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


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#16 Cygnet

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Posted 24 April 2005 - 12:38 PM

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.

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Leigh, we agree on this point. Please don't misunderstand me: I don't mean to imply that what they've written is racially motivated. I certainly hope it isn't. Why isn't RB using English trained dancers that 'get' their Ashton heritage? I think this trend, and the fact that RB has integrated to some degree in recent years answers their question. Are they willing to wake up and smell the coffee regarding the answer?

#17 Anne74

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Posted 24 April 2005 - 12:54 PM

How about this as a reason why there aren't so many black children getting into serious ballet training programs:

Ballet training is hard enough as it is. Imagine dealing with the vulnerability and insecurity that must accompany being the only black child or teenager in a studio surrounded by Caucasian kids! I can see that being a tough psychological and emotional hurdle for an already-insecure teenager to overcome, and not a small player in discouraging minority kids from entering that studio in the first place.

There are so many outreach programs now that are trying to recruit underpriviledged kids (of any race) into dance schools. I wonder: Once those programs have had more years to work, gotten more minority kids into dance schools, will the ballet studio seem a more welcoming place?

#18 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 24 April 2005 - 01:00 PM

My apologies for having misinterpreted you, Cygnet!

#19 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 24 April 2005 - 01:21 PM

I'm not sure the outreach programs have worked too well unless they've been drastically changed lately. A lot of the outreach programs are dedicated to getting underprivileged and minority children introduced to ballet, which is fine in the sense of educating an audience (to use a phrase I recall being used) but I don't think most of them are equipped to handle mainstreaming those children into a serious program when it comes to the ones in whom a serious interest is awakened. Tuition? Shoes? The one program I've got any knowledge of (and this was some years ago) used to bus them in, gave them shoes and leotards and tights to wear when they arrived, took them back when the kids left, washed them and prepared them in a little bag with each kid's name on it and gave them back to them when they came back. I think a few eventually made it into the main school, but I don't know how many had families that would have been prepared to keep them in the school if no scholarships and/or supply stipends were available if their interest and ability were to have taken them that far. And the other thing I recall at the time is that there were children who became seriously interested, but thought that for the entire time that they had been taking a once a week introductory class, that they had been studying seriously; and weren't prepared for not being able to go into the main school. Not to mention the children who thought they were talented and weren't necessarily so but who had never received any real assessment of their dance aptitude before and were very disappointed to see that they wouldn't be able to enter a class with kids their own age. Sorry to ramble but haven't thought about it for quite a while so it's all a jumble.

#20 Ari

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Posted 24 April 2005 - 03:53 PM

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.

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Perhaps the difficulty you had in imagining a black dancer in a 19th century role, Drew, had to do with the fact that all the ballets that have come down to us from that time are very European. Maybe imagining someone of African descent as a European was too jarring. I don't think this is prejudice, exactly. Nineteenth century Europe wasn't integrated the way it is now; on the contrary, it was, culturally, very homogenous. (And this was a time of rampant nationalism, when the French would have been insulted to have been compared to Germans, etc., let alone non-Europeans.) Ballet isn't the only art struggling with color-blind casting. It's been an issue in the theater for years. (On the other hand, black singers have performed leading roles in opera for a long time.)

It's interesting that when the Dance Theater of Harlem staged its own versions of some 19th century works, they adapted them in various ways. With Act II of Swan Lake, all they did was substitute blue swan costumes for white ones, since Mitchell said that he thought white tutus would contrast too vividly with the dancers' dark skins. With Giselle the company went further, setting the story in the Louisiana bayou at a later time. I thought it worked wonderfully well.

My guess is that we as a society need some time to accustom ourselves to the idea of non-Caucasian performers in works that are regarded, culturally and historically, as artifacts of European civilization. Fifty years from now people may look back at us and wonder how backward we could have been.

#21 sylphide

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Posted 24 April 2005 - 08:04 PM

I think many of you have provided various intelligent points on this issue. And by the way, Cygnet OH MY God! was Virginia Johnson really your sorority sister? That is just amazing! :yahoo:

I find Drew's comment particularly courageous. This is living proof that by having at least a minute inclination to mind openness, people's point of view can be wider, especially, in a ballet context, when a performance is delivered by an artistically accomplished dancer. The characterization of "a Prince" could therefore be achieved in a wider range of bodies than what could have been previously concieved, same logic for the Malakhov example, therefore not limited to the race issue. But the problem still resides. How does one get to the level of performing in a big company, if a majority of black kids are NOT in top rated ballet schools?even if (at least some) AD's would be positively enclined to choose some, given the fact some could/would present themselves at a company audition. The lesson from Drew's experience is clearly that change is bound to happen if we stimulate people's minds. Bravo to you.

