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Photo by Maryana Hordeychuk

 

Jamal Rashann Callender: Living the Dream

David Hallberg, Robert Battle, Drew Jacoby, Tiler Peck – the list of past recipients of the Princess Grace Award for dance reads like a recipe for an epic all-star dance festival. Though we may have trouble recalling it, there was a time when these artists were considered “emerging talent,” and the Princess Grace Foundation provided them with the financial boost necessary to propel their careers onwards and upwards. This month, the Foundation added Ballet Hispanico dancer Jamal Rashann Callender to its roster of awardees.

When I caught up with him recently, Jamal and I spoke for almost an hour before I asked him about the moment he actually found out he had won. He chuckled and said, “That week, I was supposed to go to Jacob’s Pillow to do From the Horse’s Mouth, [but] I had a horrible toothache.” When his dentist told him he needed to have his impacted wisdom tooth removed immediately, Jamal regretfully backed out of the Jacob’s Pillow engagement. After the surgery, he continued, “I’m barely able to talk, I’m all drugged up… I wake up, and I have a missed call from a 212 [phone number], and usually that’s something really important. So, I call back with a full thing of gauze in my mouth, and I still can’t feel my lips… My reaction was so monotone: ‘Oh, thank you.’ To open my mouth even a little bit more would have been so painful.”

In spite of his necessarily lackluster initial reaction, Jamal assured me that he is ecstatic to have received such an honor. He remembers that as a child, watching his peers earn awards frustrated him. “I was always the one not getting them.” But at some crucial moment in his training years, that frustration turned into a passionate focus that transcended the notion of rewards. “My reward was given to me every single day when I stepped into the studio… You want to work your personal hardest every single day, and don’t expect anything. That will be acknowledged… Someone will catch that; someone will say, ‘I see that in you.'”

For Jamal, the hard work began in New York with Ballet Tech, soon after he and his family relocated to Brooklyn from California. At the age of eight, as the only child in his school chosen to join the Ballet Tech training program, he was instantly hooked on the art. “The initial spark was that I got to travel over the Manhattan Bridge every day to go to class. Dance was the vehicle to get me into the city.”

Within the past several years, dance has also served as his ticket out of New York City. From Ballet Tech, Jamal moved on to study at the Alvin Ailey school and perform with the professional company via its partnership with the Professional Performing Arts School. After high school, he transitioned into Julliard’s dance program, where he made connections that would later lead him to Montreal, Chicago, and Atlanta, to highlight only a few of his past dance destinations. “As soon as I graduated from Julliard, one of my goals was to see the world. I wanted to travel.”

This desire became even more evident to Jamal during his year with Atlanta Ballet. Upon joining the company as an Apprentice in 2009, his biggest concern was slipping on technique shoes and tights again, having devoted the majority of his high school and college training to more contemporary work. “I thought it would be a challenge, but it actually wasn’t a challenge at all.” Which is not to say he didn’t work hard. “[My apprenticeship] was very unique. I was dancing a lot… I would do solos on stage, and duets on stage. Choreographers would take time to work with me individually.” The real difficulty for Jamal had nothing to do with the technical rigor or the heavy work load. “I really, really enjoyed it. At the end of my year there, the director [John McFall] offered me a company contract… I mainly left because of the lack of touring.”

This fall, as Jamal embarks on his second year with Ballet Hispanico, he needn’t worry about a light touring schedule. The company’s season includes trips to Tennessee, Louisiana, California, Florida, and the Dominican Republic, amongst other locations. But Jamal’s affinity for the company extends beyond the mere opportunity to travel.

“The thing that’s so special about the company and about Eduardo [Vilaro, Artistic Director of Ballet Hispanico] is that he doesn’t just pick dancers; he picks artists… We don’t have a tier system. When you come into the company, you are thrown into many different roles depending on what you can offer and what the directors think can help you. They know the company is best when the dancers are shining… They appreciate the dancers… Eduardo’s main vision is to keep the high standard going and to keep the evolution of Ballet Hispanico going, as well.”

Jamal in Action

Given his fierce work ethic and dedication to his professional life, one might think that he finds little time for anything else. Yet Jamal maintains that none of his pursuits would matter if he had no time left for his family. “My family is, outside of dance, the single most important thing to me… I’m very fortunate to have family that is there for me all the time.”

In his family, he includes “four guys I call my brothers – they’re more than my best friends. They’re also artists, just like me… We’re different people, so that balance of having them around has been really important… We’re able to celebrate together. We realize that we have the opportunity to change the world we’re involved with… It’s already happening. We’re already changing the world.”

So, at the ripe old age of 25, Jamal finds himself doing what he loves, garnering recognition for his work, and surrounding himself with the people he cares most about. What’s next for him?

“The biggest thing for me is giving back… I’ve been extremely fortunate, and I want to give back to the youth.” He is particularly interested in reaching out to the youth of Barbados, where he spent roughly the first seven years of his life. “I went there in May and I taught a ballet class and a contemporary class for two weeks. No one had to pay, and I had beginners to very advanced students.” Eventually, Jamal hopes to expand the scope of his efforts to create a scholarship fund that would allow young dancers to come to North America to participate in programs similar to those he had the opportunity to experience in his early years.

Admitting to the loftiness of his goals, Jamal explained that he is “a big believer in the universe and that if you say something, it will manifest for you… Even though I have no idea how any of this will be successful, I know that day by day, step by step, these things will manifest. Every day, there’s a new dream.”

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Written by Leah Gerstenlauer

Leah began her dance training at the age of four in her hometown of Chelsea, Michigan, with her wonderful older brother (who is, incontestably, the best in the business of brothering) by her side. She continued her studies in Michigan and California — earning her B.A. in English at Chapman University along the way — before landing in New York City, where she currently freelances as a dancer and writer. She reads voraciously, drops into art museums regularly, and enjoys the fact that after nearly a decade stuck behind a steering wheel, her daily commute now requires only a good pair of sneakers and a MetroCard.