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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

New Steps for Dayton Ballet: Embracing inclusivity and diversity

 Brandon Ragland, Dayton Ballet's new artistic director, leading a rehearsal.
Kateryna Sellers
Brandon Ragland, Dayton Ballet's new artistic director, leading a rehearsal.

Striving for the ideal body has always troubled ballet dancers. It can be even harder for Black dancers. However, this is changing. The new Artistic Director of the Dayton Ballet, Brandon Ragland, has been part of this shift. For Culture Couch, David Seitz went to a rehearsal and has this story.

In the Dayton Ballet studio, Brandon Ragland is leading a class for the company. Every so often, he pulls aside a dancer and offers gentle corrections. This is what Hailey Flanagan loves about Ragland’s guidance.

Flanagan said, “I’ve never met a director that is so willing to encourage different bodies to move different ways.”

Flanagan just joined the company. She has endured a painful year after major hip surgery. Ragland noticed her doing hip exercises and asked about her surgery. Now he is helping her dance with this different body.

“But the way Brandon gives me corrections,” Flanagan said. “I haven’t been given corrections that resonate with my body post-surgery in a long time.”

Finding representation for body acceptance

Brandon Ragland knows this struggle with the body in the world of Ballet. He grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. The few Black male ballet dancers he saw on TV seemed to fit a body type that wasn’t his.

“They were these, you know, taller, leaner, dancers,” Ragland said. “So I was trying to fit my body into someone else’s body mold, so that was hard.”

Brandon Ragland, Dayton Ballets art director, leading a rehearsal.
David Seitz
Ragland said he used to do difficult exercises hoping he could shape is body into what he thought was the ideal dancer body.

Ragland did difficult exercises that he hoped would reshape his upper body and thighs. Then he met Thaddeus Davis, a principal dancer with the Dance Theater of Harlem.

“He was a football player in college,” Ragland recalled. “So his body was built kind of like very broad up top which is very similar to mine and more muscular thighs which were similar to mine, and he had made that aesthetic work for him.”

Thaddeus Davis mentored Ragland. The young dancer had trouble getting scholarships, so he hustled. With the help of his church, he found funding for the American Ballet Theater program in Alabama, and after college he joined the Alabama Ballet.

Later, Ragland moved on to the Louisville Ballet. He aspired to lead roles there. But when the new artistic director Robert Curran asked Ragland about his goals, he listed all the imperfections of his body.

“He’s just looking at me so puzzled," Ragland remembered. “He looks at me, and he says, “There’s nothing wrong with your body. And maybe I was looking for approval from my white counterparts, but I think I let out a deep sigh because no one had ever told me that.”

Brandon Ragland headshot.
Kateryna Sellers

Leaping through the glass ceiling

Curran cast him as Franz, the male lead in the classic ballet, Coppelia. Ragland was a success, but one incident stuck with him. It was after an open rehearsal for donors.

Ragland described the scene: “And afterwards, you know, I was collecting my things, and I heard what I believed to be an older lady say, 'He was a great dancer, but I just don’t think he could play Franz, like I don’t think I could see anyone of his color playing Franz.' So what shocked me was to say it out loud in a public space. I was like, 'Whoa!' That was a reminder for me that people still are not like used to seeing a Black ballet dancer in a principal role.”

A few years later, when Louisville exploded after the death of Breanna Taylor, Ragland composed a work for the Louisville Ballet that offered a response to this white donor. He collaborated with Black spoken word artists and activists and white dancers in the company to choreograph a piece about Black identity called I Am.

Brandon Ragland in a rehearsal group.
Kateryna Sellers
Brandon Ragland in a rehearsal group.

“There were people who had been coming to the ballet for a while who are fans of my choreographic work,” Ragland said. “They came up to me and said, “You know, I just really didn’t like it. I just didn’t like it. And for whatever reason, I didn’t ask them why. Maybe I should have, but I figured, well then, I did my job because it wasn’t for you to like. It was for you to examine.”

He wants to bring this relevancy to the future for the Dayton Ballet: “To keep ballet relevant and to keep ballet having a voice in today’s society, we have to reflect what’s going on. So my vision for Dayton Ballet is to increase collaboration, bring in new works, particularly works by choreographers of color because I want to provide a platform for them.”

Ragland also has his eye on resetting some classical ballets.

“They don’t always have to be in, you know, Germany, or somewhere European, Ragland said. “They can be right here in our backyards.”

David Seitz learned his audio writing skills in the third Community Voices class. Since then he has produced many stories on music, theater, dance, and visual art for Cultural Couch. Some of these stories have won awards from the Public Media Journalists Association and the Ohio Associated Press Media Editors. He is deeply grateful that most of his stories address social justice issues in a variety of art forms, whether it be trans gender singing, the musical story of activist Bayard Rustin, or men performing Hamilton in prison.