Even as a first grader at RR Moton Elementary in South Miami-Dade, Christopher Rudd wanted to dance. But a teacher at the arts magnet school told Rudd dance wasn’t for boys, and so instead he tried art (disastrous) and acting (also.) And that could have been that for him. But when he was in fourth grade, Ruth Wiesen, a teacher at Thomas Armor Youth Ballet looking for talented African-American boys, gave Rudd a scholarship. A year later, in 1991, Miami City Ballet cast Rudd as the boy Prince in the Nutcracker – the first African-American child to dance the lead role in a major production. Rudd went on to New World School of the Arts and a successful career, performing with top ballet companies and even in China with Cirque du Soleil.
“When I was living in China I couldn’t believe dance had given me this journey,” says Rudd, 38. “Dance would not have been my future if it were not for Thomas Armour Youth Ballet and the access to fall in love with dance. I’m so grateful.”
This Saturday, Rudd’s long dance journey brings him back to where he started, as Dance NOW! Miami performs his Fight or F(l)ight, which they commissioned, at the Colony Theatre on Miami Beach.
“I’ve always been aware that people in Miami supported me and wanted me to succeed,” he says. “That pride I felt growing up has kept me going all these years.”
Talent is crucial in the arts. But opportunity is just as important for those who don’t have the money to pay for training and the myriad other things – transportation, clothing, supplies – needed to become an artist. The Miami network of teachers, schools and community that nourished Rudd has also fostered a number of successful black male dance artists. They include Robert Battle, the Liberty City raised artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre; Jamar Roberts, the spectacular Ailey dancer and budding choreographer, and Uri Sands, a former Ailey dancer who co-directs and choreographs for TU Dance in St. Paul Minnesota – both also from South Dade.
Dance NOW! co-directors Diego Salterini and Hannah Baumgarten have now joined that community. They raised $7,000 for the Rudd commission, the first project of the troupe’s New Voices initiative. The project grew out of their Miami Open Stage program, where they presented work by 80 choreographers from 2010-2015 – and where a 2014 solo by Rudd caught their attention.
The 19-year old company, which has become a rare Miami dance institution, has lovingly reconstructed pieces by modern and ballet pioneers Jose Limon, Doris Humphrey, and Gerald Arpino in recent years. With the Rudd commission, they’re connecting past and future generations, not just in choreography, but in the Miami dance community. A number of their dancers also trained at Thomas Armour and at New World; they were excited to work with Rudd, whom they’d heard about through New York dance friends. The commission has paid for Daniel Lewis, founding dean of dance at New World, to mentor Rudd, providing key artistic and career advice. The troupe has invited students at the Armour conservatory to a Dec. 9th performance in South Miami.
“We want to show those students that the next step is what Chris has done, and it can also include returning home,” Baumgarten says. “We couldn’t be happier to put a cherry on top of this story – and to show him that Miami can be a place for him to take his next step.”
“A huge part of the last decade for us has been honoring the past. This is our first opportunity to look to the future, to acknowledge someone we think will be a bright star. We consider this as much of an opportunity for us as for him.”
Rudd took his first step thanks to Wiesen, who worked to open up ballet to African-American children here, long before the rise of Misty Copeland focused the ballet world’s attention on the issue. Wiesen was galvanized to act in 1985, when she presented the Armour school’s all-white student troupe at a public school filled with black children, one of whom told her “I want to be a ballerina, too. But I know only white girls can be ballerinas.”
“It was a rude awakening,” Wiesen told me in 1995, when I wrote about her campaign to bring minority students to the Amour conservatory for the Miami Herald, focusing on a 14-year-old Rudd and a handful of other talented black teenagers for whom Wiesen was a loving mentor. “They made their own success,” she said. “All we did was give them an edge, a place to be successful.”
Even then Rudd’s devotion to dance, and his understanding, was extraordinary.
“I realized that dancing was a completion of me,” Rudd told me. “Before I had my body, but there was a piece of it missing. And the part that was missing was dancing. I don’t think life would be worth anything without it.”
Rudd’s single mother, who worked for the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer department, gave a loving, stable home to him and his three siblings. But Wiesen was his artistic mom; she got him to classes and performances, let him spend nights at her house, fed him, treated him like her own.
“I remember saying to my friends I’ve had more Hannukahs than Christmases because I would spend so much time with [Wiesen’s] family during the holidays,” Rudd says. At a recent Miami dance concert, he ran to hug Wiesen’s daughter Sarah Lozoff. “Even now I call Sarah my sister,” he says.
Wiesen’s support and the scholarship at the Armour conservatory led to Rudd being cast in MCB’s production of The Nutcracker in 1991, another key experience. He remembers worrying when founding artistic director Edward Villella kept singling him out during a special workshop for boys at the Armour school. “I was so nervous at the audition, and when I got the call I was jumping on the couch, I was so happy,” he remembers. ABC featured him on national television as their “Person of the Week” and the Herald’s then dance critic Laurie Horn did a major feature on him. Rehearsing at the company’s old Lincoln Road studios, Rudd felt like the whole troupe was behind him, particularly Myrna Kamara, a glamorous black principal, and Kareen Pauld Camargo, a sparkling Haitian-American soloist. “I felt like everyone was rooting for me,” Rudd says. “I just thought everyone was on my side and wanted me to succeed.”
At New World he had the support of Lewis and of Peter London, the legendary teacher who has trained generations of dance students – and whose Peter London Global Dance Company has also presented a work by Rudd. Wiesen and the Armour school created a relationship with Dance Theater of Harlem that led to Rudd getting regular scholarships to their summer intensives. He went on to a richly rewarding career – dancing with the Carolina Ballet, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, the Pennsylvania Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera and performing works by choreographers ranging from George Balanchine and Christopher Wheeldon to Shen Wei and Ohad Naharin. Since moving to New York to start RudduR Dance in 2015, he’s choreographed for numerous schools and received major grants and residencies – his company was even sponsored by the U.S. Department of State to travel to Burkina Faso.
Miami continues to be part of Rudd’s journey, as he struggles with the formidable new challenge of choreographing for and running a company. He created Fight or F(l)ight, inspired by the frustration of living in America under Trump, and also by a recent health scare, on Dance Now’s performers in less than two weeks. “It was go, go go,” he says. “It was the first time I’ve created a piece in such a short time, and I’m incredibly proud of it.”
“There’s a lot of doubt in starting a company,” he says. “Every time I start to lose faith another opportunity presents itself. To have an established institution like Dance Now take note is a moment that says you’re on the right track, don’t give up. You’re almost there.”
IF YOU GO: Dance NOW! Miami performs Chris Rudd’s Fight or F(l)ight and works by Salterini and Baumgarten at 8:30pm Saturday at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach. Tickets are $35, or $15 for students and seniors (with ID and at box office only.) Tickets at http://www.colonymb.org/dance-now-miami or 800-211-1414.
The program repeats Dec. 9 at the Dave and Mary Alper JCC, 11155 SW 112th Ave., Miami; tickets $15 – $25 at tickit.alperjcc.org/Attractions.
More info at www.dancenowmiami.org.