Ballet dancers showcase recently renovated Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in new video

By IIena Peng

This article was first published in The DC Line here.

Derek Brockington and Alexandra Hutchinson dance in the grand reading room of the recently renovated Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The roof of the room is decorated with a textile art installation by Zenobia Bailey. (Screenshot from “Library Reimagined: A Tour in Dance”)

On the last Sunday that Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library was closed to the public, two professional ballet dancers whirled through the historic building’s newly renovated space.

The dancers, Alexandra Hutchinson and Derek Brockington, are featured doing lifts in the grand reading room and jumping through the rooftop garden in a new video, “Library Reimagined: A Tour in Dance.” The video showcases the revamped library, which hosted a public celebration late last month to mark the first anniversary of the completion of a four-year renovation that cost more than $211 million.

“We’ve been involved for years and years in renovating the MLK Library, a historic property, and it just needed to be exposed to everyone for all of the new improvements that have been made,” said Robin Diener, the president of MLK Library Friends and a member of the DC Public Library’s MLK Renovation Advisory Panel. “I didn’t know why, but the idea of ballet or dancing or something in the various spaces just seemed to me completely natural.”

The library, located downtown at 901 G St. NW, has been gradually reopening with limited public access since September 2020 due to the pandemic. The day the video was filmed, Sept. 5, was the last Sunday before DC’s central library resumed Sunday and holiday hours.

Hutchinson and Brockington are members of Dance Theatre of Harlem, a company founded by Arthur Mitchell, the New York City Ballet’s first Black principal dancer. In the summer of 2020, the duo produced the video “Dancing Through Harlem,” which caught Diener’s attention. Having known Hutchinson since she was a ballet student, Diener reached out to ask whether she would be interested in dancing through DC’s renovated library. 

Hutchinson, a Southwest DC native who grew up frequenting the MLK and Southwest libraries, readily agreed. 

“I was really excited to be able to tell a story with our bodies. As dancers, we love being storytellers,” Hutchinson said. “And so I think it’s perfect to go with the library.

Working together in New York City, Hutchinson and Brockington began choreographing a piece to music by composer and conductor William Grant Still (1895-1978). Hutchinson said they wanted to incorporate Black artists in their piece. Music by Still — who was the first African American artist to conduct a major symphony orchestra and have a symphony performed by an American professional orchestra — was a “driving force” for the choreography in those early stages, Hutchinson said.

Though Hutchinson and Brockington choreographed most of the piece in New York City, their physical presence in the library on the day of the video shoot inspired elements of their storytelling. In one scene, Brockington hands Hutchinson a library card, which she clutches to her heart. Sitting in a nook, Hutchinson reads a book about famed Sierra Leonean American ballet dancer Michaela DePrince — a current Boston Ballet second soloist and a Dance Theatre of Harlem alumna.

Alexandra Hutchinson reads a book about Michaela DePrince, a Black ballerina and an alumna of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. (Screenshot from “Library Reimagined: A Tour in Dance”)“Little improvisations would come out of just being there, and so we got an element of magic in the filming,” Brockington said. “You’re not really sure how all of this is possible, but when you’re a little kid in a library, sometimes it does feel like that.”

As Hutchinson reads the book about DePrince, Brockington hands her a pair of pointe shoes. The next scene in the video shows Hutchinson lacing up the ribbons on her shoes, wearing a tutu. Hand in hand, the pair walks up the library’s new spiral staircase. 

Hutchinson’s narrative arc in the video — reading a book and then transforming into a ballerina — represents a library’s “limitless possibilities,” said DC Public Library events program coordinator Ryan Williams. Hutchinson’s return to the MLK Library, where she used to study whenever she performed at the nearby Warner Theatre with the Washington School of Ballet, is a real-life example of how libraries are linked to upbringings and growth.

“It’s almost like a Madame Butterfly moment where she ascends those stairs,” Williams said. “That ascension is very much what we want all of our customers to do, no matter where they are in their lives.”

Hutchinson said the scene was “whimsical,” since a librarian ordinarily wouldn’t have pointe shoes available to lend out. But with all the library’s new gadgets and improvements — including a 3-D printer, power tools and a ballet barre — Diener quips that maybe pointe shoes aren’t too far off.

“In the past, they wouldn’t have necessarily had power tools or a ballet barre — but we do have those things,” Diener said. “Toe shoes are probably coming.”

David Weiner, who filmed the video, said it is purely a celebration of the completed space following years of discussion regarding the building’s renovation, a process that began formally in 2011

“This was an opportunity to be something that was purely positive — just something that was just good feelings,” said Weiner, who first began working with Diener and the Friends of MLK Library in the 1990s on the issue of adult literacy. “That’s how I thought about it. And clearly, in the choreography, in the dance, is just the spirit of joy.”

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