6 Sep

The Guardian published on article yesterday asking ‘Where are the black ballet dancers?’ and the subheading makes the claim that a lack thereof is “dance’s biggest blind spot.” There’s a lot going on here and I hesitate to weigh in on the subject because racism is so complex…but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that article or the one published the day after in the New York Times, where Alastair Macaulay points out—or rather, reiterates—that classical ballets still employ racial, ethnic, and national stereotypes, making further claims that ballet companies do in fact exercise “race-blind casting.” Between the two articles, there is so much food for thought my brain is working in a clockwork frenzy to try and grasp what this all means about the current state of ballet. It’s difficult for me because I’m simple-minded—speaking as an audience member; race = not an issue. Of course this doesn’t mean I’m apt to recognize all the signs of racism in ballet—even in my precious favorite, ‘The Dream,’ I recently mentioned on Twitter that it bothers me that English ballet companies insist on having Titania wear a blonde wig. I didn’t like the way it looked, and loved that ABT has their ladies wear their hair down in Botticellian glory. This was all in response to a ballet company that had posted photos of their dancers in ‘The Dream’ and both Titanias were Japanese. I was slow to connect the dots because I didn’t give much thought as to why the wigs looked particularly unnatural and even missed the conformity Macaulay mentioned in his article altogether when I saw Ratmansky’s ‘Firebird.’ Poignant reminders that I too, need to constantly adapt my level of awareness, and that political correctness is not a state you simply achieve once in your lifetime.

At any rate, the article at the Guardian bothered me for a few reasons. First of all, we have to be able to separate some statistics from the racism. The minority ratios of Afro-Russian people in Russia and African-American people in the US are vastly different, and does account for part of the reason why the Bolshoi has no black dancers. Not to mention the fact that the Bolshoi barely has any dancers from outside of Russia, which could be in part due to racism, body fascism, a simple preference for dancers that graduate from the Bolshoi Academy, or all of the above. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that a black dancer growing up in Russia faces a different set of circumstances than one growing up in the US or the UK, and we can’t distill things into a simple solution for black dancers worldwide—it’s incredibly complex in relation to geography. It’s not just a matter of recruitment/promotion of black dancers, fair casting, elimination of pink tights, and outreach—ballet itself has to procure the conditions in which anyone can excel. Easier said than done…but I think Macaulay is definitely right about one thing—some of the beloved classics are definitely furthering the image of ballet as a primarily white art.

As it is, there’s a dearth of new narrative ballets these days. Ratmansky’s ‘Firebird’ was the latest for ABT, something of a vehicle for Misty Copeland, who was the cover model for the advertisements. By all accounts, Copeland is an amazing dancer—unfortunately, injury meant that I didn’t get a chance to see her with my own eyes, but I don’t doubt the countless that have opined as such. Still, it’s kind of unfortunate that in a leading role, she’s wore a full body red unitard, and was type-cast a bit in something more “dynamic.” As she continues to inspire, it seems like there’s a lot riding on her successes, as if to brew the perfect storm for a ballet boom amongst black communities, but it’s not that simple. Copeland has already gained notoriety for many reasons, for having started in ballet so late and for being a muse of pop music star, Prince, but even she has said that she’s not really the first black soloist ABT has had—so I keep wondering, why has ballet systematically undermined the achievements of black dancers, such that we still have to pin our hopes on Copeland to make a difference? I honestly don’t know…it may be as Aesha Ash said, that donors are having their say, which sadly, wouldn’t surprise me. The people who claim to love ballet the most may be the most harmful towards it…which is ironic, because I’d like to think many ballet audiences wouldn’t bat an eye, and certainly members of the general public would be the same way. I’ve coerced friends into watching ‘Center Stage’—a guilty pleasure—and when they see Eva Rodriguez or Eric “O” Jones, nobody asks questions, or thinks it weird to see black dancers in a ballet setting.

