American Ballet Theatre Presents Christopher Rudd’s New Work, “Lifted”

October 26, 2022

On October 27, American Ballet Theatre’s Fall Gala will present the world premiere of Lifted, by choreographer Christopher Rudd. The piece features an all-Black cast and creative team—a historic first for the company—including dancers Erica Lall, Calvin Royal III, Courtney Lavine, Melvin Lawovi and Jose Sebastian.

Lifted is Rudd’s second work for ABT, his first being the organization’s first all-male pas de deux, Touché, which premiered in 2020. The new piece fulfills his long-held dream to create an all-Black project for the organization.

The score for Lifted was composed by Kennedy Center composer-in-residence Carlos Simon, whose past creations have fused contemporary classical music with gospel and jazz. Fashion designer Carly Cushnie, known for her sleek, minimalist pieces worn by the likes of Michelle Obama and Beyoncé, created the costumes. Other contributors include conductor Roderick Cox—making his debut as a guest conductor for ABT—lighting designer Alan C. Edwards, dramaturg Phaedra Scott and intimacy director Sarah Lozoff.

Calvin Royal III, wearing all black, pushes against two full-length mirrors. He is in a deep, parallel fourth-position plie on demi pointe.
Royal. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

The production opens with Royal dancing alone on top of a reflective black circle in front of two wide, full-length mirrors. He is later joined by Lall, Lavine, Lawovi and Sebastian, and the group perform a blend of ensemble and partner work alternately on and away from the dark surface.

In a post-rehearsal question-and-answer session led by departing ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie, Rudd explained that the mirror on the floor represents a womblike space of acceptance, community and youthful self-discovery. The dancers’ departure from it symbolizes exercising their right to joy in the outside world. “But when they leave, the rest of the world tells them that right was a lie,” he said. “Journeying back and forth is, ‘Can we trust this?’”

The dancers perform in character, a choice Rudd made to help them separate themselves from the emotionally charged subject matter, which includes themes of racism. Still, their lives inform the work. “I pull from personal experiences I had growing up—things that I haven’t even shared with my mother,” Lall said during the talkback.

Lall, Sebastian, Lavine, Royal and Lawovi kneel on a dark surface on the studio floor. They are looking toward their left.
Lall, Sebastian, Lavine, Royal and Lawovi. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

In the future, Rudd wants dancers of any race to perform the piece. He and McKenzie discussed preserving Lifted, noting the current challenge of having enough Black company members for two casts. When planning, Rudd pointed out that most Black dancers perform roles that were created on white dancers. Now, the reverse will happen. “Non-Black dancers will be learning something that was based from a Black point of view, but it’s still an artwork that ultimately, if successful, has a universal meaning of emotional depth,” McKenzie said.

In an interview with Rudd and Royal afterwards, Rudd spoke about his experience creating with a nearly all-Black group of collaborators. “Everyone went above and beyond the call of duty,” he said. “There is an understanding that we can’t afford to be anything less than stellar.”

Lall, Lavine and Royal look on as Lawovi, kneeling, supports Sebastian in an attitude a la seconde on demi pointe.
Background: Lall, Lavine and Royal. Foreground: Lawovi and Sebastian. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

He also found it fascinating to explore the mirrored set’s symbolism, from the meaning of each wall to the directions in which the dancers look. “It’s been really educational for me, as a choreographer and director, watching them tackle that while looking at themselves,” he said.

“Dancers spend so much time in the mirror from the time we’re so young—seeing ourselves, seeing how the world is seeing us,” said Royal. ”I feel like I’ve been able to bring a lot of those experiences of what it felt like to see myself for the first time, and to question or accept what [other people] are seeing.”

Lifted will run until October 29 as part of ABT’s fall season, which ends October 30.