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why ballet is still so pale...black dancers/classical ballet co.'s

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#1 eland



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Posted 21 April 2005 - 05:50 PM

I went to a performance recently and while I appreciated the ability of every dancer onstage, I couldn't help but notice the lack of color...
I have been around this Artform for a long time and it hasn't changed....Why is it?
There are plenty of good black students in the Major schools,so why don't they continue or why aren't they encouraged?
ballet was always to me the thing that took riske..It was a story, so a choreographer or director could choose their own hero or heroine...
Why hasn't it changed?
I look at companies like Boston Ballet and New York City Ballet ,who used to have one or two people of color and now, Boston Ballet especially is very pale...
Wouldn't it be a good idea for the director of the company to look at the Demographics of the city and try to appease to everyone?If onel Black dancer is leaving, they should at least have a back up...
Poeple talk about missing the black dancers in the company and substituting them for the Asians and that isn't a good comparison aside from the non caucasian issue...
Am I the only one who sees this problem and is there any hope for improvement?
I'm just curious because I love Ballet, but I can't stand sitting in the audience without seeing someone black onstage...The dancing is fine, but there is no soul...,

#2 Amy Reusch

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Posted 21 April 2005 - 07:15 PM

It does seem strange.

#3 Fraildove


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Posted 21 April 2005 - 08:16 PM

I hope i am not opening a huge can of worms, but here goes. I do not agree that if a black dancer should leave there should be a backup of the same race. Why? It all goes to affirmative action, which i think serves it's purpose. But ballet is so highly selective and based so much on asthetics. It is very difficult for ANYONE to get a job right now, regardless of color. I just think that color of a dancer is really a non issue right now -In regards to getting a job. I do agree that it is strange and sad that you do not see more african americans in ballet... it adds diversity to a company. But as far as a company looking at the geographical demographics, i suspect that even if there was a wider diversity in a company that it would not effect attendence of performances. Ballet, unfortunatly appeals to some and not to others. If someone goes to a ballet they go regardless.

You did mention seeing very gifted black dancers in top schools. I dont doubt this, but in my own experience i can only recal a very few auditions where there was A black student. In my school, as well as several national schools that i attended there was no black students. I remember having a conversation with a roommate who was latin american about this very issue. Neither one of us could figure out why there were not any black students there. I do not believe that the AD's or directors of the school are being prejuduce, but selecting what they have available.

I do not really understand your statement, "I'm just curious because I love Ballet, but I can't stand sitting in the audience without seeing someone black onstage". I know the race issue is different for everyone, but (please no one 'yell' at me for saying this) i do not go to a basketball game and not enjoy it because there are no white atheletes. When i am there i am awed by their talent, their race never crosses my mind. To me, ballet transcends race and the beauty will be there regardless of who make up the company. If there is a black dancer, wonderful!!! But if not, i am still in awe of the performors (most of the time :rolleyes: )

Again, i hope my opinion does not offend anyone, i do not intend for it to. I am just sharing my thoughts.

#4 Ostrich


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Posted 23 April 2005 - 03:39 AM

I believe part of the problem with black dancers reaching professional level is that they generally have extremely flat feet which (for the women) makes pointe work very difficult.

Speaking from a South African point of view, I am often surprised at how little interest black people still show in ballet, despite genuine and ongoing effort on the part of companies like the South African Ballet Theater and Ballet Theater African to train and incorporate them. It is a pity, because most of them are very gifted in movement, rhythm and dance.

#5 sylphide



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Posted 23 April 2005 - 08:21 AM

I will speak about the issue in the Black female dancer point of view, because , for evident reasons, the black male issue has a complete different dynamic. So here it goes:

I was not sure if I wanted to add on eland's observations which are clear simple facts : [quote]I couldn't help but notice the lack of color.[/quote]

But I had to say something since I am not sure I enjoy reading such shallow comments:
[quote]I believe part of the problem with black dancers reaching professional level is that they generally have extremely flat feet which (for the women) makes pointe work very difficult.[/quote]

I have not yet been aware that extensive and serious research has demonstrated such nonsense. Not every "human raced" ballet dancer is blessed with P. Herrera's feet. Than again, some research seemed to have proven that the Asian hip joint is more mobile than any other. However in my Regression Analysis class, we have learned that it is extremely easy to make some variables appear to be strongly correlated to each other when they truly are not. It all depends on the model and perhaps the interest of the firm spending money on the research at stake.