There remains a tough question to ask though…Copeland, for example, could have all the success in the world, but what if nothing changes? There are still socioeconomic factors that hold black people back, not to mention the brutality of going through the corps de ballet that so strictly demands uniformity. I’m interested to know what enrollment demographics are like at the Houston Ballet Academy, where Lauren Anderson, a black woman, was in fact a principal dancer (touted as the first in the US). I first read about her in ‘Meet the Dancers’ (a book by Amy Nathan, geared towards kids and young adults…but whatever, it was a fun read!) and I instantly adored her, setting about to find out more. What I found was an awesome interview, where she was talkative, honest, witty, and had such an incredibly healthy perspective not just on being a role model, but being a dancer in general. It’s great, and she’s wonderful in so many ways that it’s an absolute must see:

As is her Don Quixote pas de deux with none other than Carlos Acosta (her perfectly centered a la seconde turns that melted into penche starting at 2:39 gave me chills!):

Coincidentally, it’s interesting that in her interview, she mentioned ‘Alice in Wonderland’ as the only “white” role, which just so happens to be the most recent full length ballet created for the Royal Ballet, by Christopher Wheeldon. It made me wonder…Macaulay posed the question “are choreographers telling the stories for our time?” and is it possible that both Wheeldon and Ratmansky, despite their talents, aren’t equipped to respond to the needs of society, that they, like their institution are out of touch with reality and are either unwilling or complacent in taking risks? (I really hope that doesn’t sound like an attack on both of them because both have created work that I admire greatly) Let’s be honest…a young black girl having seen Copeland in ‘Firebird’ could easily think “I want to be just like Misty” but would she feel the same way about dancing the role of the Firebird? Visibility is crucial but so is desire; it’s not a matter of simply providing roles for black dancers—there needs to be roles black people will want to dance.

I feel like I’m just going in circles now and the more I try to think about it, the more lost I get…but on this topic of responding to the needs of society (and going back to why the Guardian article also bothered me), my final thoughts are that I’d like to put forth the suggestion that things are equally, perhaps more difficult for homosexual dancers. This was an idea first brought to my attention while watching a special by comedian Wanda Sykes, where part of her act is a hilarious enactment of what it would be like to “come out black.” While stereotypes can be used in intelligent ways to rouse a laugh, Sykes has since appeared in interviews to elaborate more seriously on her own statement, mentioning how there are groups who pay millions of dollars to ensure bans on gay marriage, and though she was quick to recognize grim times in the civil rights history of African Americans, right now, it’s harder to be gay. In terms of ballet, a black Odette/Odile has in fact happened, thanks to Anderson, but what are the chances of a purely classical Swan Lake production featuring Siegfried falling in love with a Swan Prince? Or a Princess falling in love with Odette/Odile? Purists would never let it happen because apparently the steps can’t tell the story if the Swan Prince can’t dance en pointe or if a Princess Siegfried equivalent couldn’t perform some kind of acrobatic lift with her partner, and to change Petipa’s choreography would be heresy, and so the oppression of gay dancers will persist.

Despite the prolific amount of same-sex partnering in contemporary ballet, the fact remains that nobody seems to trust that the classical steps can tell any story. People always talk about taking risks in the arts, which for dance has a tendency to be perceived as the invention of new movement styles, when maybe the risk that needs to be taken is having faith in classical ballet to be a versatile medium. The closest pas de deux we have is one from Roland Petit’s ‘Proust,’ but one could still go back to classical themes—I was reading Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ when it occurred to me that the myth of Apollo and Hyacinthus had marvelous potential as a classical ballet. The story goes that Apollo falls in love with a Spartan prince, Hyacinthus, who in another version is also the object of affection of Zephyrus, God of the West Wind. Long story short, when Apollo teaches Hyacinthus to throw a discus, a jealous Zephyrus deflects it to strike Hyacinthus in the head, killing him. The crestfallen Apollo, refusing to let Hades claim his love, transforms him into a flower (ironically, it’s believed to be a larkspur or iris). The destructive power of an Olympian god, the fragility of a mortal, and despite divinity, an immortal’s desire to love like a human…it’s a fairly rich story (okay, maybe as a one act), and is there anything we crave more in classical ballet than love triangles, death, and transformation? I think not. Still, I doubt anyone would be interested in funding or creating it.

