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Caio Rodrigo of Collage Dance leaps while portraying Martin Luther King Jr. in the first movement of the iconic work, “Rise”. Photo: Todd Collins


The tension and resilience that exudes from the bodies of Tennessee-based professional ballet company, Collage Dance Collective, is a most profound thing to witness. Even proximity to this excellence inspires strength in the viewer. The dancers are as powerful in their craft as are their histories and the stories they tell from the stage.

Comprised of all dancers of color, Collage was founded in 2006 by Kevin Thomas and his partner Marcellus Harper, with the intention to inspire the growth and diversity of ballet. The impact is nothing short of stunning.

Thomas had been coming to the University of Utah’s Ballet Summer Intensive (UBSI) for years when Brooke Horejsi, the former Executive Director of UtahPresents, sought to bring the company to campus for a collaboration between the U’s professional presenting house, the School of Dance, and dance studios in the broader community.

“We want all students to see themselves in our programming,” said Chloe Jones, the current Executive Director of UtahPresents. “We center diversity and cross-campus collaboration in our curatorial process, partly to grow the number of students who can identify and engage with our programming.”

Professor (Lecturer) and Director of UBSI, Maggie Wright Tesch, stepped up to help envision, craft, and fund via an awarded teaching grant, what ultimately became an important partnership that will live on much longer than its time on the stage.

Wright Tesch and her colleagues in the school have been engaging in thoughtful and dedicated work to examine and address issues around equity, diversity, and inclusion in dance.

“This is me walking the walk,” she said, speaking about doing more than just talking about action in this realm. It’s her choreography of change.

After auditions held in early spring of 2023, 16 U School of Dance students and 60 community dancers aged 8 to 18 were cast. The community dancers came from West Point Ballet in Bluffdale, run by ballet alumna Juliana Martin and Bountiful School of Ballet, led by Megan Ware.

Both Martin and Ware described the professional and societal impacts.


Leads Maya Hawkins and Caio Rodrigo from Collage Dance take a bow with the local and national cast of “Rise” performed in Spring 2023 in the Marriott Center for Dance. Photo: Todd Collins

Quote: Ware said, “In a state that is not incredibly diverse, especially in a predominately white suburb, these lessons are so valuable to our children.”

“This collaboration has helped to broaden my dancers’ horizons,” Martin said. “Not only do they get to perform such a unique work, but participating in a professional production like this is an amazing opportunity.”

Ware said, “In a state that is not incredibly diverse, especially in a predominately white suburb, these lessons are so valuable to our children.”

That very representation is the foundational reason Thomas, a former professional ballet dancer, started the company. He grew up not seeing himself reflected from the stage and was denied opportunity because of the color of his skin.

“Little Black boys need to see themselves on the stage,” he said. And that is just the tip of the iceberg of impact Collage, which now includes a conservatory alongside the professional company, and tours the country giving more of us the chance to experience inclusive ballet.

What ultimately manifested here in Utah were public performances in the Marriott Center for Dance — harmonious and dynamic presentations of artistry, meaning, and unity. In addition to the evening shows for the broader community, the project welcomed roughly 600 elementary school students who attended one of UtahPresents student matinees, which are funded, in part, by a ZAP (Zoo, Arts and Parks) grant.

Collage’s most iconic work, “Rise,” was one of the shows’ highlights. It’s a piece beautifully constructed with an original composition by Jonathan Kirkscey and Kirk Smith that combines music with the text of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech “I’ve Been to the Mountain-top” which he gave April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

The piece lands with the most meaningful and welcomed punch. It is a mighty portrayal of perseverance and possibility when we all come together to lift each other up.

Mercedes Stout (15) from West Point Ballet was cast to perform the Letter Solo in “Rise” where she plays a young white girl who had written to MLK, Jr. after he had been stabbed at a book signing in New York City. The girl had heard on the news that if he had even sneezed, he would have died. And she expressed gratitude that he hadn’t.

As a white girl of the same age, Stout felt a sincere connection to her character.

“We stand up for who we are, our rights to fight for freedom, and equality and for everything to be just,” she said. “Being part of this powerful production has opened my mind to see how discriminating people have been against others.”

Annalise Wood, a first-year student in the School of Dance, was also cast in the production. Being able to work with a professional company at such an early stage in her career — especially one that supported and connected with the local dancers with such generosity — was deeply inspiring. As was the content of the work.

“The message of the piece ‘Rise’ to me is that of unification and determination,” Wood said. “Unification of people from around the world, with different backgrounds and histories, in order to challenge the notion of equality.”

Her favorite part was when “a line of about ten women walk on stage holding on to one another, physically unifying and standing together.”

It echoed Thomas’ sentiments when asked how he feels about going to communities where most of the people he’ll work with might not be dancers of color.

He answered swiftly and with such intention: “We can’t move this alone.” ▪

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