Secondly THERE IS A HUGE CAN OF WORM and I sincerely think that unless "the people who hold the power and the key to make change happen" make genuine intelligent moves, nothing is going to change. This is precisely what feeds the worms and make them multiply exponentially, therefore making matters even worst.

I will not speak of the South African Situation, as I do not live there, but IT DOES NOT leave me perplexe that black children are not more keen in taking ballet in that country. From an outsider's point of view, let's not pretend that in a country where apartheid ruled until very recently and where a vast majority of the black population is still struggling with basic nutritional needs, that one should expect the rate of ballet class signup to increase linaerly in such a short time. I am sure that there were quite a few enrollment at first and after, some kind of stagnation. But I am sure that with the emergence of a middle class, a second boom is bound to happen. It always takes time to incur change in mentalities. I suppose this is part of human nature. Maybe in such countries where there exists sub-human poverty the solution would be more of something like a state-founded shcool just like in Cuba or soviet-era Russia. Where only the most naturally gifted sudents enroll and where the most excellent teaching could be available. But that's a different debate. If we look at the POB school and Company, there are many cases of problems regarding race. In the race issue, there is always two important variables: the observed facts and most importantly the reason unedrlying those facts. It is easy to state observations, but it takes courage to investigate as to why people behave the way they do.

Nevertheless, as for "the people who hold the power and the key to make change happen" I will define them by not only the AD, producers, etc..but even more importantly the ballet teachers. I have a tremendous respect for what they do, but I think unfortunately, they also have a huge responsibility when in that rare occasion a gifted young student appears in front of them in the form of a colored ballerina. And I am not necessarly talking about Sylvie Guillem type of overtly gifted body, more in terms of being gifted with a basic good "ballet body".That student will need uncomparable inner strength to overcome the obstacles that will lay in front of her on top of the other issues that a classical dancer normally deals with.
Part of the problem resides in the training years, IMO. And more importantly surviving them. Note that for my personal case, I am not in a professional school so not really dealing with a group setting. Would Misty Copeland would have made it if it wasn't for her teacher who put her under her wings? She benefitted from one on one training therefore probably gained strong self-confidence in her dancing capacities.Then again only she really knows....How about Aesha Ash. I would love to meet her to know how she coped with things.
Are biased teachers less inclined to teach and correct the black child because teacher "knows" that eventually that child is going nowhere in ballet? Of course I am talking about children who A priori have some good basic physical dispositions for ballet(turnout, flexibility, elongated body type.)
However even some minute sheltering in Ballet school will not help one deal with the jungle of the company world.

