Cielito Vivas is a Philadelphia-born-and-raised photographer with, as she puts it, a name most people can't pronounce (it's /sh'lee·tow/). This past Christmas season, she photographed the Chocolate Ballerina Company (CBC), which put on an all-Black performance of The Nutcracker, a historic first in Philadelphia. The company's founder and artistic director, Chanel Holland, was a dancer herself, and her experience in the dance world led her to strike out on her own.
“I walked into an institution where I had been accepted as a member of the corps de ballet," Holland said in a 2019 interview with Philadelphia Dance. "I guess because of the way I was dressed — my ‘swag’ personality — they thought I was lost and looked at me like I was in the wrong place. I showed them my acceptance letter, took off my Adidas pants, and put on my pointe shoes. I was the only Black girl. And it didn’t matter to them, but it mattered to me. I walked out of that rehearsal and cried.” Holland founded her company in 2017 to offer free lessons, leotards, and rehearsals to empower and support young ballet dancers in Philadelphia.
While ballet has seen more prominent dancers of color in recent years, having a group of talented Black ballerinas take on a dance as historically white as The Nutcracker is still a groundbreaking feat. Holland's The Nutcracker...Dipped in Chocolate performed a sold-out show this past Christmas. The CBC will continue holding lessons and planning future performances.
The organization not only supports young artists and dancers, but it encourages and inspires the community through dance. Vivas was there for the rehearsals and the performance to capture the grace and the beauty of the experience.
How did you find the Chocolate Ballerina Company?
I’m from Philadelphia, and I learned about the Chocolate Ballerina Company from social media and the local news showcasing The Nutcracker…Dipped in Chocolate. Once I heard about it, my sister and I grabbed tickets for us and our mom. As I learned more about the dance company and what they were doing for the community, I knew I had to find a way and share their story. Their goal is to help break down some of the common barriers to entry into ballet. I wanted to support their organization by attending their show and then reached out to the founders, Chanel Holland and Jean E. Pierre, to see if I could showcase the company.
What was the experience like photographing them?
Watching Chanel direct, Jean helping out behind the scenes, teachers uplifting the children, and parents volunteering backstage to help things run smoothly was amazing to watch. So many children and adults of all ages were working together to put on a performance that would ultimately be a big moment for Philly. I knew how important it was to see all the brown ballet shoes and tights since there once was a time when only pink shoes and white tights were available. The experience was inspiring.
What do you hope people will take from this work?
I hope this creates buzz for the Chocolate Ballerina Company. What Chanel Holland does for the community and the city of Philadelphia is monumental. I really admire people who give back, especially ones associated with the arts. It’s so important. I hope that this work allows others to learn about the dance company and helps them find ways to contribute.
What was the audience like, and what was the performance like?
The show presented a Tchaikovsky and Balanchine holiday classic with a twist. Classic technique mixed with music from Brazil, Egypt, and West Africa along with stilt dancing, gymnastics, and acrobatics. The energy in the audience fed off of the performances. The mix of skill level made the show interesting and gave a different perspective. The more advanced dancers were incredible to watch. You could really tell how passionate they were about dancing. For the younger and first-time dancers, it was intriguing to watch their bravery. I was a pretty shy kid and remembered how intimidating it was to be in front of a large group of people. The two shows were sold out. The theater held 400-plus people!
What did you like about this project? What do you want to do more of?
I liked the energy that the Chocolate Ballerina Company brought out of me. It recharged me as a creative and a Philly native. It was great to be home and was motivating to watch. I hope to do more work that interacts with communities where I can use my camera as a tool to help share their story.
As a photographer, what are your goals for 2022?
I made my 2022 word of the year “momentum.” My main goal is to keep going. I want to be able to tell the important stories that exist in communities everywhere that educate, inform, and inspire for how we need to think about being in this world now. Photography is not only my main form of income, but it is also how I see the world and interact with others. I hope to keep them all intertwined without burning out.
Photography has also helped me stay connected to loved ones I’ve lost. I lost my father nearly a decade ago. I’m currently working on a personal project that he inspired. The photo series connects first-generation Americans with their immigrant parents through cooking. This year, I’d love to find more subjects to feature and simply to keep going.