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Tonight, dancer Calvin Royal III will perform at the Vail Dance Festival. He's the artist-in-residence this year, and it comes on top of a big promotion. In 2020, Royal was named principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. As reporter Alexandra Starr explains, he's just the third African American in history to be promoted to ABT's most prestigious rank.


ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: At Vail, Calvin Royal III will perform a crowd-pleaser. He will dance "Bitter Earth" to a piece sung by Dinah Washington. It was choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. A few weeks ago, he practiced the piece with Isabella Boylston. She's also a principal at American Ballet Theatre.


DINAH WASHINGTON: (Singing) This bitter earth.

STARR: The dancers enter from opposite sides of the stage. And then Royal lifts his partner into the air. At one point, their foreheads touch, and then they break apart again. Royal says he gets why audience members sometimes break into tears.

CALVIN ROYAL III: The music just takes you there. I feel like every time we kind of get lost in the sweep of it, and then we come off stage, and we're like, what just happened? (Laughter).

STARR: It had been a while since the two dancers had practiced together. ABT suspended performances and most rehearsals during the pandemic. Boylston says Royal made a strong impression the first time she saw him in the studio more than a decade ago.

ISABELLA BOYLSTON: Calvin, just cover your ears, OK? Wow. He's gorgeous.

STARR: Royal is an arresting presence. Six feet with chiseled cheekbones, he moves with striking fluidity, even for an elite dancer. What makes it more impressive is he didn't start ballet until he was 14. He fell for the art form immediately.

ROYAL: It's this energy when you're with other dancers. I think that that's what really drew me in and the music and moving together and smiling and having this sense of community.

STARR: Just three years after his first class, Royal won a scholarship to the American Ballet Theatre School. He moved from Florida to New York. And suddenly, he was surrounded by students who had been performing most of their lives. He started going early to class to observe.

ROYAL: Even just that was so inspiring to me. And I would take notes, and I just aspired to be in the room like they were one day.

STARR: Kevin McKenzie is the artistic director of ABT. In those early years, he says he could tell Royal came to ballet late.

KEVIN MCKENZIE: He had things he needed to work on. But the thing that really struck me was that there was something about him, especially when he got on stage, that was just radiant.

STARR: Last fall, at the age of 31, Royal was named principal dancer. It came just months after the murder of George Floyd. In November, Royal was part of City Center's Fall for Dance Festival, which was held online because of the pandemic. He wanted to do a piece that spoke to the moment.

ROYAL: We needed to ask ourselves, how can we as artists be forces of change?

STARR: The dance, called "To Be Seen," was choreographed by Kyle Abraham and set to Ravel's "Bolero." At the beginning, Royals' back is to the audience. Then he strips off his hoodie and begins a series of sinuous moves. Midway through the piece, he throws his hands up in a don't shoot gesture.


STARR: Royal says he's experienced plenty of prejudice - at the grocery store, on the subway.

ROYAL: There have been many times where I've been profiled or I've been treated differently. And they have no idea who I am, but they see who I am first, and they prejudge.

STARR: As a gay Black man, Royal didn't fit the prevailing stereotype in ballet. Four years into his tenure at ABT, he was understudying a lot. He considered leaving.

ROYAL: I began to ask myself - I would love to dance more. I've always loved to dance, and I'm not dancing. I'm watching on the sidelines.

STARR: That year, though, he won a prestigious dance scholarship. And Royal says it was when he leaned more into who he is that he came into his own as an artist.

ROYAL: It was when I started to embrace myself and to be honest with myself as a dancer, with my sexuality, with all of the things that make me, me. That's when the magic happened for me.

STARR: As principal dancer, Royal is using his prominence to push the boundaries of ballet. Last year, he starred in a dance called "Touche." It features two men performing a duet together. It's the first time that's happened on ABT stages. In preparation for the piece, Royal entered a COVID bubble in upstate New York. There, he worked with choreographer Christopher Rudd and fellow dancer Joao Menegussi.

ROYAL: We would talk for hours just about life and our experiences of being men, gay men in ballet and what our journey has been like.

STARR: Royal's journey is inspiring other dancers of color. At a recent dance competition, a young Black man approached him.

ROYAL: He was like, seeing you at ABT makes it more possible for me. And I just got the chills all over my body because I'm like, it's about me being the best that I can be as an artist and a dancer. And that, in turn, inspires someone else.

STARR: ABT will resume indoor performances in October. Royal and ballerina Misty Copeland were preparing to play Romeo and Juliet before COVID struck. When they perform the ballet, it will be the first time in ABT's history that dancers of color play both of those roles.

For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.