An interview with Evanston resident Kara Roseborough, a Black ballerina, and the play's main character
-- Photo by Samantha Dauer
Professional ballerina Kara Roseborough plays the lead role in her father Tim Rhoze and Piven Theatre Workshop's Stephen Fedo’s play, “Black Ballerina,” which ends this afternoon at Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre after a sold-out run and rave reviews.
The 23-year-old Evanston native began movement classes at age three at the Robert Crown Community Center. At six, she began her formal ballet training at Dance Center Evanston and attended the Chicago Academy for the Arts and the University of Utah.
Next Spring, Roseborough will dance for South Side Dance Company.
She spoke with Dear Evanston intern Trinity Collins last week.
DE: What got you started in dance?
KR: The first time I ever saw dance, I was watching Sesame Street, and there was a special with Dance Theatre Harlem on. Dance Theatre Harlem is a predominantly African American company, which is very rare in the world. It was being featured on Sesame Street, and I just lit up. So, [my parents] kept that in mind when I was actually old enough to get signed up for classes.
DE: How did race impact your experiences growing up as a dancer in Evanston?
KR: I will say, I think I was very lucky in that I had both of my parents in the arts; they were very supportive. I’m sure they knew very early on that being a Black ballerina -- there are Black ballerinas out there, but because we are so few and far between -- the journey is just so different. It’s definitely filled with extra obstacles than our white counterparts have or even dancers of other races. It’s just a different journey for us. But I never had the sense of I couldn’t do it or just how difficult it might be until much later on in my youth.
I remember the first time I realized that I was different. It was in the middle of a ballet class at Dance Center Evanston. It just hit me for the first time: “Oh, I’m the only one that looks like me in this class.” It wasn’t a good thing or a bad thing; it was just a fact. But I felt very encouraged by my teachers. It had never really been stated to me like, “Oh you're a Black ballerina, this is very different.”
Béa Rashid took me under her wing when I got to Dance Center Evanston. She did pull me aside at one point before I went to a summer intensive at Hope College. She told me, basically, "from this moment forward you aren’t going to see a lot of dancers that look like you, but don’t let that discourage you. Keep going." At the time, I didn’t really understand why she was saying it ... but it ended up being something very meaningful to keep in mind as I went to other schools and started dancing professionally.
It’s definitely been an ongoing conversation I’ve had with my parents, particularly my father. About how I can be reminded to forge my own path. Often in ballet, there is a very set way of doing things -- you train and train. A lot of dancers end up being homeschooled because you are training that much. Then you start a company as a trainee and so on. The hardest part is getting in that door and when you look so different from the company, and you don’t have a company that's very open-minded about having dancers that look different, it’s just hard to get that start professionally.
Going back to your original question, I felt, for the most part, really encouraged, even though I was told, "You are Black; it’s going to be a harder journey for you." I very rarely had people that were point-blank discouraging.
I was told by one teacher that I would most likely never get hired by a ballet company, and I would break the color line in the corps de ballet.
And, I was told by another teacher that I needed to find a company that would be open to ethnically diverse dancers with this kind of training which, with my height, she said wouldn’t really be possible for ballet. So, she gave me a suggestion for companies that were doing styles of dance that I was not well-versed in.
It’s hard to find a community of Black dancers in Evanston. I mean even at Dance Center Evanston, I think there were two or three of us training at the same level, same age.
When I went to the Chicago Academy for the Arts, there were a couple other Black and latino dancers who were also interested in ballet. But again, we just weren’t being encouraged or being pushed in the same way as some of our white classmates, because I don’t think for a lot of teachers it is a serious option for their Black students. Not because they don’t think you’re talented enough, it's just that they know the world is so difficult. They’re just like, "Why would you put yourself through that?"
But for me, having seen ballet for the first time when I was eight months old, ballet has always been a constant in my life. It’s just one of the loves of my life.
DE: How do these experiences shape how you see yourself as a ballerina?
KR: I definitely see myself as an unconventional ballet dancer for more than one reason. Not just because I’m Black, and not just because I’m very tall, and not just because I'm more muscular. But also just because, I know that I have a different interpretation of classical movement than a lot of dancers around me.
I used to do variations of ballet solos at exams. A lot of the remarks I would get would be, “Wow, that’s a very interesting interpretation of that variation.”
I did all the steps. I was within the style of that specific variation. I would just add a different flavor to it. I enjoy that exploration. I love the synchronicity of dancers when it’s about feelings, when it’s about emotion ... But I really like the solo work. I really like finding my own uniqueness in ballet, and I know that’s definitely due to being a Black dancer and some of the cultural influences I have that affect me as a classical ballet dancer.
DE: You play two characters in “Black Ballerina,” Olivia and Adrienne. How do their narratives intersect and diverge from one another during the play?
KR: The characters have some thematic parallels. The first character I play is Olivia, and her story takes place in the mid- to late 1950s. She's facing a lot more of what people think about when they think about adversity in ballet for Black women: blatant racism; obvious isolation.
Adrienne [Olivia's granddaughter, a modern-day Black ballerina] is still facing racism. She's still facing isolation and adversity. It's just a lot more subtle. It has a different face, and the words are different, but then again they’re not.
At some point, for both characters, it's stated point blank that they do not belong and why.
I think between both characters, you’ll see all sides of the ballet world pretty much -- the great, the not-so-great, the ugly -- we don’t shy away from anything.
I hope it’s just as informative and fascinating for the audience as it has been for me to see just how little the ballet world has changed at its core when it comes to who is accepted and what is the standard of beauty.
It doesn’t feel pessimistic to me, although we do touch on very dark things in the ballet world, but then I think it’s more about the characters embracing their Blackness and embracing their uniqueness.
DE: Is there a specific moment or scene that you relate to the most?
KR: Most of the things that happened in this play, plot-wise, didn’t happen in my real life. But, I have had some similar things said to me about my body type. That I am very athletically built, so I’m not really suited for classical ballet. I’ve had similar conversations where teachers or ballet masters try to steer me in another direction. That is always frustrating when you’ve dedicated your life to something, and you are just as passionate, if not more so, than the other girls that are more of the “conventional ballet dancer.”
DE: What are you going to remember about being part of “Black Ballerina?”
KR: I love being part of a new work like that. It’s been really special that I get to share with the entire cast and the creative team, but particularly with my dad.
I don’t know how many people can say that they worked on something of this magnitude, which had so much personal meaning, and so much heart and soul, and I can say I have with my dad. So, that is just something I will cherish forever.
DE: What's next for you?
KR: I'm going to be producing my own show at Studio5 Performing Arts Center [studio5.dance/]. It’s one night only, October 19. It's a full-length ballet, my choreography, and a story I wrote called “La Vie en Rose.” I call it a love story between an artist and their art. It’s inspired by some of my experiences and some of my friends' experiences being artists and trying to make it while also hustling, working in the restaurant industry.
It follows the fictional journey of the main character as she gets an opportunity in a New York-type city. She slowly begins to discover that what she really needs to do is find her own voice, find her own path, and what that looks like for her as an artist.