By Aaron Allen
Jonathan Batista was recently promoted to Principal Dancer at the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Batista’s historic promotion makes him the first Black artist named Principal Dancer in the 50-year history of PNB.
Born in the City of God in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, Batista credits his parents with keeping him very active as a youth in extracurricular activities to help shield him from the dangers and crime that were prevalent in the area at the time. Growing up, Batista was involved in a plethora of different dance classes, sports, and several different martial art styles just to keep him off the streets.
“I think my parents were very smart in this sense to really place me everywhere, to place me in every activity, I always had to study and do things and their hopes were that I would identify myself with one of these things,” Batista says. “And ballet is about discipline. You have to really be invested in order for you to become a ballet dancer, a professional ballet dancer, you have to invest all your time in your being, your mind, your body. And once I started travelling and communicating with people, I think that is when I fell in love with ballet. It was the people, and the community that was important to me.”
According to Batista, dance was not necessarily his first love, but believes that dance found him. Upon distinguishing himself in the field of dance in ballet, Batista was offered a scholarship to continue studying ballet. After four years of study, Batista was offered a scholarship from the UK’s English National Ballet School in London where he studied for three years.
“I think growing up in a very humble place, crime life was a part of it, it was quite dangerous, so my parents kept me busy,” says Batista.
“I was a very busy kid. I went from ballroom dancing to drama theater, to martial arts, I did DJing, graffiti, piano, guitar, swimming, basketball, volleyball you name it,” Batista continues. “When I started dance in the projects, I was the only boy, the usual story you’re the only boy in your community doing ballet, but when I moved to more of a professional ballet school in Rio, I was very confused, I think dance chose me. It was not love at first sight. I inform people when it comes to my career, I feel like my career has been a tool to open doors for the current and next generation and I feel like I have been on a mission.”
London is where Batista first experienced seeing a principal dancer who looked like him.
“In London was the first time I really saw myself represented. It was there I saw a Black artist on stage,” says Batista. “And he was a principal dancer, actually the first Black principal dancer in the history of that company, and only later did I realize, in that moment, that experience would really influence my journey and what I would become today.”
“After graduation I started a non-traditional career,” says Batista. “Dancers would usually perform their whole career with one company. I searched for new horizons, and I came to North America, and I have been a part of six companies. I have been a part of Miami City Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Boston Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Oklahoma City Ballet, which was my longest tenure as a dancer of four years until Pacific Northwest Ballet director Peter Boal invited me and offered me to become a soloist in 2021-22 season.
As a professional dancer for 10 years, it was not uncommon for Batista to be the only Black dancer in the companies. For Black people, in general, on so many occasions throughout our history, it is customary for us to be the first or the only, and this was no different for Batista.
“I felt many times that I was quite the pioneer,” says Batista. “Especially being a dark, Black-skinned man that it felt like it was quite new for some companies, and I was always in search of that that representation. I had to understand and become and commit to being that representation that I wanted to see and become that myself, and from the moment I understood that I was able to achieve more in the dance world, in ballet. In terms of roles, in terms of being a prince or being a leading artist in a production.”
The Pacific Northwest Ballet principal role is not Batista’s first experience as principal dancer, he was hired as principal dancer at the Oklahoma City Ballet, but, according to Batista, his image was not commonly used for marketing purposes. The realization that he was the principal dancer at the company only materialized when he appeared on stage.
“For quite some time in ballet, when it comes to diversity, companies were talking about diversity, but they weren’t really talking about inclusion and because [in my mind] diversity without inclusion is only a quota,” says Batista.
“I did have the opportunity to perform in principal roles and soloist roles before,” he adds. “I was a principal dancer in Oklahoma and there were rumors that I was the first to become a principal dancer in that company, but I was hired as a principal dancer because I did have the experience and the talent to take on that commitment and rank.”
For Black people, particularly here in America, it is a bit of a burden and a badge of honor to become the first in something. Historically, opportunities were far and few between for Black people. So, when an opportunity did come along for many Black pioneers like the Jesse Owens, the Jackie Robinsons, the Barack Obamas, the Misty Copelands, and now Jonathan Batistas of the world, they had to carry the burden for an entire race of people on their shoulders, which is not an easy task.
“Actually, when I came to the Pacific Northwest Ballet, I wasn’t really researching for if there was ever a Black principal dancer for the company,” says Batista. “I was thinking about how can I use my talent for good and how could I represent my community or have young Black men or young Black women feel represented when they come to the show or came to see performances.”
Regardless of his personal achievements or where his career may take him, Batista wants to make sure that he leaves a legacy that encourages and creates a culture of diversity and inclusion.
“I think my goal was always to first talk about diversity and inclusion,” says Batista. “I am really pleased and honored to be the first Black person to become a principal dancer. I also believe that this is a very informative celebration because it has been 50 years and how many Black dancers have come before me and when it comes to Black talent, I know I am not alone.”
“So, my mission right now is to really shine a light on Black talent and Black stories. And I think the ballet world has its biggest opportunity to celebrate cultures and to really become inclusive,” Batista adds. “We have talked about diversity before, but we have not talked about inclusion. I don’t’ believe we have focused enough on inclusion. Diversity often informs you about an individual’s way of speaking, dancing and culture and inclusion often opens accessibility and focuses on the talent and skills and one word — opportunities.”
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