Paving the way in Ballet: A profile on Alexander Skinner

Alexander Skinner
Alexander Skinner with Artists of the Ballet in rehearsal. © Karolina Kuras

Alexander Skinner is performing at the NAC in both Helen Pickett’s Emma Bovary and Crystal Pite’s Angels’ Atlas

On February 1st, which marks the first day of Black History Month, The National Ballet of Canada presents a stunning double bill in Southam Hall. Alexander Skinner, a Corps de Ballet member who grew up in Ottawa, shares his journey as a professional dancer, his influences, and what Black History Month means to him.

Q: Tell us about your role within the company, and what it means to you to be a professional ballet dancer?

A: I joined The National Ballet of Canada as an RBC Apprentice in 2017, and the main company the following year. It is currently my seventh season. It still feels like a pinch-me moment a lot of the time. I started ballet as a teenager, so to be dancing professionally is truly a dream come true.

As cheesy as it may sound, dance has always been one of my preferred vehicles of expression. There are so many moments when I am dancing where I feel that I am being my truest self.

Q: You have a passion for languages, where does that passion come from, and does it influence your work as a dancer?

A: I think the passion came rather early in my life because of the environment I was raised in. I grew up with a few languages in my family. My father’s side is Bajan and my mother’s, Italian, so English and Italian were both spoken in my household. I also grew up in a French-Canadian community, so naturally French was also a big part of my life. I think I saw early on how much language enables connection, and my passion for languages grew from there.

I’m not sure that it influences my work per se, however it has absolutely helped me connect with so many more people, as well as given me space outside of dance to keep another passion of mine alive. I’m learning languages now just out of interest and for fun. My hope is to one day become fluent in so many more.

Q: How would you describe the spirit of Black History Month and what it means to you?

A: I think that it’s a time to celebrate and honour Black history and its legacy, as well as to acknowledge the work that still needs to be done to strive for both equality and equity. Let us celebrate Black History Month but let us also remember that Black history is important all twelve months of the year. There is much substantive and challenging work left to do ahead.

Q: What would you say are some of the biggest challenges faced by Black people in the dance and ballet world?

A: In a lot of ways, it feels like the road is still being paved. I can only speak from my personal experience, but it feels like there is constant pressure to keep having to break stereotypes.

There are instances still where the ballet world does not feel like a welcome space for Black artists - whether outrightly expressed or not - and it’s usually due to perceptions, beliefs and attitudes of what the classical ballet dancer should look like, dance like and act like as people as well. Those views don’t usually leave a lot of room for inclusion.

Following George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and the subsequent calls to action, I’ve observed a strong motivation in the ballet world in its strive towards progress and representation. However, while acknowledging the important efforts made towards progress, I wonder sometimes now whether the ballet world may be seeing the Black experience as homogeneous, as though each Black artist is not unique, special and authentic in their own ways. It sometimes feels like having to fit a mold in a different way.

Q: How do you think Black history should be incorporated into the education of ballet and in the professional ballet industry?

A: Simply, we have to start teaching it. I only started learning about the contributions of Black people in ballet’s history a few seasons into dancing professionally, and a lot of that learning came from my own motivation and research, or from panels and discussions where Black dance historians and Black dance artists were given a platform to share their knowledge. It was eye opening for me to learn about the depth of Black people’s contributions to the ballet world, as well as to realize how many of these contributions are not known or not known to a significant degree. My hope going forward is that the teaching of Black history in ballet will be widespread, so that it can be common knowledge.

Q: Who are some Black artists you find inspirational?

A: Before ever stepping into a ballet studio, I used to watch videos of Eric Underwood on YouTube, while he was dancing with The Royal Ballet. He was the first example I saw of Black representation in classical ballet. Now performing in some of the same productions in which I used to watch Eric dance, it sometimes feels like a full circle moment.

Along the same thread, seeing performance clips of Lauren Anderson in the 1990s and early 2000s in tights that matched her skin tone has had such an impact on me especially the longer I stay in this field. She broke stereotypes of what the typical ballet dancer looked like and her legacy helped shape the dance world I, myself, am getting to experience now.

Today, Ashton Edwards and Siphesihle November are two Black artists who are also breaking stereotypes and reshaping the classical dance world in their own individual ways, each of their careers inspiring and impacting the future of this art form. Both of them still early in their careers, I find the impact they are already having inspirational.

Q: Can you share a moment or story when you felt really proud to be a ballet dancer?

A: It’s funny, because there have of course been moments - highlights, let’s say - that were important milestones in my path as a dancer, and that have meant so much to me. With that said, when I think of times where I’ve felt the most proud, it’s been in remembering creative processes I really enjoyed, in the friendships I’ve made along the way, and in the special experiences I’ve shared on and off the stage with some of the artists with whom I’ve been fortunate enough to cross paths. In reflections lately, I’ve noticed that the more time I spend dancing, the more I catch myself at the odd time in performance, rehearsal and even class sometimes acutely aware of how much I am enjoying myself. In those moments of joy, I feel proud of myself for choosing this path.

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