The first time Jonathan Solari, the Madison Ballet’s CEO told me that they were courting Ja’ Malik, “a choreographer to watch,” according to a NYT critic, I immediately Googled “Ja’ Malik Ballet.” When I learned about Ballet Boy Productions and watched a few video interviews, I felt thrilled about the possibility of such an impressive and accomplished artist choosing Madison to be his home base.
The Madison Ballet and Ja’ Malik actually started discussions before the pandemic, but those negotiations were derailed by Covid. Like many other long-distance courtships, the pandemic cut into their dance, so to speak. It also gave both parties the opportunity to get to know one another better and see just how well suited they were for each other.
At the start of the pandemic, lockdowns immediately halted in-person performances, pulling the rug out from under almost every dancer. Initially, all of Ja’ Malik’s work engagements were canceled. In November, in a powerful essay in Dance magazine entitled, “My Life as an Invisible Black Choreographer,” Ja’ Malik wrote, “Now, 2020 is drawing to a close. And I’m fighting double duty: to stay alive as a Black man in America, and also as a Black male artist in the ballet world.” A reality that persists in our divided country—and, in some ways, is worsening.
By early 2021 things started turning around for Ja’ Malik, and he was once again working nonstop. The Boston Ballet School commissioned him to work virtually to choreograph a piece. Then the American Repertory Ballet, Charlotte Ballet, Boston Conservatory, and Festival Ballet Providence, among others, hired him. “Everything was moving back in the right direction,” he told me when we spoke by phone four days after he arrived in town. He was so new to his apartment, I heard the delight in his voice when he discovered that he has under-cabinet lighting.
During the early months of the pandemic, the Madison Ballet was also scrambling to survive the economic crisis that nearly decimated the performing arts sector. Solari created many innovative projects to keep the company a relevant and viable cultural presence. One of the Madison Ballet’s well-regarded pandemic projects was staging a production of The Nutcracker for Afghan refugees at Fort McCoy. Solari also used the last two years to ensure the Ballet was in the position to hire a new star artistic director like Ja’ Malik to move the company toward new horizons.
During that intense-for-everyone-but-especially-in-the-arts-and-service-industry period of the pandemic, Madison Ballet and the choreographer stayed in touch. In August of 2021 Ja’ Malik came to Madison to explore the possibility of joining the Ballet. He taught a company class. The dancers interviewed him. He met with the board. He watched the Ballet’s production of Midsummer Night’s Dream at Warner Park. The visit went very well for all involved.
Luckily for Madison, when the Ballet was in a healthy position to make an offer, Ja’ Malik was still interested and made himself available, even though it meant closing a door at Ballet Boy Productions, the company he started in 2007 while he was in Philadelphia working for BalletX. I asked him why he started his own company at that time and he told me that he knew he wanted to pursue a choreographic career in ballet and he was not receiving an invitation to practice his intended craft, so he invited himself. “I’m the kind of person that if I don’t get the opportunity, I’m going to make the opportunity,” he explained.
Ballet Boy Productions
Ballet Boy Productions started as an outlet to give young men of color, who wanted to pursue a career within classical and contemporary ballet, every tool and advantage that Ja’ Malik himself wanted and needed when he was growing up: mentorship, training, education, and performance opportunities. “It was everything that I didn’t have. I wish I had a mentor. I wish I had somebody to talk to help me navigate the waters of the ballet world that I knew nothing about, because I made a lot of mistakes along the way. I was learning. It just wasn’t something that came natural to me coming from where I came from. I wanted to create something that gave boys and men of color the opportunity to have that,” Ja’ Malik said.
When I asked him if he was keeping Ballet Boys going, he explained that though Ballet Boys would still exist to provide mentoring and training, he could not maintain the performance aspect of that company while working for this one. Unsurprisingly, Ballet Boy Productions went out big. Their final production, What Lies Beneath, was staged at New Victory Theater in Times Square in July. It was a contemporary, slow and graceful, adagio ballet, performed to Swan Lake by four Black male dancers in hoodies. The summary of the performance on the New Victory website described it: “In this contemporary ballet set to music by Tchaikovsky, four male dancers physically express the emotional desire to challenge the visual perception so many have of young Black and Brown men, and explore beyond what is expected.”
“It was really great.” Ja’ Malik said. “I was really humbled. From where we started, to be able to perform in New York, my hometown, on Broadway, I looked out in that theater and I looked at those four men on stage and listening to the reaction of people when they finished the ballet was just…I was completely…”
Landing in Wisconsin
Ja’ Malik made the move to Madison from New York City in early August. He has lived in many places across the U.S., and had no qualms about downsizing to a midsize city in the Midwest. One of his frequently repeated slogans is, “I’m always happy in any city I live in, as long as I’m happy doing the work.” Artistic director and choreographer for a ballet company? This is what Ja’ Malik was born to do.
He started working with the Madison Ballet company the week he moved here, but was already scheduled to travel to North Carolina two weeks later to start a new ballet at the Carolina Ballet. “My full time position and focus is really on the (Madison) Company, but as most choreographers who are also artistic directors, we need to keep working choreographically outside with other companies, because what it does, it expands the profile of not only myself, but of the company.”