So the bottom line is the ballet public open minded? I would like to think it is. I mean, this is the 21st century...
However, I don't necessarly agree to use the fact that the classical ballets

from that time are very European. Maybe imagining someone of African descent as a European was too jarring. I don't think this is prejudice, exactly. Nineteenth century Europe wasn't integrated the way it is now; on the contrary, it was, culturally, very homogenous. (And this was a time of rampant nationalism, when the French would have been insulted to have been compared to Germans, etc., let alone non-Europeans.)

as a valid excuse. I am rather against such an excuse for peoplewho feel the right or need to "typecast" on the basis that history has not provided them with an alternative.
But there WERE people of African descent in Europe at that time!(although I am sure Ari did not necessarly imply there was 0). In France (Paris) there were few, but at the very least enough so that Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was able to head a troop of 1000 "colored" men in the French Revolution! This is off topic but The Chevalier de Saint-George was such a violin virtuoso and a prominent composer that in 1775 the King of France wanted to appoint him as the Royal Academy of Music's AD and just a year (or 2?) later Noverre was to become the Ballet master of the POB....Hmmm I wonder what ballet would've looked like now if the King didn't meet strong oppositions regarding his intentions on nominating Saint-Georges ( :blush: ok, can I dream a bit???)

See, maybe I am totally off track, but when I first saw Les Sylphides, I was struck by the ideology behind the sylph, more than by "the fact she should be white because M. Fokine's environment was majoritarly white so therefore, sylphs for the next thousand years should be white". I mean I will always admire how some Asian countries have taken up ballet as part of there own culture, even if princesses in Europe's courts would not have necessarly looked like them. For me, the power of this art resides in the power of transcendance. The more an artist is "classically pure", the easier you should be able to believe his/her soul reflects on the "concept" or emotions underlying and motivarting the character they portray.

Finally, some of Leigh, Drew and Cygnet's insightful comments have made me realize that in conclusion, the very least I can do to make things a little better is to believe that if one feels the need for change, one needs to believe she has the power to make it happen( in her own environment, by concrete actions...)
Boy do I know what I will be doing next February!
Thanks to all for your replies(even if it was not my topic). :D

#22 sylphide

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Posted 24 April 2005 - 08:34 PM

Oh and by the way, Eland how did you cope in ballet school? I am just sooo interested in hearing your story! (if you would like to share, of course :D )

#23 carbro

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Posted 24 April 2005 - 08:53 PM

I think it is important when reading these posts to understand that many of them reflect the racism in the society of the time under discussion and not the views of the poster. It's a crucial distinction. I cannot speak for Ari, but I feel confident that when she wrote:

from that time are very European. Maybe imagining someone of African descent as a European was too jarring. I don't think this is prejudice, exactly. Nineteenth century Europe wasn't integrated the way it is now; on the contrary, it was, culturally, very homogenous. (And this was a time of rampant nationalism, when the French would have been insulted to have been compared to Germans, etc., let alone non-Europeans.)

she was not saying that it was okay -- just that it was the mindset of 19th century Europeans.

I'm not sure we've come a very far way since then. I think ballet-dancing women of color face a double-whammy of sexism + racism. Ballet continues to favor an idealization of womanhood, and to too many ADs, that means fair-skinned. It cheats not only the dancers but the audience.

#24 Ari

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Posted 25 April 2005 - 05:14 AM

See, maybe I am totally off track, but when I first saw Les Sylphides, I was struck by the ideology behind the sylph, more than by "the fact she should be white because M. Fokine's environment was majoritarly white so therefore, sylphs for the next thousand years should be white".

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I hope you were not attributing such a sentiment to me, sylphide. The point I was trying to make was that we as as society may have trouble seeing non-Caucasian dancers in ballets that were made in Europe at a time when their culture was the opposite of diverse, and that this attitude is one that is in the process of changing. Such an attitude need not be racist: I remember when European critics wrote that (white) Americans couldn't dance the 19th century classics because they lacked the culture. (As recently as the 70s, Clive Barnes wrote that Balanchine preferred European dancers in his Liebeslieder Walzer because Americans just couldn't understand it -- a strange remark considering that Balanchine made the ballet for his own company and cast it mainly with Americans.) As I also mentioned, the debate over color-blind casting has been prevalent in the theater for some time now, but it's not unusual anymore to see non-Caucasian actors in Shakespeare.

#25 sylphide

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Posted 25 April 2005 - 07:16 AM

Ari: this is precisely the reason why I do not usually participate in "intelligent" debate on important questions on the internet. Unfortunatedly, it will always be easier to talk about pointe shoes and the color of tutus.
People sometimes seem to think at one point that certain comments could be directed to them even though one has not explicitely said such a thing.So no, I was not attributing such sentiment to you. (Did I write such a thing?)
Rather, your comments stimulated my mind to further my own reflexions.
That is all.

#26 Mel Johnson

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Posted 25 April 2005 - 08:26 AM

I used to work with a fine African-American dancer, and she told me that the feedback from her peers (there were few) and contemporaries (there were many) showed a sharp disconnect. Her colleagues were all supportive but her African-American contemporaries were all opposed to her dancing in a ballet company. She said that she was called "Aunt Thomasina" a lot!

