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With a background in ballet, songwriting, singing, and EDM, La’Toya Princess Jackson has done it all. As a Master of Liberal Arts degree candidate at the Harvard Extension School, she has brought her unique blend of art forms to Harvard. Her new original work, “Vanity Lane,” uses classical ballet, ’80s music, and EDM to tell a complex story about beauty and self-love. The Harvard Crimson sat down with Jackson to discuss her artistic trajectory, “Vanity Lane,” and inclusion on stage.
The Harvard Crimson: How did you first become interested in ballet?
La’Toya Princess Jackson: My path is kind of unconventional. I started getting interested in ballet when I was in college as an undergrad. I had taken a ballet class when I was 14, but I hadn’t been exposed to ballet when I was younger. My path as a dancer started as a jazz dancer in high school. One of the girls in high school was very good at ballet, and she invited me to a ballet class, but when I went there, there weren’t any dancers that looked like me.
This was all in Fort Worth, Texas. I grew up in a small town in the Arlington/Fort Worth area, and there were no dancers [who] looked like me. They put me in ballet classes that weren’t appropriate for my level, so I thought that ballet wasn’t for me. I got exposed to ballet again right out of college. I saw Ballethnic Dance Company’s Urban Nutcracker. It was my first time seeing a ballet with black ballet dancers on stage, and I realized I wanted to do that. And that was when I started getting serious about ballet.
THC: Do you consider ballet to be your primary art form? Or are there other mediums you prefer?
LPJ: Ballet is one of [the] things I like to do to express my art. I wouldn’t say it’s my primary, because I started as a songwriter. Music and dance to me are married. They both play a huge part in the artistic creation, and in my artistic developments. I would say that it’s music and dance combined, but ballet is my favorite thing to do as a performer. I use what I do as a ballet dancer to inform what I do as a songwriter. I want the stories I create in my ballet to tell the stories I write in my songs.
THC: If you had to pick an influential artist, who would they be?
LPJ: I can’t pick one, but the two that have been instrumental in my process are Janet Jackson and Prince. Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” album is what [got me into dancing]. I was really young when I discovered “Rhythm Nation,” but it was something that inspired me as a dancer. When I was young I would watch her move, and how intricate her movements were. I wanted to replicate that.
Prince inspired me in my artistry. As a musician and songwriter, “Vanity Lane” was almost inspired by “Purple Rain’” and how Prince told the story of “Purple Rain” through the music as well as the movie, ‘“Purple Rain.” [It] was also a really important album for me growing up. It saved me from a lot of thing I was experiencing in my childhood and helped me escape that. Combined, Prince and Janet gave me an outlet to start to explore my own artistic expressions.
THC: What inspired you to draw on such a diverse swath of influences, ballet, hip-hop, EDM and ’80s music, in creating “Vanity Lane?”
LPJ: It’s all from everything that has inspired me: I started a ballet program at the Boys and Girls club of metro Atlanta, and a lot of those students didn’t really like ballet because they didn’t see how it related to them. I remember seeing them really respond to Princess Tiana from “Princess and the Frog.” I watched that movie and [thought] that these are the things these kids are connecting to.
With Ballethnic I saw how in “Urban Nutcracker,” they kept classical ballet elements in their “Nutcracker,” but they also started to infuse things that reflected the African American experience with Act Two.
All of those things shaped and informed how I decided to approach “Vanity Lane.” I wanted to have something where people could see themselves, especially African-Americans. In my experience—I work for the Boston Ballet—when I look at the audiences and the stories I realize that a lot of diversity isn’t reflected since so many of the stories come from the European tradition.“Giselle,” “Cinderella,” and “The Sleeping Beauty” are all European folklore or fairy tales. I felt like in order to tell a story that’s authentic to our experience, and to give people the chance to dance diverse roles, you have to get to the source. And the source of that is creating stories that people can relate to. That’s why I decided to write an original fairytale, an original story with characters that [are] so diverse, that when it comes to the stage it gives people the opportunity to have their experiences reflected in different ways.
THC: If “Vanity Lane” was to be condensed into a paper, what would its thesis be?
LPJ: The thesis would be that the main character goes through a journey of self-exploration and finds herself. Not in the traditional sense of finding love through a man or external forces but finding love within herself. When she finds love within herself, she realizes that’s where true beauty lies. True beauty comes from within, and the other things that we perceive beauty to be are external factors, and that’s not where beauty comes from.
THC: How do you feel that ballet, and perhaps the artistic community as a whole, needs to change and how can that change be made?
LPJ: First, I believe it starts with organizations recognizing that though they are trying to move forward with diversity, there are still a lot of things that they don’t get. For example, I’m the only African-American on faculty at Boston Ballet, and even within that we have programs that are great programs, but there’s still a disconnect on how we give access to students [who] typically don’t have access to ballet.
And we can give that access, but then there are also other barriers such as hair and tights. Pink tights for black ballet dancers do nothing for our lines, so it’s about having brown tights, and brown ballet shoes. It’s about changing the mindset and the culture of these ballet companies to where they are truly reflective of our experiences. It’s not enough to just have a program in a community, or to have one black ballet dancer as a company dancer or a principal dancer in the company. It’s about what you’re doing to change the culture of your company so that black ballet dancers and dancers of color feel welcome into your organization, because there are so many factors that go into dancers of color not feeling welcome.
Even in offering ballet classes or giving access, how are you [getting] people [to] come into the organization and feel included? It also starts with not just promoting people within the company, but having people in positions that can choreograph and create stories and give something more authentic. It’s also important to recognize that there are companies like Dance Theatre of Harlem that have black ballet dancers, that are doing phenomenal work and raising great ballet dancers. I think the ballet world has a lot of room to grow. They’re slowly getting there, but it’s not there. There are a lot of things that could be changed to get there.
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