When describing the North Carolina Dance Theatre, board member Kobi Brinson will tell you, "It's not your mama's ballet." She will describe it, instead, as a fusion of the cutting-edge and the traditional. And, notably, as "very diverse."
"One of the impacts of the Dance Theatre that I think is fairly extraordinary," she said, "is the diversity of the dancers and the diversity of our program. ... I think the diversity of our staff and of our dancers demonstrates to the traditional dance audience — which is usually a little old and a little monied — that dance is not restricted to people of European descent."
In an effort to develop "funds, friends and future dancers" from the African-American community, Brinson, who is also a Harvard-educated lawyer and assistant general counsel for Bank of America, is helping to organize the Theatre's "Step Up!" event on March 25. She said the goal of the fundraiser — produced in association with the local event promotion company The JAA Group — is to raise $10,000 in seed money for the Dancers' Fund, which will one day become an endowment.
Founded in 1970, the NC Dance Theatre bears the distinction of being the oldest dance company in North Carolina. It is also home to two world-renowned artistic directors — Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride, both former New York City ballet stars — who, like Brinson, are committed to the goal of diversifying its dancers and audiences.
"This event has a double goal," said Brinson. "First, it's to bring African-Americans into the Theatre itself; and second, to demonstrate that the African-American community is willing to use its philanthropic power to support professional ballet. ... We are willing and able to use that [power] to impact a dance company that is not an all-black dance company. ... We are willing to support it because this is a valuable part of the community."
According to Brinson, the original inspiration for the fund was Jordan Leeper, an African-American dancer from Jamestown, N.Y., who has been with the Theatre for two years. "I saw him perform in the student spring performance, and I thought: 'Oh my God, this kid is amazing! Where did we find this dude? How do we keep him?!'" she said.
At the time, Leeper's family was having difficulty figuring out how to continue supporting him as a dancer. Bonnefoux relayed to Brinson the family's struggle, as well as his desire to figure out how to keep such dancers from going to other companies that were financially able to pay their living expenses.
"I just thought, surely we as an African-American community can get it together enough to feed and house this kid so that he can make the transition from student to professional," said Brinson.
Logan McSwain, communications director for the NC Dance Theatre, said recruiting male ballet dancers is highly competitive and that companies who are able to cover room, board and other expenses often have a leg up on the competition. "The Dancers' Fund would give Dance Theatre the opportunity to attract male dancers who might otherwise be swayed to dance with another company," she said.
As it is said, "charity begins at home." And where men and tights and the African-American community are concerned, this means teaching young boys to develop an appreciation for dance early on. An appreciation, for example, that starts out as a 12-year-old's dreams of leaping across the sky — and leads to his 19-year-old self becoming a professional dancer. This is, in fact, Leeper's own story. The 19-year-old was recently promoted to the Theatre's first company, which is a great source of pride for Brinson. She'd like to see more like him in ballet companies — and more African-American kids on the street who can name folks like Jordan Leeper and Mikhail Baryshnikov just as easily as they can folks like Lebron James.
"I think one of the things we have been guilty of as a society, and I think particularly in the African-American community, is isolating dance and the arts to our girls," she said. "You'll see little girls at the ballet, but not little boys."
"It's so important that we remember, all of us, that arts is such an integral and important part of who we are," Brinson added. "To not develop that interest or talent really is a travesty, and it's going to stunt our communal growth for generations to come. We really have got to do a better job of exposing our children — all of them — to the finer arts, and making sure that they have an opportunity to participate.
"Everything about the arts improves who we are. And I just want to make sure that we as a community are not forgetting that and that we emphasize that with our children."
The Step Up fundraising event — featuring cocktails, jazz and more — is scheduled to take place on March 25 at 8 p.m. at the North Carolina Dance Theatre (701 N. Tryon St.). Tickets are $50. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.ncdance.org/stepup or call 704-372-0101, ext. 2783.