Cass Tech senior Javon Jones leaps to his dreams
The Cass Tech senior talks about the process of choreographing, and how he learns something different about himself with every performance.
He commands the stage in his solo ballet performance, executing gravity-defying leaps.
Javon Jones arches his back and crumbles to the floor in repose before building to an emotional crescendo, often drawing tears from the artist and his audience.
It is rehearsal night for the Cass Technical High School Dance Company’s spring concert. Captain of the dance company, and the only male among its 10 members, Javon, 18, choreographed the contemporary ballet “Dearly Beloved,” which earned him the inaugural $10,000 Max Mara Young Visionary Award and gold medal in February, beating out more than 12,000 other applicants from across the nation.
The ballet also sealed his audition to become one of only 12 male dancers from around the world — and the only one from Michigan — to be admitted with a full ride to the 2016 fall class of the Juilliard School at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. The concert, being held Friday night, is Javon’s last before he departs for Juilliard.
More than 800 artists from 42 states and 38 countries attend the prestigious school, studying dance, drama and music. Only one other dancer from Detroit has been selected to attend Juilliard in the past eight years, according to school spokeswoman Gloria Gottschalk.
Javon says he will not be dissuaded. He’s got the next 10 years all planned out.Despite his triumphs, those in the business say historically, ballet has not been a paragon of diversity. But the landscape is evolving. Last year, Misty Copeland became the first African-American female principal dancer in the 75-year history of the American Ballet Theatre.
He’s going to earn his bachelor of fine arts from Juilliard in 2020, dance with as many companies as possible, and move to Europe to perform with the Netherlands Dance Theatre. Then he’ll earn his master’s degree and ultimately return to the U.S. to open his own dance company.
The teen, who’s an International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement student at Cass Tech, has dreamed of attending Juilliard since third grade. Contemporary ballet and all genres of dancing are his passion.
“When I arrived at the audition and saw all these kids who had gone to the best ballet schools in the world, I had a fear of not being accepted, of not being the chosen one,” he said. “Here I was an African-American kid from Detroit, saying ‘Oh, I want to go to Juilliard’ so I told myself not to get my hopes up.
“But then I thought, you know what? I’ve got this. I have a gift. This is something I love to do, so I have to make them see that I belong here.”
And see it they did.
Jones, 18, captain of the Cass Technical High School dance company, works with other Cass Tech dancers on choreography he created.
“The Juilliard School Dance Division has a competitive audition process, and Javon Jones rose to the top of our applicant pool this year,” said Lawrence Rhodes, the division’s artistic director, who graduated from Detroit’s Pershing High School decades ago.
Of the 500 dancers who auditioned to attend Juilliard in the fall, 24 were admitted.
Javon does not take his good fortune for granted. “I need to be thankful and realize how blessed I am, and how gracious God has been to me,” he said.
But the dearth of dancers of color in classical and contemporary ballet is acknowledged without reservation by those in the business. The American Ballet Theatre has six dancers of color throughout the ranks of its main company, out of 87 dancers and six apprentices, according to spokeswoman Kelly Ryan.
“ABT does not hold formal auditions,” said Ryan. “Rather, dancers often come through our extensive Summer Intensive programs, as well as other training programs. In 2013, we launched a diversity initiative, Project Plié, which is also aimed at training young dancers.”
Susan Fales-Hill, former vice chair of the ABT board, says ballet “has never been a hotbed of integration” but adds that African-American men have fared better than their female counterparts.
“One need only consider the fact that Arthur Mitchell was a star of New York City Ballet in the 1950s and that it wasn’t till the ’90s that a mainstream ballet company promoted a woman to principal (Lauren Anderson of Houston Ballet) to see the difference,” she said.
“That is not to say the journey of a black male dancer is easy,” Fales-Hill said. “Like any other dancer of color, Javon is certain to have to battle stereotypes and arbitrary canons of beauty. But the road he faces will also be full of opportunities of which prior generations could only dream.”
Javon made it into Juilliard without ever attending ballet school or receiving private lessons. “I was a scholarship child,” he said. “I attended all the summer intensives in ballet on scholarships. It never crossed my mind to seek a private instructor.”
The additional training he received, outside of the summer intensives, can be credited to Anthony L. Smith, director of Cass Tech’s dance company.
“Javon is a truly gifted young man,” said Smith, who also trained the late actress and hip-hop star Aaliyah, who grew up in Detroit. Smith also worked with dancers who have gone on to become perform with the San Francisco Ballet Company and the Netherlands Dance Theater, among others.
“I know I will be naming Javon among them soon,” he said. “He is a classic triple threat — possessing superior skills in music, theater and dance.”
Smith said he knew Javon was good enough for Juilliard.
“I was not surprised that he was accepted. In fact, he and our principal, Mrs. Phillips, played a prank on me. They told me he had not been accepted into Juilliard. My immediate response was ‘there must be some mistake.’ I knew that Javon had all the things Juilliard looks for in their students. I knew he was supposed to be there.”
Cass Tech principal Lisa Phillips said Javon “has managed stellar performances in both his extracurricular endeavors as well as his academics.”
“We will see him perform on Broadway,” she said. “He is ticket-worthy.”
Ironically, Javon’s mother had another vision for her only son, whom she raised as a single parent on Detroit’s west side.
“I come from a family of basketball players and boxers,” said Stephanie Wilson, an airlines customer relations officer. “Those are the males in my family. There were no male dancers.”
Javon did go out for basketball and baseball, but dancing ruled. He also sings, plays piano — his favorite selection is Bach’s Minuet No. 1 — and has acted with the Mosaic Youth Theater of Detroit for five years.
Wilson thought her son should pursue a math or science career, maybe as a military officer.
“I wanted him to look into the ROTC, but he wasn’t interested,” she said. “He was so good in math I thought he would become a mathematician or an engineer.”
Wilson finally acquiesced to Javon’s dream and sent him to a series of dance programs, including one at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, a summer school in Michigan’s Manistee National Forest.
Javon also took summer intensive dance programs with two New York-based companies: the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2013 and 2014 and Complexions Contemporary Ballet in 2015. He also participated in a program with the Ballet Du Grand Theatre de Geneve of Switzerland, which conducted a one-day workshop for students at the Detroit Opera House last year.
At Complexions, Javon left an impression on Desmond Richardson, the company’s co-founder and co-artistic director. Richardson, one of only three black men to perform as a principal dancer in an American classical ballet company in the past 54 years, founded Complexions with Dwight Rhoden 22 years ago to promote diversity in contemporary ballet.
“I recall first meeting Javon Jones at our Summer Intensive at Wayne State University and immediately recognized his dynamic power, focus, determination and passion for dance,” Richardson said.
Richardson, in turn, is a role model for Javon. “He is one of my greatest inspirations,” the teen said. ”He dances like a strong male while still being completely vulnerable.”
Javon’s mom is exceedingly proud of the child she once tried to dissuade from dancing.
“When I first saw him perform, I thought, ‘this kid can really dance. I was blown away, so I started taking him to professional auditions. And when I saw him perform ‘Dearly Beloved,’ I broke down and cried,” Wilson said.
“This is so much bigger than dancing. His choreography is amazing and there are so many more avenues open to him than just being on stage. His work ethic has stayed the course through the whole four years of high school.
“My whole family is so proud of Javon. I am smiling from ear to ear. He amazes me.”
And apparently many in the world of ballet, too.
If you go
What: Cass Technical High School Dance Company spring concert
Where: Cass Tech High School, 2501 Second Ave., Detroit
When: 6 p.m. Friday
Ticket information: $12 in advance at Cass Tech until noon Friday, $15 at the door