How the Atlanta Ballet is working to become more diverse

A conversation with executive director Tom West

Atlanta Ballet begins to diversify
La Sylphide

Photograph courtesy of Atlanta Ballet

Seven months into his tenure as executive director of Atlanta Ballet, Tom West saw a line item on the pay scale that didn’t seem right. Dancers entering the company under its apprentice program were paid less than $500 a week.

Company leaders noted that apprenticeships are standard practice in the field. But the low-paying program was one of several barriers faced by young dancers from historically underrepresented communities—the very dancers Atlanta Ballet has struggled to attract. Atlanta’s population is close to 50 percent Black, and until recently, Atlanta Ballet’s roster had only a token few Black artists.

Since 2018, Gennadi Nedvigin, artistic director of Atlanta Ballet, and Sharon Story, dean of the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Education, have searched for dancers of color, hosting auditions and traveling to competitions worldwide. At home, Story built Decade 2 Dance, an enhanced scholarship program for students from historically underrepresented communities. But the program’s top graduates often chose college over ballet careers, which promise little financial security.

Last season, Atlanta Ballet eliminated its apprentice level, so all first-year company members would earn a living wage. The move, which has started national conversations, made Atlanta Ballet a more attractive option to talented young dancers by showing that ballet could be a viable profession.

The company began to appear more inclusive in September, when eight Black-identifying dancers appeared in La Sylphide. And now, Atlanta Ballet’s main company has three Black artists, and Atlanta Ballet 2, a training company at the school’s top level, has six—one-third of its dancers. They’ll appear in productions throughout this season, including The Nutcracker, Coco Chanel: The Life of a Fashion Icon, Cinderella, and, in May, Liquid Motion, which features world premieres by Juliano Nuñes and Claudia Schreier.

West, the company’s executive director since 2021, is a former actor and top-level arts administrator. Most recently, he served as chief advancement officer for the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, where he successfully connected underrepresented storytellers in the film industry with jobs in major motion picture studios. He talked with Atlanta about the challenges of making a Eurocentric art form reflect a culturally diverse society and some of the forces that are holding back real creative change.

The pandemic and two years of Nutcracker losses (a budget shortfall of almost $1 million in 2021 and $900,000 in 2022, following a move from the Fox Theatre to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre) have struck a major blow to the organization’s financial resources. Atlanta’s Black communities have called out Atlanta Ballet’s scant representation of Black dancers onstage. Amid these challenges, what have been your first steps toward increasing diversity?

The first thing was to learn what was important and listen to the staff, to the team, to the community, and then figure out what making an impact meant. It typically takes about 10 years for a young woman to become a ballerina. If the mandate were, Can you make the company X percent Black in three seasons?, the answer is probably that it’s not possible.

If you go out to competitions [and] auditions, there are not enough Black dancers to meet the demands of every company in the country. We are competing against companies that are larger and more resourced than we are. So, when we make a financial offer, it is up against these larger companies. Rarely do we win. So the focus then was very much on training the next generation.

You formed a task force for building Atlanta Ballet’s Academy into a destination for Black and Brown dancers training for professional ballet careers. You have consulted with community leaders and teachers from internationally regarded dance institutions. How have their perspectives challenged your assumptions?

A colleague at the school of a prominent dance company got us all thinking that you can address finances, housing, transportation, and culture, but you really have to get to relevance for a young person’s life and for their family and friends and peers. So how does pursuing a career as a ballet dancer become cool? This is a huge challenge and something we’re working on. If any one of us solves it, we will change the dance landscape.

How do you create a broader belief that ballet is for a diverse audience?

We are approaching it in a couple of different ways. One of the ways is who they see onstage. Two is what they see onstage. There are two Black choreographers on the program this season, both with world premieres. One [by Claudia Schreier] is focused on jazz.

So it’s not about changing the art form; it’s about expressing it through different creators. One of the big conversations about representation in film was not just about what was on the screen, but who gets to tell the story and what stories get told. Gennadi has been very purposeful about seeking out choreographers of color with different perspectives. It’s who’s creating, it’s what they’re creating. And then, in the case of jazz, it’s finding another entry point into the art form.

What financial challenges do you face here?

Atlanta’s a little different from other markets that I have worked in. With the exception of our friends at the Woodruff [Arts Center], the arts are not invited to the table. If you look at the Rotary, Leadership Atlanta, the Chamber of Commerce—which has no programs that are related directly to the arts—those are places that we have to tackle first. When you can create a sense of inclusion in the arts, you are also creating a sense of inclusion in the civic life of a city. I think that the support level for the Woodruff is appropriate. However, other arts organizations in this region are deeply undercapitalized, including many led by Black and Brown leaders. You’re going to start to see arts organizations come together to try and help raise the tide for the entire arts community.

This article appears in our December 2023 issue.