I don't know. It seems to be very complicated because ballet is based a lot on subjectivity. On what do AD's base themselves for casting? On their own perception of what Aurora looks like or on what they think the public to whom they sell the tickets to think what Aurora SHOULD look like?
It is very twisted and pervasive.
Heck even at University, I am in a very "cerebral" and "rationnal field", I have noticed some non Kosher things going on when I go speak to my Program Director. I must imagine how it might be for a black dancer in a classical professional school setting. The inner strength she must have. And the underlying knowledge that she has the RIGHT to be there regardless of what her peers/teachers think of her. And this is the hardest part, since ballet is extremely self scrutinizing. I have read stories about this classical dancer at POB and how she was somehow under Mme. Bessy's wing. But when came time for her to join the company, she was clearly left behind (although she joined she was basically stuck in the cdb 4ever until qhe quit). As a dancer you are always insecure about how you do what you do and how you look when you are doing those things so you constanly want to improve yourself.
I think surviving Ballet school is the first step.
Then surviving the Company world is another, since there the the business factor and revenue generating factor comes into play. Is the Company profitable? Is casting a black dancer in a soloist role judged too risky? Is the AD too coward to make a bold move that could therefore make the public not so much "shocked" next time it happens? Which reminds me of one time hearing on TV that putting a black model alone on the cover of a fashion magazine does not generate as much sales...therefore she should be on the cover with some other non-black girl. By the way this was before the industry discovered that actresses/singers could have the right to be on the cover of high end fashion magazines. And so what if the sales drop the first few times(I am convince that even if there is a drop, it will not be THAT significant or are people really going to boycott a complete production because Gamzatti is played by a black woman ?). Society could benefit of such moves in the long run. I am convinced that those decision makers do have a social responsability and should tend to educate the public especially if they hold the key to positive social change. But then again, do they want to do that? Can they afford to?It is too easy to act like an ostrich and pretend "it is not my job to do that". Hiding one's haed in the sand especially when one has they for change is detrementa for society.
Thirdly, I strongly believe that it has a lot to do with the way the society we live in portray black women in general. Can we really be anything else then a nanny, a compassionate best friend or as prostitute? Ballet is not the movies, but look at how mainstream Hollywood 's way of typcasting the black female actress (and this has been said by actresses who "made it"). Are the decision makers genuinely convinced the public is "ready" to accept that the black woman can represent the quintessence of female etheral lightness and purity, which seems to be the international symbol of being a ballerina?
I myself was involved in the modeling industry and I will always remember that (after having passed the audition process for some work) they have told me on set that I should act more like a street girl (I don't know how else to express this) and telling me expressively that the public wanted to see something "jazzier" out of me and to leave "noble maneurism" for the other (n-black) girls that were casted. (Believe me, no one wants to see me do HIP HOP :wink:)

Although I might not completly and textually agree that if [QUOTE]Black dancer is leaving, they should at least have a back up...[QUOTE] but I understand what could have been meant by such a comment. Maybe not the very next dancer to be hired should be of "colour" but it surely should be something the AD and company should consider in the future.
Let's have a positive and intelligent discussion, Please.
How do you all think should be done, constructively, to make change happen?
Or is change not that much seen as a good thing in the Ballet-decidors point of view?Or, (scary) Should change really happen? Are black children better off taking up nuclear physics in grad school even if it is not their passion as to minimize their risk of experimenting such behaviors?
I am really tired of hypocrisy underlying in ballet world. Let's not pretend that racism is over in that field. It is a plague that affects all society.

#6 Helene



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Posted 23 April 2005 - 11:28 AM

I love Ballet, but  I  can't  stand  sitting  in the  audience  without  seeing  someone  black onstage...The  dancing  is  fine, but  there  is  no soul...,


I believe part of the problem with black dancers reaching professional level is that they generally have extremely flat feet which (for the women) makes pointe work very difficult.

To my ear, these two comments are equal in generalization. The difference between them, however, is that while ostrich's can be countered by science and a quick glance at the feet of DTH dancers, eland's comment reflects a personal opinion/aesthetic, which may be closer the answer.

If you look at the people who are Artistic Directors of the major companies in America, many fall into two categories: former Balanchine dancers, mostly from the US, and European born (mostly) baby-boomers. Some fall into both categories. European-born baby boomers, like Boston Ballet AD Mikko Nissenen, were, on the whole, born and raised in primarily homogeneous societies where racism was largely (and sometimes smugly) seen as America's and South Africa's problem. Former Balancine dancers running companies today were likely colleagues of Arthur Mitchell, a NYCB Principal Dancer.

Dance is one of the few arts where the artist must be seen in order to be chosen. In his recent book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the change of the face of symphony orchestras in America, due to completely blind auditions. In many cases classical singers are first heard on tape, where an instant impression (for better or worse) is made on the Artistic Director, and s/he must undo his/her own positive impression upon actually seeing the singer's race, age, or weight. (Which isn't to say it doesn't happen, but the first impression is made blind.) Physical presence isn't necessary for any of the plastic arts. A painting hangs on a wall or a sculpture sits on a pedestal without the artist being in sight.

What dancers are chosen is at the behest of the taste and aesthetics of the Artistic Director, except where a specific type is needed to fill a role (ex: tall man to partner ballerina X). If it is true that black students are in the top schools, they are auditioning, and they are not chosen in direct proportion to either numbers or talent, then it is the AD's who are choosing based on a different aesthetic or, to an extent, the "personality" that they assume would be successful (at least according to their own definition).