And yet, there are always signs of hope for change—today, on New York City Ballet’s Facebook page, a wedding announcement was made for soloist Craig Hall, a gay black dancer, and his husband Frank Wildermann. Though not directly related to either article, reading that news after reading the Guardian and the New York Times was a breath of fresh air. Congratulations to the newlyweds!

12 Responses to “Too…complex…brain…meltdown…”

  1. j. san (@Fleegull) September 6, 2012 at 1:09 am #

    I think it has to start at the most basic level which are ballet schools, they need to make an effort to encourage more children of color to go into classical ballet. I keep thinking back to Gabby Douglas talking about the racism she encountered at the gym she initially trained at, I’m sure that there are plenty of black dancers who have stories of their own that mirror hers. If ballet isn’t seen as welcoming to children, it makes sense that talented black dancers are going to gravitate toward jazz and hip hop where they see themselves better represented. When I see NYCB, a company that’s should reflect my city and it’s still 99% white, that’s a problem. When Ballet Nacional de Cuba which has a sizable black population, are still mostly white (and with zero black female dancers) that’s a problem (although don’t get me started on Latino racism….as a Puerto Rican I can go on for hours). Thank you for addressing this.

    • youdancefunny September 6, 2012 at 7:32 am #

      What was also ridiculous about Gabby Douglas is that people were freaking out about her hair, as if that had anything to do with her athletic abilities, and the inherent racism in criticizing that aspect of her appearance. It’s already difficult enough for black women who are raised to believe that their hair has to be straightened for acceptance, and I’m sure ballet schools hide behind the excuse that “everyone has to have their hair in a bun.” The natural hair movement is gaining momentum and it’s fantastic, but I wonder–how would ballet accommodate this? As long as the student has her own way of keeping her hair out of her face, does it matter if it’s in a bun?

      • LWP Elle September 23, 2012 at 11:17 am #

        I think it depends on the teacher’s willingness to view beauty in different forms. Personally, my hair is natural (used to be shaved). It’s long enough to be put in a bun, but when it was short, I had to keep it clipped back, just like the white girls with short hair did. I think things are changing… just very slowly.

      • youdancefunny September 24, 2012 at 12:02 am #

        Well it’s good to know that progress is happening!

  2. wingspace September 6, 2012 at 4:42 am #

    Interesting, especially as I wrote part of my senior capstone paper on why Wheeldon and Ratmansky can or cannot handle making story ballets for this generation. The blonde wig for Titania has always bothered me, too.

    • youdancefunny September 6, 2012 at 7:32 am #

      Would you mind sharing it? I’d love to read!

  3. Lorraine Valdespino September 6, 2012 at 9:27 am #

    Thank you- this is my favorite post so far. Indeed, a lot of food for thought. I am sorry you weren’t able to see Misty’s Firebird. My young dancer daughter of color saw both Osipova and Misty dance in OC. Her reaction was much love for them both- but also for the corps de ballet in the green wigs. She admired both very different performances and wants to be like these dancers but also like Hee Seo, Julie Kent, Gillian Murphy and Michaela DePrince. Interestingly she also much admires and emulates the male dancers and their roles, having recently recreated Marcelo Gomes as VonRothbart in our living room. Katherine Dunham is also one of her idols, because she fought against social injustices and tested the boundaries of ballet, ideology and prejudice. To see dance through my daughter’s eyes has been a godsend and a reality check to me on my own preconceptions about it- it is like getting to go to Disneyland again with a kid who’s never been. Like you, she sees a good story and wants to turn it into a ballet. Never mind if it would be considered “appropriate” for ballet. Gotta love that! I have to check Meet the Dancers out of the library for her- it’s been on my radar for awhile now.

