Feature: Chicago Humanities Festival Elevates Black Chamber Music and Black Ballerinas

Paging Ava DuVernay—the Chicago Humanities Festival has two future film ideas for you. On Saturday, April 27, the vibrant cultural series presented two Lincoln Park events to highlight Black excellence in classical music and dance.

In the afternoon, the Chicago-based Black chamber music group D-Composed performed five songs at the Chicago History Museum. The ensemble offers experiences to reimagine preconceived notions of classical music and to support Black musicians and composers. Two-thirds of orchestral programming in 2021-2022 was composed by deceased white males, and only 2.4% of orchestra musicians nationwide are Black.

“Can you name at least five Black composers?” asked founder and executive/artistic director Kori Coleman, dressed in an orange burnout velvet wrapper, before the performance. She also encouraged audience members to introduce themselves to one nearby stranger so that “we will know people as we take this musical journey.” Then the quartet took to the intimate stage with the Chicago wind hurrying outside the wall of lake-facing windows. From a rotating ensemble of eight, Khelsey Zarraga and Anya Brumfield played violin, Grammy-nominated theater accompanist Tahirah Whittington was on cello with Atlanta native Wilfred Farquharson on viola. The music was on computer tablets and the pages were turned by tapping a flat foot pedal.

The first selection was Chicago Symphony Orchestra composer-in-residence, D-Composed friend and Grammy-winner Jessie Montgomery’s “Break Away: Lilting and Songbird.” Like all the short pieces in this vibrant program, this one is percussive, like a heartbeat. It’s also viola-heavy, evoking a whispery quality reminiscent of intimate conversation. Second was 2022 MacArthur Fellow  Tomeka Reid’s “Prospective Dwellers” featuring soaring cello moments.

D-Composed enjoys collaborations with different media, including painters, puppeteers and children’s book authors, including at Southside children’s libraries with Ahmed Alabaca. His story time medley was as energetic and joyful as a group of young, engaged readers. The seemingly never-ending COVID quarantine inspired Carlos Simon to create “Loop,” a “tormented and hopeful” arrangement for three instruments, sometimes feeling like a frenzied fly.

The final selection was “Klap Ur Handz” from Daniel Bernard Roumian’s Quartet No. 5 called Rosa Parks. Aptly, the musicians encouraged the audience to clap along with the musicians who weren’t currently playing as well as with the changing beats, like a train driving down the tracks towards a more inclusive future. Far from decaying, D-Composed is propelling the chamber music genre into Afrofuturism. Check out their next local gig on May 10.

Swans of Harlem. Photo by Delphine Diallo.

Black ballerina Misty Copeland dances on the powerful, expressive shoulders of her forebears. WTTW news anchor Brandis Friedman moderated an evening discussion at Francis W. Parker School with four former Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) performers and Karen Valby, who wrote The Swans of Harlem: Five Black Ballerinas, Fifty Years of Sisterhood, and the Reclamation of a Groundbreaking History.

As the adoptive mother of two Black daughters who love to dance, Valby felt compelled to unearth these African American classical dancers' rich, yet hidden, stories. She recoiled at the constant tone of surprise in many of DTH’s archival reviews by white critics who were incredulous that Black ballerinas could be world-class talents or even exist at all.

Panelist Sheila Rohan was a founding member of DTH, and Denver native Karlya Shelton-Benjamin started her own photography and design business in 2003. Marcia Lynn Sells called herself “the baby” of this group and is currently the Chief Diversity Officer at the Metropolitan Opera after working as an Assistant District Attorney for the state of New York. In 1975, Juilliard-trained Lydia Abarca Mitchell was the first Black ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, and now is rehearsal director for Georgia’s Ballethnic Dance Company. Another DTH founding member, Gayle McKinney-Griffith, is featured in the book but died in October 2023.

Like in the movie Hidden Figures about the unsung Black women scientists of the US space program, Sells asked, “If we don’t tell our stories, who will?” Shelton-Benjamin added, “Our stories are American history.” Rohan said, “Sure, we had fun. We met all types of celebrities and had fun with fashion, but we worked hard.”

The women trained and bonded together under the iron hand of DTH founder Arthur Mitchell (no relation to Lydia). Community kids flocked to the program too because “they craved structure and discipline.” Mr. Mitchell, as the women still call him, was the first African American dancer with the New York City Ballet in 1955, and often collaborated with choreographer George Balanchine. “He was exacting and merciless, passionate and tough,” Abarca Mitchell said. “He kept his promises and pulled his weight with fundraising.” They took the meaning of family to the next level by assigning mentors, more senior dancer “parents,” to each new arrival, tracked on an elaborate family tree.

These trailblazers felt like they were ambassadors for Black dance in New York, around the US at festivals like Spoleto and abroad for notables like the Queen Mother in England. “Once you’re in, you’re all in,” one recalled. They remembered the mantra for Black Americans everywhere in all professions: “you have to be better than good.” This important history program confirmed that Black women are not only the backbone of American democracy and progressive values, but also of the dance world.

The evening concluded with a brief award presentation to DTH alum and Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center teacher Homer Hans Bryant. Three young Move Me Soul Dance Company dancers, clad in black and white marabou feathers, then performed a whimsical yet reverent tribute to these elder Black swans, choreographed by Artez Jackson. Modern ballerina Misty Copeland is “not a unicorn, or an outlier,” but the next success story in this rich continuum of Black dance excellence.

To experience more Black joy and expression, get free tickets to see “Divination: The Dancing Souls of Black Folk” by the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project at Millennium Park on Saturday, August 24, at 5:45pm.

Deeply Rooted Dance Theater. Photo by Margaret Fox.

Check out upcoming Chicago Humanities Festival programs, including:

Renee Fleming: Music and the Mind on 5/8

Ijeoma Oluo: Be a Revolution on 5/18

Doris Kearns Goodwin: An Unfinished Love Story on 5/21

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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.