Originally performed in 1892, Alexander Dumas’ “The Nutcracker” quickly became synonymous with Christmas. Since its first run, the ballet has gone through numerous revamps, refurbishing, and modernizing, now it’s time for the Philadelphia Chocolate Ballerina Company to give it its own spin. They are putting together an all-Black cast of dancers to take on the titular roles of Clara, the Mouse King, and of course, the Nutcracker and they are looking for dancers to fill those roles.
Created by founder and artistic director Chanel Holland in 2017, the Chocolate Ballerina Company (CBC) came from Holland’s need to see dancers of all races, ages, shapes, sizes, and gender reflected in the arts.
“The Chocolate Ballerina Company was designed for the under-served community. Whether that be Black, white, Hispanic, any ethnicity. If you are under-served, we are here to serve you,” Holland said.
A traditional European art form, ballet has often ostracized performers of color from participation. Chanel is a Black instructor in a traditionally white space, working to usher in new ideologies on what a ballerina can look like. Chanel’s outreach efforts have taken her to community centers in Philadelphia, CAPA (Philadelphia High School For Creative and Performing Arts), and FLC (Franklin Learning Center) to expose young performers to cultures they may have been excluded from.
“People need to see Black ballerinas in person. They need to know that ballet is not just for a specific class or a specific race,” Holland said.
Still developing, Chanel’s dedication to her company is displayed through her willingness to pay (out of pocket) for nearly everything. From equipment down to the rehearsal space, Chanel doesn’t worry about the financial burden if it means the CBC will flourish.
“If I was thinking about the financial gain of it, then I wouldn’t do it. I’m not thinking that way, I’m thinking about legacy,” she said.
One of her many missions: accessibility. With most classes costing no more than fifty dollars per month, Chanel makes sure anyone with an interest in learning ballet, can. Recently, it wasn’t the prices keeping people away, it was COVID-19 and a global pandemic that forced us into the house and online.
“The pandemic hit us hard,” said Holland.
“We transitioned immediately to virtual learning, but the virtual [classes] became so much for my people and my community that everyday people were dropping out,” she said.
Once, almost 170 students’ strong, in-person classes resumed to less than half that amount.
“Even now with our dance program at Mount Airy playground for ages 12-16, I only have five students. And it’s free! They get free leotards, free tights, free dance skirts, and I only had two people show up last week,” Holland says.
Despite the hard times the arts community has fallen on, Chanel hopes the company’s first-ever winter performance of The Nutcracker will help pull the dancers and audiences out of their COVID stagnancy.
“We’ve never done a winter show, ever. So it’s time to do something different because the world is different,” Holland said of her fresh take on The Nutcracker.
She’s holding a second round of auditions this weekend for dancers not with the CBC in hopes it sparks creative intrigue. Chanel says she isn’t limiting the dance styles for this audition, looking for dancers with experience in martial arts, hip-hop, Brazilian, and African style dance.
Holland is also encouraging men to come out as well, “seeing a Black man in ballet definitely changes the mindset of the community,” Holland said.
The second round of auditions is being held this Saturday, September 11th, from 1 pm — 4 pm at Equilibrium on 1802 South Broad Street.
For more information on the Philadelphia Chocolate Ballerina Company, visit chocolateballerinacompany.com