The Big, Bold Vision of Collage Dance Collective

The Memphis-based ballet company and conservatory has become one of the city’s cultural anchors in just over a decade, after humble beginnings teaching in a church basement. Now, it has a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility, and a mission to diversify the ballet pipeline.

Two dancers, both wearing red masks with a "C" for Collage on them, dance in a white-walled studio. Their arms are in first arabesque.
Photo by Mohammed Al-Taher, courtesy Collage Dance Collective

The first official Collage Dance Collective class had one student, and was taught in the basement of a Methodist church.

Now, just over a decade later, the Memphis-based ballet company and conservatory is teaching 250 students (a number which they anticipate will grow significantly next year) in a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility—the doors of which opened in the middle of a pandemic, no less.

Collage’s journey to becoming a cultural anchor in Memphis has been fueled by its mission: To increase representation for dancers of color in ballet, and to enrich—both culturally and socioeconomically—communities of color through access to the arts.

“Our vision is to be a major player in how ballet can look, to make it more relevant and accessible and exciting and viable for more people,” says Marcellus Harper, Collage’s executive director.

Collage’s beginnings

The first iteration of Collage Dance Collective was as a pickup dance company in New York City founded in 2006 by Harper and Kevin Thomas, Collage’s artistic director, who was a principal at Dance Theatre of Harlem at the time.

A dancer stands in releve arabesque at the barre, wearing a mask. She is in a large studio with a wall of windows behind her, overlooking some trees.
Photo by Mohammed Al-Taher, courtesy Collage Dance Collective

A year later, the company moved from New York City to Memphis with a mission to extend the reach of classical ballet training in this vibrant, predominantly Black city. “In New York, there are like a million companies already,” says Thomas. “And we realized we needed to bring this message to another part of the United States that didn’t have this kind of culture. That’s why we came to Memphis.”

When Harper and Thomas arrived in Memphis, they immersed themselves in the local arts community to assess the city’s need for a dance company. “It was important to us to know what was already being done,” says Harper. “Could Memphis support another ballet company? Did it need or want one? Was there a nonprofit already working towards our vision? If so, could we support their efforts? These were the questions we were asking, and ultimately we found that our vision was unique and needed, and that there was a community ready to grow around our work.”

Initially, Thomas admits that a dance school was not part of the plan for Collage. But in order to stay true to their mission of extending the reach of classical ballet training to young dancers of color, he realized: “We need to start creating these dancers right here, instead of just bringing them in.”

From church basement to state-of-the-art facility

Before Collage acquired its first small studio space in 2012, made possible by a generous $24,000 donation from a parent that covered the first year of rent, Thomas taught Collage Ballet Conservatory’s first student in the basement of a local Methodist church.  

In 2015, Collage graduated into a 2,000-square-foot space in the Broad Avenue Arts District in midtown Memphis. And in December 2019, the company broke ground on a 22,500-square-foot facility in the Binghampton community.

The exterior of Collage's new building, a large, sleek space with lots of windows.
Collage’s new building. Photo by David Roseberry, courtesy Collage Dance Collective

But when the COVID-19 outbreak hit in the middle of Collage’s construction and $11 million fundraising campaign, the future of the new building—and the company—was temporarily in limbo.

“Fighting a construction timeline in a pandemic was the hardest thing we’ve ever done,” says Harper. “Its impact and timing was so unpredictable. We were terrified that we would build something no one could use immediately.”

While the pandemic did create some unexpected challenges—like design changes caused by manufacturing delays, and having to create a reopening plan for a building that was never open in the first place—construction was not interrupted, and in late 2020, Collage moved into its new facility.

Designed by archimania, the architects behind Ballet Memphis’ space, the facility is touted as the largest of its kind in the mid-South, and includes five large performance and rehearsal studios, individual bathrooms with showers, a physical therapy room, 21 offices and workstations for administrative staff, and six lounges, courtyards and lobbies for families to work, study and relax in.

The lobby of Collage's new building, with colorful, trendy furniture, sleek overhead lighting, a front desk, a tv and wood paneled walls.
Photo by David Roseberry, courtesy Collage Dance Collective

One perk of building in the middle of a pandemic: The ability to make adjustments to better facilitate safe and socially distant dancing. The facility now has extra-wide hallways, a modern air-filtration system and multiple single-person, touchless restrooms.

