Posted 15 February 2006 - 10:20 AM
A series of thoughts,
Mel Tomlinson wasn't my favorite dancer at New York City Ballet, but I remember looking at the roles in which he was cast -- the Arthur Mitchell roles in Agon and 4 T's, death or underworld figures in La Valse, Orpheus, and the closing piece in the Tchaikovsky Festival -- there seemed to me a line between the types of roles in which he was cast and those in which he wasn't that transcended ability or body type. Albert Evans has said that he's not interested in the classical prince/cavalier roles, but it would have been interesting to see if he had wanted these roles to see how frequently he would have been first cast as Siegfried or in Diamonds.
Opera provides more variety for both men and women -- by definition, they are stories -- but it still is uncommon for a black opera singer to play a romantic lead other than Aida, who's supposed to be Ethiopian, or Carmen, who can be cast "exotic," at least in the US. (Not counting Porgy and Bess or Margaret Garner.) Vinson Cole is, in my opinion, one of the finest tenors on the planet, but he's not touted as a "hot" romantic lead, despite being cast in the standard rep in Seattle, and I've never seen Thomas Young, a great Elijah Mohammed in X and Aron in Moses und Aron cast as Cavaradossi, Don Ottavio, or any other standard heroic role of any tenor genre.
I saw a documentary a few years ago at the Seattle International Film Festival, whose main topic was the schism between popular dance among the poorer, more African-based community in Cuba, and the lighter-skinned elite. A woman from a flamenco-based company gave her spiel about how the art form was European, and implied that this was somehow superior, and only light-skinned people moving in light-skinned ways would do. I thought this was ironic, because the National Ballet of Cuba is the most integrated-looking ballet company I've ever seen, with the widest color range of people. (Apparently, Alicia Alonso doesn't subscribe to this woman's view.)
Are the dancers in National Ballet of Cuba considered elite in Cuba? I would think so, given the number of fathers who are happy to push their sons into a field that gives them as much recognition and respect as baseball, although not nearly the same potential financial rewards outside Cuba. Dancing is perceived as opportunity, a way to gain respect in the community, and this appears to have transcended race, I believe, because training is subsidized and is available to the gifted, not just to the middle class to wealthy -- what's more "elitist" than that? -- and the evidence that it is possible to succeed regardless of skin tone is right on stage.
Until fifty years or so ago, professional sports in the US was all-white or nearly all-white. That didn't make baseball or basketball elitist, even among the black community. The black community had the Negro Leagues and equivalents, and kids of all races played those sports at an early age. Participation wasn't limited to a specific body type or skin color, and there were local, community forms of the sport beside the major leagues. It was just a matter of time before professional sports, and popular music for that matter, would become integrated, even if sports and music management has not: they are commercial ventures, and the pressure of the marketplace demanded the best players over time, since "winning," not form or style is the object. It's ironic that we see the effects of "the market" on programming that seem to dumb down the rep, but for all of the supposed "hipness" of Draculas and hip-hop- and pop-based "products," they are still being danced by beneficiaries of a tradition that has been handed down for centuries and which limits participation not only to specific range of body types, but seemingly to a specific range of skin tone, with few exceptions.
Watching the Olympics, I also find it interesting that the "X" sports -- moguls, aerial skiing, halfpipe -- are as lily-white as downhill skiing, figure skating, or any of the other sports that are considered elitist, and for which training is also limited by the ratio of income to geography, are hugely popular and considered populist. The hip young former inline skaters -- a generally popular and affordable sport; add skates to asphalt and stir -- who've converted to long and short track speed skating are white as they come, yet are not considered elitist. I think this is because there is a connection between participation in the "building blocks" of the sport -- rollerblading, skateboarding -- and the elite participants, and, again, it's conceivable that it's only a matter of time before they are integrated, because some kids on a skate board can envision him or herself "doing that." Those who stumble on the sidewalk, just like I used to flub my way through tendu at the barre during adult classes, still feel a connection to the activity itself.