In addition to the skills and high profile Ja’ Malik brings with him to Madison, he also possesses a wealth of knowledge about how to support boys, especially boys of color, who are interested in learning ballet. For years at Ballet Boys he worked to eliminate the obstacles preventing boys from training to dance and to support families who are trying to empower their children who want to learn ballet. From the socioeconomic barriers to combating gender norms that still inhibit boys from expressing themselves through movement and dance, Ja’ Malik learned it all the hard way and wants to make it easier for others.
At one point in our discussion, I remember mentioning one of the video interviews I watched on YouTube. In it he said that he knew he wanted to be a dancer when he was four years old and saw Michael Jackson perform. He also said he knew he wanted to be a choreographer when he was about 12 or 13 and he saw Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s performance of Ulysses Dove’s Urban Folk Dance. Many children want to be dancers when they see professional dancers for the first time, but few follow through to bridge the gulf between fantasy and reality.
A Dream is Born
I asked Ja’ Malik what enabled him to end up living his dream. He responded, “It was difficult. I come from a working class family. No artists. No knowledge of the arts. For me to pursue a career in the arts, it was like I asked them to move to Mars. They did not understand any of it. It was a learning process for them along the way as I was pursuing this career.” It sounds like neither Ja’ Malik, nor his family, had a choice. Ballet and choreography overwhelmed him with desire. It had him at Giselle.
Ja’ Malik was born in Cleveland and moved to New York with his parents, but his parents died when he was young, and he moved back to Cleveland to live with his grandmother. He attended the performing arts high school there, but as his interests were in ballet and the focus of the school was modern dance, he used his out-of-school time to train in ballet. Luckily, he received a full scholarship to study at Marguerite Duncan Studio from age 13 to 16. During summer vacations, he attended programs at American Ballet Theatre, School of the American Ballet, Alvin Ailey, and Dance Theatre of Harlem. By the age of 16, he joined the Cleveland Ballet as a trainee apprentice, where he remained until the company folded and moved to San Jose.
He told me that this grandmother, recognizing how academically gifted he was, wanted him to be a lawyer. “It just wasn’t my passion. I saw enough people work for a living, and not for their passion, and I did not want that. So, I pursued this career having no idea if it could really happen. I had seen a few Black male ballet dancers, but I still was not completely sure ballet could be a career, let alone being a choreographer, but I just kind of stuck with it. I saw it in my mind, and I thought ‘I am going to do this.’ And I’m pretty headstrong.”
He returned to New York and attended college at The New School, which had a B.F.A. program in dance through a partnership with the Joffrey Ballet. Growing up, he had been the only male dancer in his ballet classes, so he knew he needed to focus on the “male” side of training during his college years. At one point, he was taking academic subjects at New School, studying at Joffrey, apprenticing at Alvin Ailey, and working at Starbucks starting at 4:30 in the morning. He existed on very little sleep for a very long time because he believed it would pay off and he would achieve the career he wanted. It did, and he has.
When I asked him if his family would be visiting Madison to watch his productions, Ja’ Malik explained that though he has a small family with only a few family members left, like many in the queer community, he has a large family of choice. “If you ever hear me on stage talking about my family, it is usually about my best friends because I’ve had them in my life for 20+ years. I have six really strong best friends that are like brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers to me that I’ve known for 20, 30 years, almost. We met when we were 14, and now we’re heading toward the mid-40s. So, they’ll be coming out.”
Unapologetically bold & proud
Toward the end of our interview, I asked Ja’ Malik if there was anything else he wanted to know about or share with Madison’s LGBTQIA community. There was, particularly regarding heteronormative ballet performances that typically show a “man” and a “woman” dancing together. Ja’ Malik wants Our Lives readers to know that he is planning to shake that up. After all, he just came from his own Ballet Boys production company where it is all men dancing together. “I definitely want to have work not only representing the LGBTQ+ community, but I also want to bring more of those artists in to create works. I don’t want to shy away from that.” He added, “I want to open the world up so that they can see the full spectrum of the human experience from all sides.”
For the most part, Ja’ Malik enjoys the process of discovering new communities without spoilers. He already knew about cheese curds, and he has heard about how cold the winters are, but I surprised him with the fact that we celebrate Pride at the end of August when he would be working in North Carolina.
He assured me I need not worry that he would have to miss it this year. “You know, I dress how I dress, and I move how I move, and I won’t change that for any position. I interviewed as who I am. I am an openly gay Black man who wears outfits that are not necessarily the norm for a male-identifying person. Friends in New York are like, ‘Ooh what are they going to do with you in Madison?’ I don’t worry. I celebrate every day, for sure.”
To me, that is what Pride is about, bringing your authentic self out every day at work, at home, and at play, and celebrating your own life and others’. Ja’ Malik, I am looking forward to meeting you in person and seeing your choreography on stage. And, as one who likes to dress up a bit myself, I hope that when we meet, we are both wearing something so fabulous, nobody anywhere is going to know what to do with us.
Karin Wolf is an arts administrator, freelance arts writer, and consultant. She likes to get deep and try to understand complex art, people, and ideas. Writing about them is her favorite way to do so. She has a M.S. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and undergraduate degrees in History, History of Cultures, and Afro-American History.