In conversation with Nora Kimball-Mentzos

Recentering Narratives Project

History tends to overlook a wide variety of important figures and stories that never make the canon, nor are stored in our collective memory. With the Recentering Narratives Project, Prince Credell, Policy advisor for Diversity & Inclusion at Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) is making strides to shed light on these blind spots within the historical context of the company and aims to complement and recover the (NDT) archive with the many multi-racial and multifaceted talents and artists that have graced the (NDT) stage over the decades. This project does not seek to highlight NDT’s past of celebrating differences, but rather wishes to recognize artists of color who have helped carve out the artistic creativity and identity associated with the company and the dance community at large. Through the Recentering Narratives Project the inclusion and acknowledgment of the contributions of these artists will be named and exposed. Not in the least because many of these former NDT dancers continue to contribute vastly to the art form today!

Coverphoto: Stamping Ground by Jiří Kylián. Photo: Jorge Fatauros.

Nora Kimball in 'Stamping Ground' by Jiří Kylián. Photo: Jorge Fatauros

Nora Kimball-Mentzos

To kick off the project, this October, we honor Nora Kimball-Mentzos (New York, 1957), one of the first female dancers of color at NDT. She joined the company in 1981 and stayed for four years before joining the American Ballet Theater and Ballett Frankfurt. Throughout her career, Kimball-Mentzos encountered a rich plethora of artists, designers and choreographers such as Glen Tetley, Hans van Manen, Jiří Kylián, and William Forsythe, but also icons in various other fields like Zena Rommett, founder of the Floor-Barre Technique ®, fashion designer Issey Miyake, and composers John Adams and Kaija Saariaho. Kimball-Mentzos’s outlook and career serve as a beacon for a younger generation of artists who continue to explore how their dance experience can encompass different performance mediums, genres and approaches to movement. The multifaceted and multi-racial (African American and Japanese) dance icon speaks to Credell about her artistic outlook, what inspired her curiosity, and where, according to her, dance is heading.

You still perform in addition to choreographing, teaching and coaching. What has inspired the multi-faceted performance nature of your career, and what drove your transition from classical ballet, to modern dance, and other mediums of performance?

“First of all, I was really so lucky, the places I studied, with the type of people, many of them, RIP, had a broader outlook on what was out there as a dancer. The focus was not so much on the kind of person, such as skin color, they valued the quality of the dance.

But the choice to move between Europe and America was because of who I wanted to work with. I considered joining a company because I was actually interested in the person who was directing. Ironically, the directors were all choreographers and that was my calling card because they were interested in my dance.

In Europe, there was an exoticism to my experience living and working abroad, especially in Stuttgart Ballett, because there were few persons of color. In the end, this difference helped and complemented my career, and on a broader scale, opened a lot of doors for other choreographers from various cultures to be interested in the fact that you could use a more extensive range and scope of dancers.”

As a native Brooklynite during your high school years, you studied at the Harkness Ballet, a place that you claim was oozing with diversity of culture. What was that time like in NYC?

“As a NYC native, public-school student, and bi-racial female, diversity was embedded in my daily life. It was present from the onset of my training also, which included many teachers and choreographers from Europe exposing new paths in my career. I was a scholarship student at the Harkness House for Ballet Arts and apprentice for the Harkness Ballet company and would thereafter join Elliot Feld’s company. At that time (at Harkness Ballet), it was so unusual to put so many different individuals together in the same space.

The Harkness Ballet and NDT share a similar artistic outlook; NDT co-founder Benjamin Harkarvy  would later co-direct the Harkness Ballet in the 1960s. Harkness was a highly diverse company, with female dancers like African-American Judith Jamison, Puerto Rican Brunhilda Ruiz and Native-American Marjorie Tallchief of the Osage Nation in leading dance and artistic roles. Located at the Harkness House for Ballet Arts, the company was pushing the envelope and addressed contemporary subjects such as sexism and homoeroticism in several of the one-act modern works, such as “Sebastian” (1963), “Monument for a Dead Boy” (1966), and “Gemini” (1972). In addition, the repertoire included commissions by diverse emerging choreographers, such as Alvin Ailey and Agnes DeMille, among others.”

Nora Kimball-Mentzos. Photo: Dominik Mentzos

What made you want to work at NDT? What was your experience like with this company?

“In Stuttgart, before joining NDT, I had a terrible knee injury. I was in a hard cast for some time because I ruptured lateral tendons in my knee. And actually, Jiří (Kylián) was the one who really inspired me to come back because he came to Germany to make the work Forgotten Land, and he was like, “you’re not dancing?”. I was just coming back and doing physical therapy. Soon after I became second cast for the piece and was in the creative process after my recovery. Later, I eventually danced it on tour at the London Coliseum and then performed the work with NDT frequently.

I found that it was my calling to create with different people, and it was always those people who were attracted to the fact that I was that open to try literally anything as far as dance would go and not stay boxed into a form. I mean, Jiří did that and searched for that. So, he was not weighing the fact that the skin color was going to be different, it was about trying to get the whole package of how much integration you could have with different cultures. That was really significant, especially considering where Jiří was coming from and how he lost his own country during the Cold War. Later on, he could finally bring his work to his own country, as well as be recognized worldwide. When I decided to move on from NDT due to family matters, he was the one who gave me a leave of absence.”

Did you experience doubts during your career due to difference? How did you deal with them and what drove your motives during adverse moments?

