'Stuffy' no longer: New Wilmington Ballet leaders want to smash stereotypes

Ryan Cormier
Delaware News Journal

The new leaders of Wilmington Ballet have something in common: As young scholarship student ballet dancers, they were always the lone Black male dancers in class growing up.

Benjamin Sterling Cannon, Wilmington Ballet's first Black leader in the dance academy's nearly 65-year history, grew up in Wilmington's Southbridge and had no classmates who looked like him when he got his start at Wilmington Ballet.

Christopher Davis, the new associate artistic director, had a similar experience as he joined the world of dance.

Now years later, Cannon and Davis are in a position to do something about that and just about anything else that needs updating at the 64-year-old studio. Get ready for a new-look Wilmington Ballet, which already has ushered in changes since the pair took over just as the pandemic hit this past spring.

Benjamin Sterling Cannon, Wilmington Ballet's executive and artistic director, oversees a rehearsal of "The Nutcracker" at the Forty Acres dance studio.

New types of dance classes have been added, including hip-hop and modern dance. Musical theater is coming and possibly Irish dance, as well. And the handful of annual scholarships given each year will increase with an eye toward being inclusive to all, including the traditionally underserved.

When it's all said and done, the perception of Wilmington ballet as being stuffy will have thawed, they hope.

But more importantly for Cannon, executive and artistic director, he's giving back to kids at the same dance academy he grew up in.

He sees himself in their eyes.

"That's what keeps driving me the most in this pandemic as we face all these challenges. I don't even look at it as my job. It's my life," says Cannon, an educator who played Banzai in "The Lion King" on Broadway. "I see their hunger and aspiration. I know some of them don't believe it's actually possible. They can't really see it.

"But I know they are going to go further than they can even imagine. I'm going to push them there. It's the ultimate dream for me."

While work continues to bring new life to the 200-student ballet academy, the focus this month is not on the new, but rather on tradition.

Dancers prepare for "The Nutcracker" at Wilmington Ballet. The production will be online with live and taped performances at different venues.

For 53 years, Wilmington Ballet has performed Tchaikovsky’s "The Nutcracker" at The Playhouse on Rodney Square — its lone, large-scale show and the one that usually makes up a big part of the company's annual revenue.

But with a COVID-19 pandemic that is only accelerating nationwide and in our state, the show will not go on as it has in the past — but it will go on.

"The Nutcracker Experience," a week's worth of virtual performances and events, will kick off Monday, Dec. 7.

It will feature a mixture of prerecorded and live videos with the ballet performed in venues across the Wilmington area, including the Delaware Art Museum and, yes, The Playhouse.

Plenty of guest stars will come along with a $75 ticket price. (See more details below.) 

Shared memories of Roy Rogers

Even though Cannon and Davis both danced on Broadway and ended up in Delaware, they didn't know each other until Cannon got the job as executive and artistic director in April.

Wilmington Ballet alumna Akua Noni Parker and Jamar Roberts perform during at Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on April 21, 2016 in Miami, Florida. Parker will be a special guest at this year's all-virtual "The Nutcracker Experience" by Wilmington Ballet.

But they learned they did have one Delaware memory in common: the Roy Rogers in downtown Wilmington.

Davis had been to Wilmington once before, while on tour in the early '90s with ''Ziegfeld: a Night at the Follies." (It was yet another show in which he was the lone Black male dancer and his featured number was the "Harlem Waltz" — "Of course," he adds.)

He remembers a closed downtown — a scene unlike the much more vibrant modern Wilmington filled with restaurants and bars. 

"My Wilmington memory is that there was this Roy Rogers and it was the only place to eat in between shows. I was duly unimpressed with Wilmington, Delaware," Davis says.

But about 10 years ago, he purchased a home here after visiting a friend who had moved to the area. Once here, he began taking classes at Wilmington Ballet after hearing a former boss speak highly of the organization as an alumna. That boss was famed theater director and Wilmington native Susan Stroman, with whom Davis worked on a Madison Square Garden production, so he took notice.

After taking classes, he began to teach and eventually became a full-time instructor.

He has watched as Wilmington's downtown has flourished even more over the past decade.

Christopher Davis was named associate artistic director of Wilmington Ballet earlier this year.

"It's not a ghost town," jokes Davis, the former Roy Rogers connoisseur who now counts downtown's much more refined Merchant Bar as a local favorite. "I had no clue the budget they give to the arts in Delaware. Wilmington has so much live music and theater and entertainment. I am duly impressed." 