Collage’s capital campaign is still underway: To date, the company has raised $9.5 million, which includes a $5 million anonymous gift from a local foundation. Collage also secured roughly $1.6 million in new market tax credits because its mission and the location of the project impacts under-resourced and underserved communities.

The pandemic presented some unexpected costs, including PPE, security, and technology for virtual programming and classes. But, fortunately, Collage already had a cause that supporters could rally behind. “While a lot of other companies had to turn their focus to ask for help, because they were in this state of emergency, we were ableto say, ‘Hey, we have this bold vision for this cultural anchor for Memphis. We have a bold vision for how ballet can look in the 21st century. We want you to get behind this,’” says Harper.

Diversifying ballet’s pipeline

Since 2009, Collage Ballet Conservatory has trained more than 3,000 students, with around 250 students from the ages of 2 to 18 currently on the roster. Twenty-five percent of these students are on some level of scholarship and 100 percent receive subsidized tuition. “The average cost to train a Collage student is $1,500 a year, and the average tuition cost is $800, which leaves a $700 gap per student we have to raise,” explains Harper.

Another feather in Collage’s cap: Its students have been accepted into prestigious programs, including the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, and gone on to train with Alonzo King LINES Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Houston Ballet and Boston Ballet.

Seven middle school aged students, all Black, perform a ballet piece onstage in front of a purple backdrop. They wear teal and black costumes.
Collage Dance Conservatory students. Photo by Ariel Cobbert, courtesy Collage

“We’re seeing the pipeline start to work, and that wouldn’t have been possible without the work we’ve done over the past decade in Memphis,” Harper says.

Pre-pandemic, Collage was training an additional 250 students weekly through its Turning Pointe outreach program, one of Memphis’ largest in-school ballet programs. The Turning Pointe program ensures that students in lower-income communities have access to ballet training without the burden of fees.

“This initiative has been an important piece of our strategy to broaden the pool of talent. It allows us to create pipelines in underserved communities and identify students who have talent, work ethic and passion, and then scholarship them to train at our conservatory more intensively,” says Harper.

Expanding the footprint of ballet

Collage’s dance-company arm walks the walk of its mission, with 11 dancers of color from the U.S., South America and the Dominican Republic who typically tour nationally and internationally.

With the future of in-person dance on hold indefinitely, Collage was able to partner with a local CBS affiliate tobroadcast its entire 11th season. “We’ve had over a hundred thousand people that have experienced our fall and winter episodes, and those numbers completely dwarf what our goals would have been if the performances were live,” says Harper.

Collage also began offering $10 hip-hop, dance-fusion, ballet and yoga classes for adults on Zoom and launched an $11 monthly digital membership program with perks like discounts, full performances, behind-the-scenes footage and long-form versions of the CBS specials.

“We’re growing the audience and we’re educating people on the art form. One of our strong beliefs is that if you don’t know anything about ballet, if you’re not educated on it, it’s hard to really be an engaged, interested and active patron,” Harper says.

Though Collage is still a young company, it’s already made a noticeable impact in its adopted community. Thomas and Harper say that when they came to Memphis, there were no Black professional ballet dancers living and working in the city, few Black students training in ballet on a competitive level, and few Black families engaged in the art form.

Now, 85 percent of Collage Dance Conservatory’s student population is Black, and the dance company’s audience is roughly 55 percent Black, 35 percent white and 10 percent Latinx and Asian.

“I think it’s high time for more diversity. And part of that is really shedding light on and growing the broader community. Because it’s not just dancers, it’s the fans of dancers and those who are impacted by it,” says Harper. “There’re lots of opportunities the mainstream dance industry is not tapping into. So we’re succeeding in doing that in Memphis—our experiment is proving to be right. And I think it can be replicated in other parts of the country.”

Tracy E. Hopkins is a Brooklyn-based writer who has contributed to Essence, Woman’s Day and Sisters from AARP, among other media. She is also a producer on an award-winning documentary about tap dance legend Maurice Hines.