When he was a young dancer, Christopher Rudd was told he’d never play Romeo. The comment stung but in hindsight, that insular thinking was a catalyst for how he would later take up more space in the ballet world. “That was my last season with that company and after that, I needed to go and find my bliss,” says Rudd, an award-winning dancer who performed for three seasons with The Metropolitan Opera and is a 2019 Guggenheim Choreography Fellow. (Interestingly enough, when Rudd was just 11 he was the first Black child to ever dance the role of The Nutcracker in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. It was with Miami City Ballet.)
However, after years of performing with globally-renowned companies and choreographers, Rudd felt a calling to start his own company—a place where he could show up as his full, authentic self. “When I started RudduR Dance it was all about creating a company that I would dance for, that I would want to dance for,” he says. Since 2015, his company continues serving a bigger purpose as Rudd feels an innate urgency “to make ballet for me and for people who look like me, people who have shared my experience and people whose stories aren’t always told.”
Rudd’s newest work Lifted, a celebration of how Black bodies exist, will make its world premiere during American Ballet Theatre’s Fall season on October 27. In a historic creative first for ABT, Lifted features an all-Black cast and creative team, including Christopher Rudd (choreography and scenic design), Carlos Simon (music), Carly Cushnie (costumes), Alan C. Edwards (lighting), Roderick Cox (conductor), and Phaedra Scott (dramaturgy).
For fashion designer Carly Cushnie, formerly of the celebrated luxe label Cushnie et Ochs, collaborating with ABT came out of witnessing Rudd’s groundbreaking work Touché last year. “I was just so blown away by Touché, that I thought, ‘Whatever he’s doing, it’s going to be amazing.’ I really wanted to be a part of this,” she remembers. Rudd’s Touché, his first piece for ABT, was a pas de deux of two men exploring lust and love—a narrative he longed to see for himself on stage.
“For most of a dancer’s life, you learn to speak the language of other people, you learn to embody Shakespeare’s words, you learn to embody whoever the choreographer of that work was,” Rudd says, in between loving yelps from his dogs, one of which is a rescue. “Frankly, in my entire existence in ballet, I’ve not accounted for myself in the work I’m doing. Even when I started choreographing, I wouldn’t tell my stories, I wouldn’t tell things I can relate to. [As I conceptualized] Touché, I watched the dancers go across the stage and I was like, ‘Where is me? Where’s a gay narrative? Where is a love story that I can really truly connect to?’”
Now the Jamaican born, multi-faceted choreographer seeks out pieces that present more of what the world needs to see on stage and less what the ballet canon is asking for. Enter Lifted, which has origins in two collective experiences: the onset of the global pandemic and the racial reckoning of Black Lives Matter. Rudd was deeply affected by both.
“After battling COVID and watching George Floyd murdered, the world was burning around me and I felt a need to create a work that is a protest, an activist’s work,” he recalls. “It reinforced if I was going to fight to live, I needed to fight for something that spoke to me, spoke to my legacy and spoke to my mortality.”
Rudd also tapped into the “bravery” he found in choreographing Touché in 2020. “I was always going to do a homosexual piece, but Touché allowed me to go further, really go there with that work. And it’s something I want to do with all my works now. I don’t want to stop until my soul is laid bare in the work, because I truly feel that’s what allows for the connectivity with the audience, for the longevity of the impact of the work itself.”
On stage, Lifted features six dancers moving, pushing, and at some points, literally lifting mirrored walls as part of a massive reflective set with 360-degree vantage points. Conceptualized by Rudd, set designing this piece was a first for him but a role that feels as natural as the choreography itself. “The dancers go through a journey of self-confrontation, self-reflection, and then self-love,” he says. “I believe the journey we’re going on is all about how we see ourselves and what we want to celebrate in ourselves. Is what we’re seeing truly there or are we looking through the lens of how we’re conditioned to look?”
However, it’s not only what’s performed on stage that will reframe how Black bodies are seen: Rudd is hoping Lifted will stomp out tired tropes that not enough people of color exist in the ballet world. “The creation of this work, existing in this white space, is protest enough. But I believe the context of the work will be giving voice and highlighting these Black creatives who are talented and these Black artists who are beautiful,” he says.
Cushnie, who has designed for Michelle Obama, Beyoncé, and Jennifer Lopez, couldn’t agree more. “It’s exciting to be able to showcase all these Black artists working together,” she says. “Whether it’s a dancer, the choreographer, costume designer, lighting, whatever. We’ve never had an opportunity to work together like this. Even the shop, the factory that is making the costumes, is Black-owned as well. It’s a really special thing to be a part of.”
The costumes, Cushnie explains, will not be traditional or modern ballet attire. The dancers will be wearing clothes that will allow them to be an expression of their best selves and the odyssey they are on. “We’re using really fluid fabrics that are soft and super drape-y, with a lot of twisting details, that resonate with the journey,” she says. “Everything is highlighting shades of brown. We wanted it to really celebrate the Blackness and feeling good in your own skin.”
Whether audiences will connect to this piece as honoring, amplifying, or reshaping the evolution of Black dancers on stage, Lifted holds a mirror up to what the future of ballet could be, and that’s optimistic. Keep on, keep on.
Cori Murray is the former deputy editor of ESSENCE. She writes about arts and entertainment for InStyle, Apartment Therapy, and more. This is her first piece for Playbill.