Aaron P. Dworkin
Dominique-René de Lerma:
The Musical America 30 Profiles in Courage were chosen from hundreds of nominations from the worldwide per-forming arts community. Our criteria: people who have “taken a risk, stepped up for the cause, spoken out where others were silent—all to the measurable benefit of their respective organizations and/or the field.”
American Ballet Theatre
Thanks to Misty Copeland, gone are the days when a company dancer waits for the person in charge (usually a man) to give her the spotlight. The first African-American soloist at the American Ballet Theatre in more than two decades, Copeland has been increasingly vocal about two things: the paucity of female black ballerinas, and her wish to be promoted to principal dancer at ABT, the company she joined in 2001.
Her two-fold campaign has ramped up since the March publication of Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina. “This is for the little brown girls,” she writes in the prologue. The autobiography describes her late introduction to ballet (age 13), and the custody battle between her first dance teacher and her mother. The dispute created a media storm in Los Angeles, where Copeland grew up and where she won a Spotlight Award as the best Californian dancer, just two years after beginning ballet. Luckily a 1999-2000 summer scholarship to ABT’s training academy gave Copeland needed independence and she joined the corps a year later.
For the lead roles in La Bayadere (2003), Raymonda (2004), and Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra Suite (2007), Copeland received critical acclaim. “I really felt like I was going to crack” she told The New York Times of those days where she was performing principal roles and dancing in the corps simultaneously. She was finally named soloist in 2012; her first role with that title was Alexei Ratmansky’s Firebird, who has said that his inspiration derived from Copeland’s piercing, athletic jump. Unfortunately, just after Firebird, she was diagnosed with six stress fractures to her tibia, and had to undergo surgery. She convalesced for a year.
Copeland is currently featured in an Under Armour campaign dedicated to women athletes, whose I Will What I Want video has received more than 6.5 million views. Slow motion close-ups reveal her taught, shapely musculature and elastic precision, as she ascends on pointe like a Phoenix rising from the ashes. A child’s voiceover reads an official rejection letter from a ballet academy in which she is told she doesn’t have the right body—in other words, she is not opal white and waif thin.
This notion of suitability infuses Copeland’s Firebird (September 2014), a children’s book in which a young, fragile girl doubts her ability to be, like Copeland, a black ballerina who succeeds in a lily white tradition. As of this writing, Lauren Anderson (Houston Ballet, 1993-2006) is the only black female to be named principal of a major U.S. ballet company.
Copeland’s consistent advocacy is showing results. Last year, ABT announced its partnership with Project Plié, an organization that offers free ballet training to underserved youth.
As the ABT season came to a close this fall, and Copeland performed the lead in the über white classic Swan Lake, many are betting that the 32-year-old will be a principal within the year. The prodigy turned courageous proselytiser is making history. —Rachel Straus
Founder and President
The representation of black and Latino players in today’s American orchestras is staggeringly low at only four percent. But when Aaron Dworkin founded the Sphinx Organization in 1996, that statistic was less than half as high.
As a young violinist, Dworkin was appalled that, in the world of classical music, he was the only person of color on or offstage. He put a dream into action by starting an annual competition for black and Latino string players. That has since spawned a summer academy, an all-black and Latino orchestra, in-school elementary training, partnerships with prestigious institutions like the Southbank Center, and more. All American orchestras that gained black members between 1998-2008 had a relationship with Sphinx.
Dworkin admitted in an interview last year that founding the organization was a risk: How would the self-enclosed classical music world react? “There was no way to initially tell whether the vision would resonate with the community of constituents, funders, supporters,” he says, citing “a combination of luck, hard work, and passion” that helped him “pave a different path.”
A recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant and President Obama’s first nominee to the National Council on the Arts, Dworkin tirelessly labors to make the nation aware of the disparities that plague classical music institutions, arguing that diversity is not just a social imperative but fundamental to the art form’s long-term health. In a speech last fall, he challenged orchestras to devote five percent of their budget to inclusion initiatives, maintaining that while times may be tough, “any solution that brings about real change will require sacrifice.”
Sphinx’s laureates are leading the way to that change, studying at top conservatories such as Juilliard and Curtis and playing at the White House. “Performances are invariably energetic and finely burnished,” wrote The New York Times of Sphinx’s recent Carnegie Hall concert, an annual event. The Harlem Quartet, an ensemble of former Sphinx Competition winners, has collaborated with everyone from Itzhak Perlman to Chick Corea.
“What I love about the organization is that it tries to achieve in our society an equilibrium of people who are incredibly talented and motivated to be part of every aspect of our society,” says Special Artistic Advisor Yo-Yo Ma. “Talent does not pick demographics.” —Rebecca Schmid
Oakland East Bay Symphony
No one ever accused Michael Morgan of playing it safe. Now in his 25th year as music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, the conductor has charted a singular path—one that reflects the unique spirit of the diverse community he serves.
Throughout his tenure, Morgan’s eclectic approach to programming has prompted him to mix appearances by rock stars, gospel singers, and funk masters with concerts featuring works by Beethoven and Brahms. He has shared the orchestra’s programs with artists such as Carlos Santana, Isaac Hayes, local choirs, and klezmer bands, and conducted large-scale performances of works such as Bernstein’s Mass. Last year, he introduced a sitar concerto by Ravi Shankar; the current season has already featured an appearance by a jazz quintet. This month, he’ll lead a holiday tribute concert to the late folksinger and activist Pete Seeger.
An outside observer might think these mix-and-match programs are simply the result of marketing strategies. But Morgan has a keen sense of the Bay Area’s musical pulse. The D.C.-born, Oberlin-trained conductor has made his home in Oakland for years, and he can hold forth as fluently about the local jazz scene as he can about Mozart (another of his favorite composers.)
Morgan’s work as music director has been transformative, but his reach extends well beyond the orchestra. Over the years, he’s been a prime advocate for restoring music training in Oakland public schools. He has built the Oakland Youth Orchestra with similar success.
Morgan, who studied with Gunther Schuller and Seiji Ozawa at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, was a protégé of Leonard Bernstein, who invited him to make his New York Philharmonic debut in 1986. The same year, Sir Georg Solti chose him as assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony, a position he held for five years. Having made his operatic debut at Vienna State Opera conducting Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, he maintains his love of opera as music director of another East Bay-based company, Festival Opera.
When Morgan joined the Oakland East Bay Symphony, the downtown area was in desperate need of revitalization. Today, it’s thriving—and Morgan’s courageous, forward-thinking leadership is a big part of the reason. Morgan hasn’t simply rebuilt his orchestra. He’s helped chart a new course for the city he calls home. —Georgia Rowe
Dominique-René de Lerma