    • youdancefunny September 6, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

      Yes, definitely get that book! It has a great variety of dancers too, ballet, modern, jazz, broadway, etc. so it’s a great educational tool for kids to see that they can choose a form of dance that appeals to them!

  4. Carla Escoda September 7, 2012 at 9:07 am #

    Agree with Macaulay when he writes “In a racially pluralist society I hope we can all live with a little ethnographical incorrectness.”

    And also with his criticism of the 12 loony maidens in Ratmansky’s Firebird who “find themselves transformed into uniform pretty platinum-blond brides…What bothered me at the premiere, however, was the dismaying way their oddity had been ironed out into conventional femininity. What bothered others, however, was their Aryan-ideal racial look.”

    I thought Ratmansky throughout Firebird had created a Socialist world for both the maidens and the firebirds, and I liked the stark, uniform whiteness of the finale (a shocking contrast to the earlier greenness and to the historical colorfulness of Fokine and Goncharova’s original finale). But the costume designer could have given us a stark, uniform silverness, or goldness, or camouflage, I suppose, and gotten the same message across without igniting racist commentary.

    There are now different shades of “pink” tights now available at dance shops, and I agree that the standard for ballet students should shift to a neutral skin tone – whatever that skin tone may be.

    As for programming, AD’s unfortunately have to listen to presenters when they tour, because it’s the presenters who pay, and presenters usually ask for the “safe”, well-known classics. It is NOT the same ballgame as programming a home season at the Met, or the Kennedy Center. Yet you can’t afford to prepare totally different offerings for tour and home, so inevitably any company that tours has to compromise and offer some “safe” (i.e. bland) programming at home.

    That said, companies should push the envelope when commissioning reworkings of the classics – which rightly may end up being provocative, as with Ratmansky’s ballets. And the Swan Lake set in a trailer park which I remember seeing years ago by a German company (can’t recall which one it was). Makarova’s setting of Bayadere was a breath of fresh air compared to Nureyev’s tired, racist version for Paris Opera. Maybe whoever takes it on next will turn the Indian temple dancers into fusion belly-dancers and color the Kingdom of the Shades in Shanghainese lacquer red 🙂

    • youdancefunny September 7, 2012 at 11:11 am #

      Well, I don’t know if we’ll ever see so drastic a Bayadere, but I do agree the classics can always be tweaked, though my preference would be to not change the choreography too much–it’s not like the steps themselves are racist. Mats Ek and Matthew Bourne have done Swan Lake, but neither version is classical…it’s a difficult formula for sure.

      I don’t think a new staging necessarily has to be modern in setting either though–while things can be tricky for a ballet tied to a location or time period, ballets like Romeo and Juliet takes place in Verona and Manon in early 18th century France, don’t seem to suffer from racist imagery…thanks to the lack of character/national type dances (though maybe they promote images of white aristocracy?). Though not as radical as a trailer park, I really enjoy the Berlin State Opera’s version, by Patrice Bart. I want to say it’s Edwardian–but I loved seeing a classical Swan Lake in a different context, as opposed to generic fairy tale land.

      • Carla Escoda September 7, 2012 at 2:15 pm #

        So true: steps in and of themselves aren’t racist! But technique and standards of execution have evolved, what is considered a pretty line has evolved, and dancers can do stuff now that wasn’t attempted or even imagined in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. And cross-fertilisation between genres continues – granted it’s not always enriching – but Ratmansky’s Firebird today is interesting partly because of its neoclassical, jazz and hip hop influences.

  5. jenniferc September 8, 2012 at 9:33 pm #

    I love the video, thanks for sharing! Lauren Anderson is an amazing Kitri, such spirit. Love her last balance before her final pose at the end, took my breath away.

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