Were a Marketing Director to say to an AD, "A black dancer would reach out to a new and underserved market," or anyone else to opine that by hiring a black (or Latino in some areas) would do wonders for community relations, what is the chance that the AD wouldn't respond with an argument about artistic integrity? Is it likely that an AD going to exclaim to the world, "I am a racist, and I think black women can't dance?" or even "My audience isn't ready to accept a black ballerina?" Until either black dancers publish their own experiences to the contrary, Arthur Mitchell or other prominent black dancers say s/he was used as a token, white colleagues "expose" specific examples of racism, or a tape is leaked of an AD making deliberately racist comments, we won't know if and how much of the artisitic decisions are made because of racism, and we can only speculate. The upshot is that AD's don't have to justify their hires.

#7 sylphide



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Posted 23 April 2005 - 12:03 PM

Very interesting comments Helene.
But you have hit THE most important aspect of racism because when you say that we cannot label an action of "racist" nature unless

tape is leaked of an AD making deliberately racist comments, we won't know if and how much of the artisitic decisions are made because of racism, and we can only speculate

this is precisely what makes such behaviors pervasive in nature. Untill the general population won't feel the need to have "proof on Camera" of such behaviors, we won't be going anywhere.

And this is ballet, where everything is so subjective. It is not appartment searching for which there is always a documentary that shows how some landlords change their minds about vacancy when they see a colored person arrive to visit.
I think also that an AD perpetrating (consciously or not) those behaviors also are intelligent enough NOT to say the real reasons underlying their actions.

My audience isn't ready to accept a black ballerina?

there has been comments made at least by dance critiques in the Dunham era about how peple don't see ballet being interpreted in black bodies. Things have changed since them, but this was not SO long ago. The difference now is that it is no longer "permitted" to make such comments. Not very politically correct nowadays. But have the mind of people changed in such short time? The ambiguous nature of the problem also resides in the fact there is a lot left unspoken.

Hmm...speculations of course this is technically what it is. But it is evident there is a problem and although I am not neither a professional yet, neither had the chance and privilege to meet M. Mitchell healthy discussion is always a positive thing and at the very least helps the younger ones living through difficult experiences.
Any positive thaughts on how we can make things better?

#8 Anne74



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Posted 23 April 2005 - 03:58 PM

I think Helene hit on the root of many problems in the ballet world, not just the issue of race, with the comment that "directors don't have to justify their hires". It is always, in the end, up to their personal taste and artistic vision for their company. I've witnessed several cases in which a dancer has sued or at least raised a public outcry for not being re-hired, claiming unjust (or absent) reason for their dismissal. The dancer was either injured, coming back from an injury, or returning from maternity leave. The director cited artistic reasons--- the dancer wasn't up to snuff and hadn't proved their ability to become up to snuff.

I may be naiive, but I think that most artistic directors in North America truly hire the best dancers they can find, regardless of race. I think the reason why there aren't more black and other minority ballet dancers at the elite professional level is because social pressures discourage them from seeking out and receiving the best training at a young age.

#9 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 23 April 2005 - 07:52 PM

There still are problems. I know when talking about hiring dancers that the conversation will go when talking about dancer X: "He's black." The next response is always "That isn't an issue", but in a sense it is still an issue if it's mentioned.

At the same time, I wonder about the efficacy of looking at ballet in a microscopic fashion for traces of racism. With discrimination of all types, it's hard to know where to look. To take a neutral example, people often confuse personal animus with prejudice and think that because they don't feel any dislike toward (insert your favorite group here) they aren't prejudiced. This is why in courts, (disclaimer, not a lawyer, so I may mangle this) discrimination on a larger scale can be shown by mathematical patterns without reference to a specific incident. It doesn't matter if noone in a corporation said "I can't stand having old farts working here." If it shows from hiring patterns in a large company that there's a trend of firing 55 year olds and replacing them with 25 year olds, it's age discrimination. The actions matter most, no matter the sentiment. If the problem is systemic rather than personal, it's really important to bring it to people's attention in that way. Otherwise the response is "But I like old people". People understandably take accusations of discrimination personally and defensively; they stop listening, because they don't feel personal animus. So one has to continue, "I'm sure you do. But did you know your corporation has replaced 45% of the workers over 55 with workers under 30?"