“I still do not take for granted that my career happened the way it did because my doors often opened through injury; injuries forced me to rethink how I was dancing, not only to make my classical ballet dance possible, but also to allow time for reflection to go in other directions. I felt that I could be a choreographic muse and embark on a new creative journey each time and a different current, and I liked that process.

So, I had to redefine my dancing, going to New York, because I’d left NDT to join American Ballet Theater. And then again, a serious back injury occurred after dancing soloist roles for several years, which made me question dancing again because I suffered from a herniated disc and was lame for a week and couldn’t even really walk. Then I went through rehab for almost a year until I could dance again. During that time, I had to deeply question how and what I wanted to do: I engaged in a lot of research for myself in other fields of art, taking a lot of inspiration from what was going on, and the viewpoint of where a person of color was going.

At the same time, I had to find a way to get in shape, and taking ballet wasn’t an option due to the injury. So, I was doing cross training, and at that time cross training methods were separate entities, they didn’t belong to dance, it was ‘gymnastic work’. By contrast, today when we think of Gyrotonics, Pilates, yoga and all those things, they have become undeniably recognized as methods to enhance the way a dancer can be stronger, healthier and multifaceted. So, I went back to New York in the summer and did a range of courses in different things that I thought might help me. I would practice, and later train to teach the Zena Rommett’s Floor-Barre Technique ®, which helped my dance career significantly, and also provided new paths in my work as a  teacher.”

Nora in 'The Second Detail' (1991) by William Forsythe when dancing with Ballett Frankfurt together with Alan Barnes. Photographer: Dominik Mentzos

What do you think about the discussions or the buzz around diversity and inclusion over the past several years?

“Back in the late seventies and early eighties it was very different being one of the very few individuals of color in Stuttgart, especially compared to America. Though tokenism exits for many dancers who break molds in the uniformity of certain dance companies, diversity is not a new concept. We didn’t have the name “diversity” to term what we were trying to create. However, many of the companies I experienced did engage in some level of diversity. The look of the work specialized by Forsythe made it seem as if the company was constructed on the theory of difference. Bill never really had a worrisome thing about . The hierarchy was effectively dissolved because of the work and the sharing of various roles in Frankfurt. This required a great deal of flexibility.

So, if you were dancing in a line of six and had to stay together, or six and then break apart, you had to be responsible for the diversity of the choreography, with the diversity of the people doing it, and the diversity of thinking minds. It (Ballet Frankfurt) became a very colorful palette of fun, hard fun work, sometimes excruciating, terrible, fun.”

Even today, The Netherlands, Germany and many European countries are having what I like to call “the talk”: discussions on race in art, and colonialism in art, including dance. What are your thoughts on this? And what changes have you seen in dance since the onset of your career until now, if any at all?

“The development of modern dance in Europe and the US were slightly different and contemporary dance has expanded vastly. It’s difficult to pin down a definition for either because contemporary and modern dance are not only defined by dance that characterized the 60s, 70s and 80s in America. They have become all-encompassing art forms that are much less exclusive or exclusionary of other movement canons. On the contrary, the inclusion of text, film, and the voice, as well as forms of vernacular dance and acrobatics can also fit inside, and that’s the beauty of this evolution.

Colonialism in the arts, specifically dance, isn’t only about culture, creed, and skin color.  It’s also about body type and qualities. It is about changing old customs, sets of ideas, or practices into a more universal viewpoints. It’s about the infusion of forms, and about the “in between”, which is a big global thing because we’re so globally connected now, which we would assume would make us more accepting. And still, we have to work at it!

Forms of dance are changing as well as canons and understandings of certain genres of dance. They have become much more complex and broadened. No company is straight-up anymore, dancers have to be flexible in their outlook and be well-rounded.”

Photographer: Dominik Mentzos

“We have learned so much from the phenomenon of the pandemic not only as artists, teachers and performers, but also as administrators and human beings. We have gained a different way of approaching it now, and luckily, we have created a few different formats at the university in order to keep dance education going in these adverse circumstances.

Covid-19 allowed us to discover this, I also believe that this has helped so much with the process of auditioning as individuals feel more empowered than ever before to show themselves through uploading an audition video without the worry of facing other dancers from the onset.

I see a strong connection between Covid-19, dance, and film because global changes have forced dancers to find a representative venue in film, as being in close proximity in theaters and studios was no longer an option. People began to think more deeply about how dance in a space (big or small) could move people emotionally, and yet people also began to explore how that can come across without being “in the camera” if that makes sense. Because we were all a victim of the circumstance at the same moment in history the virtual space became a safe neutral space for proactive and procreative connection.”

As our conversation wrapped up it became all the more clear that Nora’s career is especially remarkable as most dancers rarely have the opportunity to move freely between prestigious classical ballet and contemporary dance companies. Injuries, shifting perspectives in the dance world, and her own curiosity toward recovery and artistic development were the impetus behind the various shifts in her career.

Nora currently performs and teaches at the Frankfurt University for Music and Performing Arts. More recently she performed in Only The Sound Remains, an opera composed by Kaija Saariaho, staged by Peter Sellers.


Read more on Nora:

Interview by Prince Credell

Prince Credell

Policy Advisor Diversity and Inclusion / Talent development & Education

This interview was conducted by Prince Credell, former NDT 1 dancer and currently Policy Advisor Diversity & Inclusion at NDT.