Former Butler ballet dancer Lindsey [Pitts] Croop was sitting in the green room of the Detroit Opera House last week peeling banana between rehearsal and the technical run through later that evening.
"It's where all the snacks are so it's my favorite hang out" laughs Croop.
Croop is now in her fourth season with the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), a company out of New York whose primary focus is diversity and accessibility. As she sat preparing for three performances in Detroit, Croop was already thinking about her return to Indiana — it would be the first time (since a year after she graduated) that she would set foot in Indy. Croop, along with DTH, will perform at Clowes Hall at Butler University. For Croop it will be a chance to debut everything she has learned in a place that built her technical foundation.
Croop speaks rather nostalgically of her time at Butler, where she was a dance and journalism major. From Midland, Texas, she found herself drawn to the variety of classes she could take; things like Slavic and Spanish character as vivid examples of dance classes that have formed her approach to ballet.
"I feel like [we are] looking like at dance through a very holistic approach ... so I can really understand what each person in the entire company does," says Croop, nodding to the way DTH has helped her build on her experiences at Butler as a dancer.
Founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook, DTH was once called "one of ballet's most exciting undertakings" by The New York Times. (Mitchell was the first African-American principal dancer at New York City Ballet.) The company has since performed all over the world, in the White House, trained thousands of young dancers, and most importantly given a glimpse of representation where there was none.
The idea of representation was something that was a constant hum in Croop's mind. Croop is mixed, and for her, finding a community in and around herself was a constant struggle.
"Sometimes growing up I felt like I didn't have anyone necessarily to relate to," says Croop. "Sometimes my white friends would be like, 'oh you're Black.' and I would would be like, 'oh, okay.' And my Black friends would be like, 'oh you're mixed aren't you?' I think there are certain cultural differences that I guess children especially aren't afraid to get into immediately ... For me specifically and in the town I grew up in, I felt like I was racially more comfortable in the white community."
As a child — from the time she was held as an infant, soothed by dance to the years of rigorous pointe classes — Croop only saw slivers of diversity in her passion. Therefore she only saw a minuscule representation of herself. It wasn't until she did an internship in college that she was able to find herself in her artwork.
"With the Black community there was so much pride," says Croop recalling the internship. "And it was really celebrating the beauty of it ... That was a part of me that I felt like I was always trying to fit in other places instead of celebrating those parts of me. So at DTH ... I felt like I was truly able to be myself and accept myself. I think for other people on the stages, when they see Dance Theatre of Harlem it's a powerful statement. I think dance is a universal language so everyone can connect to the beauty of it. It can bring all races together and all people together. And you can connect on something other than your differences. You can connect on beauty and inspiration and transient power."
The lineup that DTH has planned for the Indianapolis tour stop (in each city they pull a few variations from their repertoire) seems to connect with that power. One of the pieces to be performed is Divertimento, a mashup of three couples each representing a different period of classical ballet. It's technically stunning. One of Croop's favorites in the Indy line-up is Front Porch by Ulysses Dove, a ballet written out of heartbreak and loss as a means to heal. The score has no count or music, it is only bells.
"That allows a lot of play with your artistry, and artistic decisions you can make," says Croop. "I think everyone has dealt with loss and can connect with it ... Usually I try to bring myself to a place where I have someone in my heart and dedicate the piece to them. it feels like a gift or a release to something."
Coming Together by Nacho Duato, in contrast, will showcase an energetic series where the dancers are barefoot. Croop has been told by audiences that this one is exhilarating because the dancers never stop moving.
For Croop, a few things stand out about the way DTH interacts. She adds that most dancers in professional companies define themselves individualistically and are rarely able to in the context of an entire company.
"[DTH] broadened me in that way as a person and as a dancer," says Croop. She calls the other six female dancers and seven male dancers "family." She also notes that the entire ensemble is composed of performers and athletes from around the globe.
"That is something that I love more and more all the time," says Croop. "One for me, where I grew up there wasn't a lot of diversity. I think I just didn't know any different at the time. For me coming to Dance Theatre of Harlem and being around dancers who are culturally diverse and I just feel like it helped me connect with myself. I am more solid in my being ... I feel like especially in African-American culture sometimes it's hard to find things to have pride in. So much focus is put on the struggle. And there has been a struggle. So I feel like having something positive to bring to the community, to inspire. I guess a lot of time in the Black community people feel the burden of if it hasn't been done it won't be done. So I have seen little girls who are like, 'I didn't know I could be a ballerina.'"
Offering that point of access is what keeps Croop with the company. For example, she was able to speak at the White House with Michelle Obama. And on a smaller, but just as powerful scale, Croop told a story about visiting Honduras for a performance a few years ago. She prefaced it with comparing the living conditions to the U.S., then putting that in relation to things that are not seen as necessary, like artistic spaces.
"There was this little girl who saw us dance and asked her family to move to the U.S.," says Croop. "It was us coming and working with them that was her being like, 'I want a better life. I want to dance. I want to pursue dance.' That led her parents to move."
The family came to a DTH show in New Orleans this past fall.
"I can't believe that this simple performance I did had this impact on their life, says Croop.
"I feel like with our performances — since we do such a broad range of ballet there's an entry point for everybody. So the very classical ballets that might be stuffy — to someone, of any race — who hasn't seen a ballet before. It's a little bit like going to an opera; It's intimidating. We take classical movement and mix it with an urban movement vocabulary. Or we will do ballet to a score of James Brown and Aretha Franklin. So I feel like in every piece there is something different and fascinating. I don't know, I feel like it is very representative of the American culture as a whole — what America has become ... Americans are known for our energy or our rawness. Dance Theatre of Harlem does a great job of capturing that while still including all of the technicalities and refinements of classical ballet."