Returning to the stage is Grace, a moving contemporary ballet by Howard University professor and choreographer, Royce Zackery. In it, the couples dancing tell the story of the strength, perseverance, and elegance of the human condition. In 2017, he staged the ballet on the company after he met Dr. Margaret Carlson at the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference in Cleveland. His resume includes Broadway shows – My One And Only, Oklahoma!, and Anything Goes – and ballet and modern dance companies – Rioult Dance NY, Ajkun Ballet Theatre, and Thomas/Ortiz Dance. He is currently a professor at Howard University he has strong training in ballet pedagogy and a Masters of Arts from N.Y.U. Steinhardt/American Ballet Theater.
Read the interview from 2017 with Victor Lucas of Cleveland Concert Dance on about his inspiration for the work. The interview captures the personal journey that impacted the piece. The company will present this plus two other neoclassical works on the third of our ACCESS/Verb, private livestream performance series, on Friday, October 9th!
Phone Interview by Victor Lucas of Cleveland Concert Dance
Reprint from March 23, 2017
CC: We’ve seen Verb rehearsing your dance, Grace. Is the choreography a music visualization?
RZ: I can’t tell you how many times I listened to the music for Grace. I listened all day, day after day. But I had something else in mind when I selected the music and choreographed Grace. You see, when I was growing up there was a lot of unfortunate illness and death in my family and it was my mother who nursed my father back to health and took care of my grandparents until they both passed away. When my sister passed away in her sleep, it was totally unexpected. My mother and father found her in the morning. But even in the midst of that terrible loss there was a sense of elegance and grace that my mother always had.
CC: And that was your inspiration for Grace?
RZ: Yes, my mother’s elegance, the elegance of women. As I listened to the music for Grace I wanted to hear everything, all the layers, all the nuances.
CC: So, Grace is something of a music visualization, but you also intend it to have an emotional component.
RZ: Yes, exactly.
CC: On the Verb dancers Grace looks very balletic, but in your mind is Grace a modern dance or a ballet?
RZ: I look at Grace as a very contemporary dance, and the dancers need a balance of ballet and modern training in order to execute the movement in a 3 dimensional manner.
CC: How did you get this job setting Grace on Verb?
RZ: I run the dance division at Howard University and Howard has been affiliated with the International Association of Blacks in Dance since the beginning of time. Every year, no matter what city the IABD holds its conference and festival in, Howard sends volunteers to set up the classrooms and organize the students as they come in. In order to promote the value of ballet, I choreographed a work en pointe for the IABD conference in Cleveland last January. As you know, that’s when Verb performed at IABD and so that’s how I met Margaret Carlson (Producing Artistic Director of Verb) and got the opportunity to set Grace on Verb.
CC: We noticed your long time involvement with American Ballet Theater’s Project Plié. That rang a bell for us because when we talked with Virginia Johnson, Artistic Director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, she cited Project Plie as an important training program for African-Americans in ballet. Tell our readers about Project Plié.
RZ: I do liaison and recruitment for Project Plié, which introduces minority students to the study of classical ballet. It gives them a place to go where they can learn respect for themselves and others even if they never become professional dancers.Actually, I came up through a program much like Project Plié when I was growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, the Danseur Development Project, a project of Ballethnic Dance Company.
CC: We were going to ask how you got your start in ballet.
RZ: Yes, they gave me my start. At the 20-year reunion of Ballethnic’s DDP, 3 or 4 of my classmates had gone on to careers in dance but all of them had distinguished themselves academically and professionally as doctors, lawyers, doing big things and giving back to the community.
CC: Please share your perspective on African Americans in ballet with our readers.
RZ: I’m not usually one to speak after Virginia Johnson, but ballet is a difficult culture to fit into, period. And it derives from a European art form, which makes it all the more difficult for people of color to fit the mold. But athletic, skillful, talented, intellectually-inclined, and classically trained African-American dancers have been around for a long time and will continue to be around for eternity.