Ballet is expensive to train with very little financial gain possible. I'm not denying the racial component, but the divide is as much economic as racial. How much are a year's worth of pointe shoes for training? Or ballet lessons? Without subsidy, it's out of reach for anyone out of the upper middle class.

Having talked out of both sides of my mouth (nothing makes me squirm more than this subject because yes, it does sound like personal accusations rather than systemic observations) the question I would ask is, do you think we need more minority students? Is there a problem getting them? If so, what do you suggest be done to increase the pool?

#10 Drew


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Posted 24 April 2005 - 08:50 AM

I find Sylphide's remarks very much to the point. Obviously many factors are involved in the 'whiteness' of classical ballet, and ballet companies and schools are not going to be able, on their own, to have much of an impact on larger historical, cultural and economic patterns. But there isn't a doubt in my mind that dancers of color who do succeed in entering the classical ballet world do so in the face of enormous prejudice conscious and unconscious, personal and systemic.

Since this is a difficult (painful) subject for most people, myself included, to address head on...I'll go further and admit that as a teenager I used to wonder "but can one really picture a black dancer as [insert name of this or that classical role]?" -- Stupid (or worse) as it sounds, I didn't really register the Dance Theater of Harlem as a counter example because I had only seen them dance Balanchine and other contemporary choreography and perhaps, unconsciously, because I knew it wasn't an integrated company. Fortunately, exposure to Christopher Boatright dancing Romeo with the Stuttgart Ballet and later to the thoroughly integrated National Ballet of Cuba dancing all the Classics (Swan Lake, Giselle, Coppelia) gave me an entirely different view of the matter--and I came to realize that what I had thought was a matter of "artistic" taste was really based in assumptions, habits, and prejudices that I had never looked at adequately. Of course, I speak only for myself -- but I think it wouldn't be a bad thing if the ballet world could broach these issues with a little less defensiveness.

One more example (it involves indirect reporting, but I hope moderators will let it stand): someone recently reported to me a dance commentator saying in private conversation that they didn't like Carlos Acosta in "prince" roles because he didn't have the right "face" for it...so I responded (sincerely) that I think Malakhov doesn't have a princely face--Malakhov has a kind of elfin, boyish face, with a not terribly 'noble' even slightly upturned nose. That is, Malakhov, too, is hardly Erik Bruhn. But of course what makes Malakhov very "princely" on stage has nothing to do with his face, but with his lines, his feet, his carriage--for that matter, with how he holds his head. In fact, Malakhov is one of my favorite princes! And it doesn't occur to anyone to comment on Malakhov having the wrong face or even consider his face a serious issue to raise. Well, I would say that likewise, whether Acosta is a great Prince or not has nothing to do with his face -- which many may find quite Princely -- but with how he inhabits the prince roles as a dancer, how he, as an artist MAKES you see him. I myself have only seen him dance Conrad in Corsaire and Basil in Quixote -- but based on those performances I certainly would like to see him as Siegfried or the Prince in Beauty.

One of Sylphide's points is that many dancers, at levels less exalted than Acosta's and especially young women, will be discouraged before they can ever even arrive at modest career success, and -- to put this in terms of my own examples -- this is precisely because too many teachers and artistic directors can't imagine even the most talented of them as having the right "face," or looking like the "princess," and not, in my judgment, for any good reason.

I should add that although my examples are personal (and include myself) I do agree with Leigh that it is, on the whole, more useful to broach this issue as a systemic problem rather than as a series of personal ones. I don't have answers to Leigh's final questions beyond the old chestnuts -- arts education in public schools etc. I suppose top ballet schools might set up special programs to do a little "extra" talent searching and recruitment among underrepresented groups. (Perhaps a board member of a top company with a school could be recruited to take a special interest in funding this...)

