American Ballet Theatre Corps de Ballet Dancer Erica Lall Talks Success, Diversity and ‘Romeo & Juliet’

The 19-year-old Houston native talks about the pride that comes with being one of American Ballet Theatre's few dancers of color and how we can continue forward.

Michigan Opera Theatre and University Musical Society present American Ballet Theatre's Romeo & Juliet. The iconic Shakespeare tragedy comes to life with Misty Copeland at the helm as Juliet for the first and last shows, running Feb. 8-11 at the Detroit Opera House. As opening night nears, BLAC sat down with cast member and corps de ballet dancer, Erica Lall.

BLAC: What does it feel like to tell people that you're an ABT dancer?

Erica: It feels pretty surreal. ABT is the dream of so many little girls, little boys, and to finally be able to say 'I am in the corp de ballet of American Ballet Theatre' just doesn't even sound real – still to this day.

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B: What's something new that you've learned about ballet since becoming a corps dancer?

E: Kind of to stay calm through the process. You don't want to get too worked up, but in order to stay confident you have to have a little sense of calmness throughout everything you do. You still want to stress about because that's how you get better, but you have to be calm with everything you do.

B: Working in an industry with so few people of color, do you ever feel like an outsider?

E: Yea, since I was training. I'm from Houston, Texas and I was always the one dancer of color in the studios, and they would say things like, 'Oh, the tan one, the dark one, come here.' And then they'd also be like, 'Ok guys, it's summer, I know, but I don't want you to go outside and be tan because we don't want tan dancers here.' It actually didn't faze me back then. I remember telling my mom that and she was like, 'Wow, that's not a good thing to say,' and I was like, 'Really?' Because I was so used to it, so used to being the outcast. Even at school, there were very few people of color. Yea, you always kind of feel like an outcast, but at ABT it's how you dance, it's how you're an artist, it's not about the color you are. They don't focus on that. From joining the school in level 6 I never thought about my color as a problem. They never made it seem like a problem, they never talked about color like that.

B: Have you seen improvements in diversity since starting out up until now?

E: When I first joined, they started Project Plié and that's to increase more diversity in schools. They get people certified – ABT certified – and then they can go out and teach at all of these schools around the country. I've definitely been seeing a lot more color, and they have a Bridge class which is kind of for younger, under privileged students, but they can come in and take classes with ABT. You see so many dancers of color that move from the Bridge class to JKO (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School)- ABT's school. So, they're getting to progress through the levels and then – you know, they're like 8-9 so we're not going to see them on stage right now, which I don't think people realize. They're like waiting for another Misty Copeland to happen right now, but it's going to take 10-15 years. But these new little babies, it's going to take time. 

B: What can we do to get little black girls, in particular, interested in ballet?

E: You have to make it more approachable. Ballet has always been seen as this white art form, so they haven't had many people to look up to. But now with people like Misty, even me, Calvin Royal, Gabe Stone Shayer. We have so many people in ABT and in so many companies around the world that they can now look up to. So, I think having those kind of mentors and people they can see in real life makes it seem attainable. When I was growing up, I didn't have anyone that was dancing currently. Lauren Anderson of Houston Ballet – she was the first African-American principal dancer of Houston Ballet – she was there, but she had retired by the time I joined the school, so I never actually saw a dancer of color on stage until Misty Copeland.

B: What did that feel like to see her (Misty Copeland)?

E: So, I actually went to the summer intensive in Orange County – my first ever ABT experience – and I actually met her there. My aunts brought me to some dinner. They (ABT) were having a dinner and a talk with Misty and just to be able to meet her… I didn't know much about her then, but my aunt was like, 'You need to go meet Misty Copeland. This is your opportunity'… She was a soloist at the time, and that was already a big step for an African American woman to be a soloist at American Ballet Theatre, one of the biggest companies in the world. Just seeing success makes me feel like I could be successful, too.

B: What role are you playing in Romeo & Juliet?

E: I'll be in the ballroom scene, I'll be a market girl and I'll be in Act II. It's a really fun ballet.

B: What's your ultimate goal for ballet?

E: I hope it looks more like the world, because right now it's getting there. But we need to see people of all races, people with all backgrounds on stage doing all these roles. So, I want it to look like the world. That's my hope for ballet.

B: And for yourself?

E: I hope to be a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre. That's my main goal. To be getting opportunities to perform on stage, more and more.

Tickets on sale for Romeo & Juliet now!

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