Virginia Johnson said it best. “A lot about Ballet is about erasing the individual and making you fit into a unified whole… but it’s not about erasing who you are.” I’m in complete agreement with her, being that it’s about making the body the most wonderful it can be within the esthetic of the art form from the tip top of your head all the way down through the tips of your toes. Ever since I was very young my mother and father said to me, “No Matter What, If You Want It, Go Get It!” So, like so many before me I was told time and time again that I couldn’t, so that’s why I did.
Don't miss NeoClassical Lines!
Private live stream performance October 9th at 7:00pm EST
Royce Zackery received a Master of Arts from N.Y.U. Steinhardt/American Ballet Theatre Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions and is certified in the ABT National Teaching Curriculum with a concentrated degree in Ballet Pedagogy. He received a B.F.A. from Southern Methodist University is a proud member of the International Association of Blacks In Dance, ABT’s Project Plié on faculty both at the The Washington Ballet and THEARC Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus. Interdisciplinary driven, Professor Zackery’s research includes brain cognition and bilateralization in human response for injury prevention, efficiency within athletic performance and childhood education (STEAM).
Professor Zackary has more than 20 years of experience as a professional dancer and teacher artist. Naming a few, he has performed in Broadway shows including My One and Only, Oklahoma! and Anything Goes –along with classical ballet and contemporary companies including Ajkun Ballet Theatre, Rioult Dance, Rebecca Kelly Ballet, Thomas/Ortiz Dance, and Ballethnic Dance Company.
Professor Zackery’s choreography, teaching, coaching and directing experience crosses all levels of dance from beginner to professional. He has served as faculty for three of the most prestigious training facilities and programs in NYC know around the world including Broadway Dance Center, The Alvin Ailey Extension Program, and The School at Steps on Broadway. He has also taught dance in public schools, community outreach centers, academies, universities, professional companies, and festivals across the U.S. and abroad. Teaching idioms include Classical/Contemporary Ballet, Contemporary Movement, Jazz, Tap, and Partnering (Classical/ Contemporary).
Currently Professor Zackery is a Tenured Associate Professor and Head Coordinator of Dance Arts for Howard University’s Department of Theatre Arts and Dance Program. Mr. Zackery a grant recipient in collaboration with the Israel Embassy, The Israeli Institute: Schusterman Program and Howard University Dance Arts. He has received choreographic notoriety for works commissioned by the Public Affairs Office of the U.S. & Rwandan Embassy’s. Other commissions include the Kennedy Center, White Nights Festival, Dixon Place, Ajkun Ballet Theatre, Hofstra University, Irondale Theatre, Staten Island Ballet, Loteria Performing Arts and Nomad Contemporary Ballet. He has also created works for international festivals, galas, governmental functions with choreographic premieres in Germany, Russia, New York City, Africa, Mexico City Mexico, California, Ohio, Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Atlanta, Georgia.
Professor Zackery is a strong believer and advocate for giving back to the community and youth of the world through teaching. He travels to Africa collaborating with a New York based international NGO (MindLeaps) that creates educational programs for vulnerable children in post-conflict and developing countries. and train native teaching artists of Kigali, Rwanda. Working with 11 different artists from 5 different countries, he recently premiered a new choreographic work (BABEL) at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Amphitheatre for the Annual Ubunmutu Arts Festival. Here is the resting place for 300,000 victims of the Genocide against the Tutsi. The choreographic creation is collaboratively accompanied by renowned classical pianist, composer, Howard University Professor, and Global Music Award Winner Dr. Karen Walwyn’s masterpiece Mother Emanuel. The works inspiration derives from the Charleston South Carolina Church massacre of 2015. While in Kigali, Professor Zackery also trains native teaching artists of Kigali, Rwanda and mentors orphans and homeless children to help them get into boarding schools, trade schools, and IT programs. Professor Zackery’s teaching philosophy is committed to enriching students’ cognitive development. He believes that unconditional caring, patience and mentorship of young people will ensure leaders of tomorrow.