Claudia Schreier’s “Passage” for Dance Theatre of Harlem was commissioned to mark the 400-year-anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to Virginia in 1619. But to think of “Passage” as a commemoration, or as a historical piece, doesn’t do justice to its purpose or its power.
“It’s a work tied to this moment in time and how it relates to previous moments in time,” Schreier says. “That’s how I see it: One moment in time that we have the ability to reflect on and learn from.”
The moment in time in which Schreier made the piece is very different from the one in which it will make its New York City debut this weekend at New York City Center, two years later than first scheduled. Originally commissioned for DTH by the Virginia Festival and American Evolution, which organized Virginia’s commemoration of the anniversary, “Passage” premiered in 2019, before the murder of George Floyd and the reshaping of conversations on race in the United States that followed.
With a score by composer and violinist Jessie Montgomery, “Passage” is a rare collaboration by two Black women for a major ballet company—uncommon even for DTH, a company that has always prioritized the work of Black artists.
“We are two Black women who are working together not as anomalies, but as a representation of what is possible and what should be prevalent,” Schreier says. “That is infused into the piece.”
Rather than dramatizing the Middle Passage, the ballet is an allegory, one that is more celebratory than mournful. “It aims to speak to the strength of our people; the unstoppable spirit required to survive and thrive, regardless of circumstances,” says Schreier. “And man, have there been some circumstances.”
The unrelenting momentum that drives “Passage” (the piece is impossible to excerpt, Schreier says) captures this resilience. “It pulls you forward to a point, and then it pulls you back,” she says. This pull is embodied by a central figure who disappears into the ensemble, then reappears as a soloist, over and over again. “The sense is, how many steps forward? How many steps back? And how do we ultimately get where we’re going?”
The work’s primary metaphor came from the buoyancy in Montgomery’s score. “There’s no way to hear it and not hear water,” says Schreier. Dancers at times seem to float, or dive, or embody waves.
“Passage” was Montgomery’s first major dance commission, and her process included watching ballets and studying scores. But the subject matter itself was already so close that research felt superfluous. “For most Black families, our parents tell us the deal from day one,” she says. “It’s so integrated into our history, and our bodies, and how we interact with each other. I guess the point is that we begin to make that story close not just for Black people, but for all people.”
Since Floyd’s murder and the summer of protests that followed, “Passage” has received more attention than when it first premiered, says Schreier. The ways audiences perceive the work has also changed, as has Schreier’s perspective on it. Whereas in 2019 her approach in rehearsal was largely to let the movement speak for itself, now she finds herself interested in bringing dancers into her process; explaining the intention behind a moment, or making a connection with a dancer’s personal experience. In recent viewing, Montgomery has noticed that what once were abstract references to the Middle Passage now feel explicit.
Schreier wonders how the piece would have looked different had she made it post-2020—and if it would have been made at all. “I can see a world in which we would have been asked from the outset, Are you even comfortable speaking to this? That was just not part of the conversation at the time—there was no room for acknowledging trauma.”
But Schreier and Montgomery are clear that “Passage” still holds up as the piece they wanted to make. “I am grateful for it,” says Schreier. “For what it is and what it became for that period of time, and for how it evolves from here on out.”