Briana Robinson and Kevin Shackelford didn’t exactly know at first. As they loaded Shackelford’s video equipment into a car they borrowed from one of Briana’s friends, they didn’t know that what they would film that bright summer day would turn out the way it did. The project they were about to film became a burst of bright discovery called Urban Pointe Shoes, but as they set out to shoot that day, they didn’t yet realize that they were going to make a such a beautiful document of defiant hope.
They didn’t really even know each other. Shackelford is an independent filmmaker who works with music and fashion artists. Robinson is a choreographer and dancer with Thodos Dance Chicago, the widely respected dance company she joined after completing her studies at Juilliard.
“I first heard about the project from a woman by the name of Eileen Mallory,” Robinson recalls. “At the time, she was working at Ballet Chicago, where I trained when I first started dancing. My close friend Joshua Ishmon, who was also on staff at Ballet Chicago, heard about the project from Eileen and recommended me for the opportunity.”
The project was a short film that Shackelford was making for his production company K-Shack Video. “Kevin was looking for an African American ballerina who was comfortable with improvisation, and not afraid to dance in unlikely environments.”
As profound as Shackelford’s vision turned out to be, it was something that evolved gradually, as he worked on the project. The idea actually began as an almost light-hearted look at how people would react to seeing a ballerina dancing in surprising places. “But as we began filming, it turned into something completely different,” Shackelford says. They actually started out in Chicago’s downtown business districts, but with very little reaction from anyone. “People were too busy to notice the beauty of Briana’s dance,” Shackelford remembers. “As we moved to the south of the city we noticed a much different reaction — people rejoiced and applauded. They weren’t used to seeing such beauty on the streets.”
The presentation is stunning, perhaps because Shackelford’s story telling is as graceful as Robinson’s movement. Robinson is in full classical costume, as if on stage, but in the film she moves instead across a constantly changing series of real life stages. In the two minutes and thirty seconds of Urban Pointe Shoes, Robinson and Shackelford tell a vivid story about what life is, and what it still might be.
“To my surprise, dancing in the middle of the street in a tutu and pointe shoes was really rewarding,” Robinson says, “and everyone’s reaction to what I was doing made the experience even more memorable.” Those reactions, the surprise and encouragement, make the experience more memorable for anyone who watches Urban Pointe Shoes, as Shackelford interweaves the priceless interactions between Robinson and people passing by with photos of young victims of the violence that plagues so many of those same streets.
“One of the main purposes of filming this video in the particular areas that we did,” Robinson explains, “was to bring something positive to a community that is otherwise used to hearing, and experiencing first hand, bad news.” She goes on to explain how Shackelford hopes that there can at least be a beginning to ending the gun violence in Chicago. “He wanted to emphasize what it means for a community to tap into their inner light and potential, in order to bring the vicious cycle of death and violence to an end.”
It’s an idea she sees just as clearly from her own perspective as a gifted dancer. “By bringing the classically beautiful art form of ballet to the people of Chicago, it is my hope that they would see the beauty in themselves, and not be limited by the negativity they might have experienced,” she says. “Instead, it is my belief that they will be encouraged to do and be greater.”