Ja’Malik Begins a New Era as Madison Ballet’s Artistic Director: Ballet Salvation

Ja'Malik

Ja’Malik has trained and performed with some of the leading African American dance theaters including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Part 2 of 2

By Jonathan Gramling

Ever since Ja’Malik can remember, Madison Ballet’s new artistic director, he has had the movement within him.

“We have this saying in the African American culture and community: ‘Black people dance at home,’” Ja’Malik said. “You pull back the rug and move the couch. And on a Friday night, you would play Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder and the whole family is dancing. It’s naturally in Black people to dance in our culture. That’s where we come from in Africa. We haven’t lost that tradition in any way, shape or form. I grew up with dancing with basement parties, house parties, family parties, holiday gatherings and things like that. But I never connected it to a professional career. I just enjoyed movement.”

In many ways, ballet found Ja’Malik. It gave him the structure that he craved and the demanding schedule that kept him away from the streets.

“I started with one class on Friday evenings and two on Saturday mornings,” Ja’Malik said. “I did that for a year. They pushed me really quickly. I think within six months, I started taking more and more classes. I was taking one class a day, Monday through Friday and then I would take three classes on Saturday. I had Sunday off. This was during junior high school. Then I went to a performing arts high school for 9-12 grade. There I learned modern dance. They had a ballet class that wasn’t that amazing. The classes that I was taking at Marguerite Duncan were much more

geared to what I wanted to do. But it was great to have that extra experience and meet people who pushed me to go to New York and do summer intensives with American Ballet Theater, Dance Theater of Harlem and Alvin Ailey. If I hadn’t had all of these coincidences, I don’t really know where my career and life would have ended up.”

Ja’Malik attended a performing arts high school in Cleveland and supplemented that as an apprentice with the Cleveland Ballet when he was 16-years-old. Unfortunately, Cleveland Ballet moved to San Jose after a year. But the summer intensives he attended kept him well focused on ballet and by the time he graduated from high school, he was ready for that next step.

“When I went to New York, I went to school,” Ja’Malik said. “I went to The New School, which had a joint BFA program with the Joffrey Ballet at the time. I did not have to do the struggling artist thing. I was in a dorm. I was in a school. I was taken care of. I had a scholarship. I had funding. I didn’t have to struggle too much although it wasn’t easy because I wanted more. I worked at Starbucks in the morning at 4:30 a.m. I would open the door. And then I would go to my ballet classes at Joffrey at 9 a.m. Then I would go to my academic classes at 12 noon and then I would run uptown to Ailey because I was going to Ailey also. I wanted to get more training than I had. I was an Ailey scholarship recipient and I was also a part of their student performances. I would take classes, rehearse and then I would come back downtown to Joffrey for more classes and rehearsals. I would get home about 10:30-11 p.m. and I had to do all of my homework for my classes. I went to bed around 1:30-2 a.m. and then I had to wake up at 4 p.m. I wasn’t struggling during college, but I was tired. I was exhausted by the time I graduated from college.”

Ja’Maik had the opportunity to perform several times with Alvin Ailey before he began the transition from student to professional.

“I also got the amazing opportunity from being at Ailey to work with Louis Johnson and his company,” Ja’Malik said. “He just passed away a year ago. I also got to work with Alpha Omega, which is a dance company in New York. And I got to work with Eleo Pomare who is a great post-modernist choreographer. I got to work with them for about 10 years. I got to work with a lot of the legendary Black modern dance artists of our time. And I am grateful for that. I wouldn’t have had those experiences if I hadn’t put myself out there and lived in New York the way that I did.”

Ja’Malik discovered another passion during his early teens: Choreography.

“When I was 13-years-old, I thought I would go back to Ailey,” Ja’Malik said. “I saw a performance of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and they did a piece called Urban Fold Dance by Ulysses Dove. I sat in the audience and I was in tears. I said, ‘Beyond being a dancer, what I really want to do is be a choreographer. Whatever it was that he created — it was a very heavy piece for a 13-year-old — on that stage, I wanted to do that. I wanted to make people feel the way that I felt sitting there in that audience watching that dance. I was inspired, curious, excited, and angry. It invoked so many different emotions, so I knew that I wanted to do that. But I thought I had to become a professional dancer in order to become a choreographer. I didn’t know if you could do one without the other. I started choreographing around 14. And I’ve just been chugging and chipping away at it ever since. It wasn’t until the last year — the pandemic was good to me in that regard — that things started moving forward for me as a choreographer. I got to work with the Charlotte Ballet and other groups. That’s really what the transition was. And then I created my own company out of the necessity because I wasn’t getting opportunities to choreograph. It was making me angry. It was frustrating me. It wasn’t amazing, but I thought I definitely had the skills and if I had the opportunities to grow as a choreographer, I could become even better. So I started Ballet Boy Productions as a way for young men of color — typically Black guys — to have all of the things that I didn’t have growing up like mentoring, education, training and performance opportunities. I used that as my opportunity to help mentor and guide the next generation.”

And that experience is what led to Ja’Malik becoming artistic director at Madison Ballet. While Ja’Malik thought long and hard about taking the Madison Ballet position, it was his curiosity and willingness to try new things that led him to take the position. Ja’Malik came on board at the beginning of the summer and y the end of September, Madison Ballet was performing its first piece that he choreographed. From the audience and community feedback, he knew he had made the right decision.

“Everyone has been supportive,” Ja’Malik emphasized. “This weekend was the first fully choreographed program by myself as artistic director. The audience feedback was what I wanted to hear. I wish we had a larger audience to see the amazing work that is going on here. I know that we will get there. But I do wish that more people had seen this opening weekend. I hope they come next week for more. That gave me reassurance that what I am doing is right because they said that they had never seen anything like that, which had so much passion. It felt modern. It felt current. It spoke to them directly. I think I am on the right path as far as my vision goes, being supported not only by the community, but also by the administration and board members of Madison Ballet.”

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Ja’Malik hopes to diversify Madison Ballet on many levels. Currently there are no Black ballet dancers.

“One of my main things is to diversify ballet, not just with color, but also with race and women and giving female-identifying choreographers opportunities to create because there is such a lack of diversity in that spectrum,” Ja’Malik emphasized. “More people of color, Black people should be able to choreograph and not just choreograph, but to think that they can do anything within the art form. They can be artistic directors. They can be rehearsal directors. They can stage the set for ballets. They can teach. They can work administratively. They can do anything behind the scenes as well as in front of the audiences who come to see us.”

Outside of the performances and lessons that Madison Ballet provides, Ja’Malik hopes to connect the company more to the community. And perhaps Ja’Malik will reach out to a child with raw talent just like he was and help them save their life through ballet. In the world of ballet, anything is possible. Just ask Ja’Malik.

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