#27 sylphide

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Posted 25 April 2005 - 09:35 AM

Now THAT is an interesting comment Mr. Johnson! I suppose part of the problem resides also in the fact that (black) could possibly face uncomprehension(sp?) from both sides. Dancing is perhaps for most a <lonely> search for expressive freedom through movement. I refer to it as lonely in the sense that one is constantly within herself, her body, and must forgoe many social activities in order to excell in the craft, even if there eventually is a socialisation process within a company and at ballet school.
However if your peers support you in your endeavors, it must make things easier. To whom do you turn to when you are alone in your quest?(I suppose boys in ballet must experiment such a thing, although they are generally more encline to be favored by the industry, they do not often receive general positive response from other non-ballet dancing boys.(but i will not get into that, I do not know the dynamics of this problematic).

Maybe the ones who <made it >or are most likely to <make it> are the ones who received support from their peers? Erika Lambe comes to my mind since she is the 3rd generation of pioneers in the performing arts. But I can't generalize with that one example that comes to my mind.

So 1 side (the n-colored, although not always the case, as in M. Johnson's example) tends to reject <does not see them as right for the part> and the other side( peers ) <do not seem to understand why they would pursue an art that 'rejects' them from within....>(which is a comment I have heard addressed to myself by some peers, although I am not yet near the professional level. but I must confess alot of my peers a actually proud of my achievements. Maybe there could be also a correlation with social economic factors...).
Hard thing to experiment when growing up...
No wonder so few make it to pro level.

#28 Cygnet

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Posted 25 April 2005 - 11:51 AM

:D :yahoo: Hi Sylphide! No: Virginia Johnson isn't my Sorority sister; Judith Jamison the AD of Alvin Ailey Dance Co. is. She was initiated into Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. as an Honorary Member several years ago during one of our national conventions. Other illustrious members from the opera world are
Beverly Sills (also an Honorary Member), and Leontyne Price who pledged
as an undergraduate.

#29 sylphide

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Posted 25 April 2005 - 12:04 PM

Greetings Cygnet.
Woops...mistake from my part :yahoo: , I got too carried away.
Glad to hear about your other illustrious sisters too!
Really cool :D
Hope one day my school too will have such privilege.

#30 Guest_rolande_*

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Posted 25 April 2005 - 06:39 PM

Greetings Cygnet.
Woops...mistake from my part :( , I got too carried away.
Glad to hear about your other illustrious sisters too!
Really cool :blink:
Hope one day my school too will have such privilege.

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greetings.I had heard that something nice had been said about me and I wanted to say thanks, but also to give a little insight to the topic...
Thank you for mentioning me in a positive way this ....I feel very fortunate to have had exapmles in my Grandfather, and my mother who made names for themselves in the Arts and consiquently exposed my sister and I to everything available..
I think it is extremely important for people to have examples but they don't always have to be of the same race...
I think there was a time when it was difficult for dancer of color to branch beyond Dance Theatre of Harlem because I don't think teachers really knew what to do with some balck body types..I think someone mentioned flat feet and for a long time, that was an issue so black dancers were encouraged to study Modern or Jazz.
I was growing up in a time where teachers were trying new things and students emulated the older dancers...If we were sitting around before class and someone was stretching their feet or something, we'd all try to see who could go the farthest...
I think ballet is just one of those Artforms that will always have a small number of black men and women simply because if the culture of it...
Someone mentioned a friend being called less than black because she was studying ballet and that still happens today...
If a black child from a not so priveledged upbringing wants to study ballet, I think many of them might be discouraged because there have been so few "success" stories and people still don't believe you can make a living being a dancer regardless of your race...It might become an issue of the first generation to go to college and they want to become a dancer instead. Their parents might not reallize that they can do both now adays...Have a career and prepare for the next is has and is still being done...
I think it is really important for Ballet companies to continue with outreach programs and dance camps that expose this to people who might not have had the exposure before...
Now that I am not dancing, I have been available to teach in the outreach program for boston ballet and it has been wonderful.One of the neatest things was going to the schools and selecting the students...there is a team of three dancers who bring pictures and talk about dance and I happen to be a dancer in one of the posters. I am doing a grande jete and the picture was taken at a good time...But I loved seeing the kids look at the picture and ask if it was me. That was their proof that they could start too...
I think that if lecture demos and things like that continue, more people might be inclined to start
As for the young black students and teachers out there...Keep going...
It isn't impossible and sometimes it can be amazing...
The bottom line is that you have to want it and go for it.
In terms of ballet companies and the lack of black dancers, it is a two way street.I think many black dancers don't audition for major companies or ballet schools because they fear there won't be a place for them or that they won't be given the same opportunities...You'll never know if you don't try. If one place doesn't work out, try andother before you give up...
The other thing is that you have to have something special. Because of affirmative action and things like that, black kids have usualy gotten into the ballet schools of their choice, but if you want to go anywhere with your career, you have to give people a reason to want to see you onstage.


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