#11 Herman Stevens

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Posted 24 April 2005 - 11:32 AM

I have no doubt many companies would love to have black dancers if only for reasons of inclusiveness and giving audiences the feeling that ballet is an open world. Also it's not like there's such an excess of good dancers they're turning them away for silly motives.

In addition I would like to point out that in classical music, at the level of serious orchestras let alone soloist level, there are very few black participants either. In writing fiction and poetry however there are (not to mention the rock music business).

So perhaps it's not just a matter of the institutions being exclusive, but also a matter of preference on the part of the (non)-participants.

I know that would make it harder to blame people...

Allow me to say that Eland's remark that a company without black dancers lacks "soul" makes me really uncomfortable. That is really just half a step away from saying black people have this extraordinary sense of rhythm, because they're... black.

#12 Cygnet


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Posted 24 April 2005 - 11:41 AM

[Administrator's note: This is in response to sylphide's post. Cygnet originally quoted the entire post, which I've deleted. It can be read above. Ari]

^^^Well said, excellent post. Virginia Johnson, the first and founding prima
of DTH put it succinctly," . . . in order for a black woman to be a ballerina, she has to be a Super Ballerina," ie. better than the best. Arthur Mitchell began DTH as a response to the lack of opportunity for Black youth in Harlem in general and ballet in particular. He had to deal with the Southern audiences not wanting to see him period, let alone dance with Allegra Kent. At that point Balanchine put his foot down: "If Mitchell does not dance, NYCB will not dance."

Years ago, there was a dancer whose name I can't recall, who studied at White Lodge and Baron Court, where she was considered very talented. However, she wasn't considered suitable for membership in the RB corps. Of course, that could 've been for any number of reasons: budget, available openings, or simply she just wasn't good enough to join. Subsequently, she joined and thrived at DTH. And, like someone has already pointed out in this thread, the AD doesn't have to justify his/her hires.

Today, because of the variety of ethnic talent at Covent Garden, some British dance critics have dared to imply in some of their columns that the RB is gasp :blink: no longer 'English.' Many classically trained Blacks have chosen modern dance and its companies over classical ballet, such as Alvin Ailey Co., whose AD Judith Jamison is my Sorority sister. I think other ethnic groups such as Latinos, Asians etc., and yes some Blacks have proven that hard work and perseverence, in any endeavor, especially the field of classical ballet knows no color and that success is not a guarantee. I could be wrong, but IMO I've noticed that many continental European companies ie Hamburg and POB and others have been more egalitarian toward Black males than Black females. Has anyone researched that?

#13 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 24 April 2005 - 12:18 PM

If English critics I have read have complained about Carlos Acosta or Angel Corella being not English in style, they've complained about Irek Mukhamedov and Ethan Steifel in the same way. The critics hailed Trinidad Sevillano as being a natural in Ashton. I do not believe this is a racially based criticism, it's a criticism that the company is not using English trained dancers or dancers that suit the style of the choreography. I don't think it serves the discussion to label it as such.

#14 Drew


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Posted 24 April 2005 - 12:25 PM

Herman Stevens mentioned the role personal preference plays in people's choices -- I would just supplement that observation by noting that preferences develop in particular contexts. Someone who finds they have to fight twice as hard to get half the recognition in any field -- say, the natural sciences -- may well "prefer" to opt out of it. Someone who doesn't get exposed to this or that art form (or sports activity) may well never develop a preference for it. The Ballet community alone can't begin carry the burden for the general neglect of the arts in American society at large, anymore than it call solve the problem of racism, but it might be able to do a little to make itself more inclusive without in any way giving up the classical ideal. And, the point, of course, is not to find people to "blame" but to ask, as Leigh did, if there aren't positive things that might be done to bring more talented dancers to the classical ballet scene...and, at the very least, to make sure that those who DO prefer it are not being unnecessarily discouraged.

#15 Drew


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Posted 24 April 2005 - 12:27 PM

Sorry to follow my own post -- I posted at the same time as Leigh and wanted to respond to his comment. The reason I reported the complaint about Acosta was because it specifically cited his "face" not his dancing as the problem. A broader criticism of dancers not fiting in the English style is, as you say, a different matter.

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