MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The world of classical dance has been slow to accept and integrate its ranks with African Americans operating in chief positions.
Despite that, Memphis broke a major barrier this month when it named an African American woman as president and CEO of Ballet Memphis.
Gretchen Wollert McLennon has years of experience in consulting for the arts, holding several leadership roles in a number of Memphis-area foundations.
Her newest position makes her a trailblazer in the coveted world of classical dance.
“It’s truly been kind of a full-circle moment for me because I was a dancer with Memphis Youth Concert Ballet in the very early years of Ballet Memphis’ formation,” Wollert McLennon said.
Dorothy Gunter Pugh founded Ballet Memphis in the 1980s and lead it until recently. Wollert McLennon served on the board, but on the larger scale, African Americans have been left out of premier roles in classical ballet.
It was just five years ago that one of the three premier ballet companies hired the first principal ballerina, Misty Copeland.
“I have a voice in this space, and how can I help move the needle in terms of making sure there are more women leading dance companies, that more African Americans are leading ballet companies, that there are more principal dancers, more Misty Copelands,” Wollert McLennon said.
Wollert McLennon said Ballet Memphis is more reflective of the community than most companies, and 60% of its dancers are people of color. Her goal is to help the industry as a whole pivot and think differently about an art form that’s been around for hundreds of years.
“I’m constantly thinking, what role does Ballet Memphis play in ensuring that we’re helping the ecosystem at large move the needle around representation?” Wollert McLennon said. “We do a great job here in Memphis, and we’re a great example nationally, and we can be a model for other professional ballet companies.”
Wollert McLennon’s appointment means both of Memphis’ classical dance companies are now lead by African Americans. Collage Dance Collective is the other.
Wollert McLennon admitted it’s going to be a challenge taking over Ballet Memphis during a health pandemic when there are no performances allowed.
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