When Cannon hears Davis mention Roy Rogers in an interview for this article, he starts having flashbacks of his own.

"Roy Rogers was the only place we would go to between 'Nutcracker' shows, so there are countless stories and pictures of cast members still in makeup at the Roy Rogers counter ordering food," he says with a laugh. "It was part of our 'Nutcracker' tradition."

A 1991 Delcastle Technical High School graduate, Cannon performed at Three Little Bakers Dinner Theatre while in Delaware as a young dancer and later helped develop arts programs for Christina Cultural Arts Center.

In between, he's worked as a professional actor and director for touring companies, regional plays and musicals including "The Who's Tommy." Most recently, he was working as an adjunct theater and dance professor at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland.

Just like for Davis, Wilmington is now different for Cannon, as well: "It was not this artistic, creative, diverse place. It was filled with mom-and-pop stores. There was not a lot of arts. In fact, that's what drew me to Wilmington Ballet. It was the one place where I felt something was happening."

Landing together in Wilmington

Established in 1956, the dance school is tucked away in Wilmington's Forty Acres, a block from Trolley Square-area bars.

This year's "The Nutcracker" by Wilmington Ballet will be unlike the 52 editions before it.

If you thought Kelly's Logan House and Catherine Rooney's were the only places with a dance floor in the area, you haven't peeked in at 1709 Gilpin Ave.

But you won't find drunk couples grinding to a cover band like the block features at night. Instead, you'll see students of all ages getting something a bit classier: classical ballet training.

When former Wilmington Ballet head Ann Cole stepped down due to a move to the Philadelphia area — she returns to teach in Wilmington occasionally — Cannon was called to help in the search for a new leader.

The call came from now-Board President Consuella Petty, whom Cannon had met only once at a stage door following one of his Broadway performances during a trip with students. 

He'd been a professional teaching artist for more than 30 years, most recently at both the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, New Jersey and the Haddonfield Theater Arts Center in Haddonfield, New Jersey.

When Petty called and asked Cannon if he could recommend anyone, he was blunt as blunt could be: "Recommend anyone? Are you kidding me? You can everyone tell to rip the resumes up. The hunt is over."

Benjamin Sterling Cannon, Wilmington Ballet's executive and artistic director, oversees a rehearsal of "The Nutcracker" at the Forty Acres dance studio.

For Cannon, the idea of coming back to his hometown to lead the dance school that got him his start was almost too good to be true. And knowing a bit about Davis' work on Broadway, he says he immediately saw the then-teacher as a prime candidate to be his No. 2.

Davis, a Louisiana native and former college cheerleader, moved to New York as a young dancer and has been in seven Broadway shows, including "Guys and Dolls" and "Miss Saigon," along with Stroman's "A Christmas Carol" at Madison Square Garden.

"We are both new to this," Cannon says. "We're creating a relationship and building this school together at the same time." 

From B Street to Gilpin Avenue

Cannon grew up on B Street in Southbridge in his grandmother's house, where she has lived her entire life.

He comes from a musical family. His grandmother was the late jazz vocalist Millie Cannon and his uncle was vibraphonist and Wilmington police officer Lem Winchester, both well-known performers in the area.

The historic, majority Black neighborhood where Cannon grew up was where he would watch dance on PBS. At age 7, he picked up the phone book and called the first dance school he saw.

Since Wilmington Ballet was founded as Academy of the Dance, it was the first one listed alphabetically and the one he called. On the other end of the line was Academy of Dance co-founder James Jamieson, the internationally recognized Scottish dance champion who started the ballet's "Nutcracker" tradition in 1967 before leading 27 annual productions.

Benjamin Sterling Cannon, Wilmington Ballet's executive and artistic director, oversees a rehearsal of "The Nutcracker" at the Forty Acres dance studio.

"Uh, is there an adult there with you?" he remembers Jamieson asking. 

After he called back with his mother, Cannon was soon on his way to the studio, which was on West 14th Street in the Mid-Town Brandywine neighborhood at the time.

"My life was immediately transformed. I saw this space. I saw these pictures of dancers on the wall. I saw a mirror where I would be able to watch myself dance," he says. "I just ran in there and started dancing."

Jamieson told him ballet is the foundation of any dance he would want to perform, but ballet was not what Cannon had in mind.

