultural institutions (opera houses, ballet companies, museums, symphonies) that are ferociously supported because their communities get this. We need Black cultural facilities too – especially in a city like Memphis, where people of color make up nearly 70%. And they need to be supported with the same vigor and ferocity. This new facility will protect our collective legacy and preserve our stories, so that long after we’re gone, neither can be marginalized nor hidden.
Collage Dance Collective features the grace and athleticism of both Black and LatinX dancers and trains more children of color in the city than any other arts non-profit. They also operate the largest Black ballet school in the South and has the distinction of being Memphis’ first professional Black ballet company.