Celebrating Juneteenth at PBT with Corey Bourbonniere and Reframing the Narrative

Emancipation Day is celebrated in 1905 in Richmond, Va., the onetime capital of the Confederacy. Library of Congress. Photo courtesy of NPR

Juneteenth National Independence Day, is a holiday in the United States that is celebrated annually to commemorate the end of slavery in America. It celebrates June 19, 1865, when the final enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation was ordered in Texas at the end of the American Civil War.

Arts organizations and professionals across the country often commemorate the holiday (and often all of June or the summer months) with performances and exhibits highlighting Black artists.

Artist: Corey Bourbonniere | Photo: Duane Rieder

Corey Bourbonniere, a Soloist with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, has been an active participant in several of these celebratory events over the past few years. In 2022, they worked with Theresa Ruth Howard and MOBBallet to debut Reframing the Narrative at The Kennedy Center. This program included the world premiere of Donald Byrd’s From Other Suns, featuring resident Black artists, including Corey, who work in predominantly white companies, and who had the opportunity with this program to be in an entirely Black creative space as they built and performed this ballet.

This summer, Corey is participating in Theresa Ruth Howard’s Pathways to Performance: Exercises in Reframing the Narrative, and it is a culmination and continuation of the aforementioned programs. It will be shown at both The Kennedy Center and Jacob’s Pillow this summer and will feature newly commissioned works by Jennifer Archibald, Portia Adams, Kiyon Ross, and Meredith Rainey, as well as excerpts of Donald Byrd’s From Other Suns. It is an opportunity to showcase the works of some established Black choreographers, as well as choreographers who were mentored in MOBBallet’s Pathways to Performance symposium.

Watch From Other Suns World Premiere

Below they share their personal experiences and insights.

In the studio rehearsing Pathways to Performance for Pillow Lab ’24

Why is Reframing the Narrative important to the dance world and in life?
Reframing the Narrative was such a monumental program, as it lifted up and celebrated the contributions of Black ballet dancers to the art form. Denise Saunders Thompson curated the portion of the program that featured predominantly Black companies, including Dance Theatre of Harlem, Collage Dance Collective, and Ballethnic, while Theresa Ruth Howard curated the residency that I was honored to be a part of, which involved the creation of Donald Byrd’s world premiere ballet From Other Suns. He created this on 11 Black dancers, myself included, who dance in companies in the US and abroad where we are one of a few, or the only Black dancer in our ranks. With the outcries for racial justice happening around the country, it was such an important moment personally to be surrounded by Black creatives and to feel like I could just be, without the sort of armor and pretense that I’ve felt in predominantly white ballet spaces. There was such an environment of support and healing in working with Theresa and the other residency artists that I feel emanated from the stage during our performances. To be able to perform on the nation’s stage in my truest form, feeling that my identity and worth were essential to the program was everything. I think it was a critical moment for the ballet community to be able to see us in that light. We are so much more than the limitations often put upon us by the ballet community at large.

What did it mean to you personally to be a part of this incredible project?
Theresa Ruth Howard is such an important figure in the ballet field right now. She’s someone who’s seen the need for Black ballet dancers to be seen and celebrated, she’s seen the need for Black choreographers in ballet to be taken seriously and to hone their choreographic and business skills, and she’s created the perfect avenue for both missions. When I worked with Theresa on

Artists: Corey Bourbonniere and Miranda Silveira Templer

Reframing the Narrative in 2022, it was the first time as a Black dancer that I’d ever been in the majority in a room of ballet dancers, and the first time I’d ever been in a room of only Black ballet dancers. I have worked with some Black choreographers and teachers in the past, however, this was the first time I’d performed to a piece of music composed by a contemporary Black composer (Carlos Simon), the first time I had worked with a Black lighting designer (Pamela Hobson), a Black stage manager (Nicole Walters), a Black conductor (Leslie Dunner). And beyond the monumental “Blackout” that was curated for this program, we had so many moments to be in community with each other as artists who work in typically white spaces. It was extremely healing to be in a space where I didn’t feel like the only one, or one of few, and where I felt that my talent and my identity were wholly appreciated. I felt that my Blackness became irrelevant and that I just was able to be more of myself. It was the first time in my professional career that I really felt celebrated for being exactly who I am. There are no words adequate enough to explain what that experience has done for me personally and professionally. I am forever grateful.

How has it inspired you and your work moving forward?
Being a part of this program taught me so much about the way I want to carry myself in the studio. Theresa often would talk about what it means to be a good citizen. How can we move more in the direction of one another in an art form that constantly pits us against one another? There is a culture in ballet of infantilization, suffering in silence, and hyper-competitiveness that didn’t permeate this space. I felt like I really had a voice in the studio and in the process. On top of that, I feel like the dancers all supported each other in a way that I’ve continued to try to emulate in my regular work. Donald Byrd would give some extremely challenging prompts in the process of building his work, and it felt overwhelming trying to retain all of the choreography, especially early on in the process. What was beautiful is that the dancers in that space wouldn’t leave anyone high and dry. If someone was struggling with the choreography, we found ways to support each other, to share information, to build each other up. It was so atypical of a usual studio environment, where if you can’t keep up, it can often feel isolating and anxiety-inducing. I’m now so much more conscious of the way that I show up for my peers in the studio because it’s so important to me to try to spread that sense of support and community.

MOBBallet members posing on Pillow Rock, a tradition for visiting artists at Jacob’s Pillow.

What do you hope people take away from Reframing the Narrative?
I hope with this program, and with the upcoming Pathways to Performance: An Exercise in Reframing the Narrative, that we do away with notions that ballet doesn’t belong to certain people. Black people are often put into a box of what is and isn’t appropriate or possible for them, and this holds true in ballet as well. Too many talented, capable Black dancers are often held to a different standard than their white peers, and I think it’s time we do away with that. The same is true for choreographers, which is why I’m so excited that Theresa has curated yet another program to highlight the works of both established and emerging Black choreographers, whose works will feature many of the dancers involved in the RTN residency, as well as some new faces. It was important to Theresa to develop the artistic voices of up-and-coming Black choreographers who have backgrounds in ballet, but are often pigeonholed into creating works for ballet companies in the “contemporary” or “modern” form, and who don’t often get the opportunity to create in the ballet vernacular. This program is in partnership with the Kennedy Center and Jacob’s Pillow and will premiere at both this July. Theresa is looking at the areas of the ballet field that are underserved or underrepresented, and she is creating opportunities for Black artists and creatives to collaborate and develop bodies of work that will be stamped into the ballet archives. I think we can all learn a lot from the work that she’s done and continues to do. We’ve created this culture of exclusivity and uniformity, a culture of white supremacy, and Theresa is showing the ballet community that we can create one of inclusion, of community, of celebrating diversity and individuality, and of radical empathy.

Watch Reframing the Narrative Documentary

Photos Courtesy of @miranza_s Instagram

Additional Links and Information for Reframing the Narrative and Pathways to Performance:

Juneteenth Resources:

The Lift Every Voice drumline marches down Fifth Avenue during Pittsburgh’s first Juneteenth-Voting Rights Parade in 2023. Photo courtesy of TribLIVE