"What little Black boy wants to do ballet?" he jokes. He had seen it on PBS and never thought of it as something he could do. Pointe shoes weren't in his future ... or so he thought.

And that's why he says representation matters.

"I never saw African American dancers doing ballet, so I didn't see myself there," he says.

Monet Mende (seated), Wilmington Ballet's ballet mistress, advises dancers during a rehearsal of "The Nutcracker" at the Forty Acres dance studio.

But after auditioning and receiving a scholarship, he studied ballet.

"It saved my life. It changed my life. Everything I learned there, I still use to this day," Cannon says. "In fact, it's the only reason I have the position that I have and the reason why I have had the career that I have had. I learned it all in a ballet studio on Fourteenth Street."

Dancers who look like them

Cannon and Davis say they are working to ensure Wilmington Ballet will remain a home for all, including little wide-eyed Black boys like they once were.

The cost for a semester of classes at Wilmington Ballet, which next runs Jan. 24 through June 11, ranges from $290 to $1,300 based on the dancer's level and the number of classes.

The school offers a few scholarships each year based on talent and financial need. A recent $30,000 grant from the Nathan M. Clark Foundation will allow them to expand the program, they said.

"I never would have been able to afford a dance class there when I was a kid, so I want to mirror the education I got there and offer it to the community, especially for kids who look like me," Cannon says. "We want to create an amazing place of comfort for young artists who aspire to be in the profession."

He's also determined to fight the stigma of what some believe a dancer's body should look like, something he and other Black dancers have faced.

"I want people to know Black bodies matter. I want to blow up all those stereotypes," says Cannon, who distinctly remembers the first time he saw a dancer who looked like him visit the school. It was General McArthur Hambrick of 'Cats.'" 

"I was like, 'Oh my gosh. He's a Black man. He's a dark skin Black man. He looks exactly like me. I can really do this,'" he adds. "And I want to offer the same exact thing to our students."

Benjamin Sterling Cannon, Wilmington Ballet's executive and artistic director, oversees a rehearsal of "The Nutcracker" at the Forty Acres dance studio.

'The Nutcracker Experience'

The pandemic has had a huge impact on the arts across the region, and even ''Nutcracker'' traditions that go back decades are not guaranteed.

In Wilmington, this year's "Nutcracker" has lower overhead than a traditional show, and a donation by the Tuttleman Foundation has helped them pull off this all-new online "The Nutcracker Experience."

David Tuttleman, foundation vice board chair, is the former owner of the iconic Kahunaville nightclub on Wilmington's Riverfront, which closed 14 years ago. Tuttleman is now involved in the medical marijuana business and has children taking classes at Wilmington Ballet, where he is on the board of directors. The foundation is title sponsor of the show.

In addition to Wilmington Ballet dancers, this year's stripped-down "Nutcracker" will feature plenty of guest performances, including former students Akua Noni Parker (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater of Harlem) and Lateef Williams (Royal Ballet of Flanders), both of whom are Black.

Benjamin Sterling Cannon, Wilmington Ballet's executive and artistic director, oversees a rehearsal of "The Nutcracker" at the Forty Acres dance studio.

Also included is Georgina Pazcoguin (New York City Ballet), Amanda Smith (Dance Theater of Harlem), Anthony Santos (Dance Theater of Harlem) and the Voloshky Ukrainian Dance Ensemble.

It will be presented online thanks to a new virtual events platform called Markee, which was developed in downtown Wilmington and launched five months ago. Craig Doig is CEO. He is also COO of Short Order, a city-based production house.

Three other local dance studios, Pieces of a Dream Academy of Dance, the McAlleer–Paulson School of Irish Dance and Stage Lights Dance Academy, also are involved in this year's production. 

The schedule includes select scenes Dec. 7 through Dec. 9 at 7 p.m. and a live special presentation in conjunction with the Delaware Art Museum on Dec. 10 at 8:30 p.m. It continues with a performance Dec. 11 at 7 p.m.

And then the major finale is on Dec. 12 at 2 p.m. with guest stars live from The Playhouse.

There will not be one full performance of the show.

"Think of it as a miniseries," Davis says.

The $75 household pass gives access to all events throughout the week.

Got a tip? Contact Ryan Cormier of The News Journal at rcormier@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2863. Follow him on Facebook (@ryancormier), Twitter (@ryancormier) and Instagram (@ryancormier).