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Race, Culture and Ballet


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#1 DefJef

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Posted 23 July 2006 - 05:19 PM

I am always struck by how few non Caucasian dancers there are in ballet. My first reaction is that ballet is so Euro-centric that is holds little appeal to non Europeans or those who upbringing was not Euro-centric culturally based.

However, in cities like NYC, San Francisco, Washington, Boston, London, LA and so on we have large black, Asian and Hispanic populations all living in more or less the same "cultural milieu". Admittedly there are entrenched ethnic communities which strive to celebrate their culture of "origin" etc.

So what are the reasons there are proportionately so few non Caucasians on stage and in the audience? On a typical performance at the ABT, if there are 20 black faces in the audience it seems like a lot.

Could this also be attributed to the cost of a ballet education and years of training involved? How about the fact that the Dance Theatre of Harlem is filled with blacks and many of them talented dancers?

Would it be odd if more ballet dancers were black and Asian? Is ballet very much a Euro-centric art form that simply doesn't work with people of other ethnic groups? ... a black Juliette? Clearly blacks and Asians are very athletic and make some great dancers... and Michelle Kwan is a prime example of one.

What say you?

#2 carbro

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Posted 23 July 2006 - 07:23 PM

DefJef, I don't know how thoroughly you've read old posts, but this topic has been addressed from a variety of perspectives on this board. I don't know how ballet can escape the problems of the larger environment. In fact, there seems to be a lag between the gains minorities have made in American society and the gains they've made in American ballet. And again, some minorities seem to have made greater strides than others.

I question your estimate of "20 black faces" in ABT's audience. That demographic suffers from huge underrepresentation in the seats as on stage, granted, but I think your estimate is quite, quite low.

#3 DefJef

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Posted 23 July 2006 - 07:33 PM

Carbro,

Thanks for the links.. I'll read them!

Well as far as the number of blacks in the audience at a typical ABT or Met Opera performace, I stand by my estimate and if I was off by a factor or 2 that would be 50 out of 3,500 seats! There is still something going on.

Since you attend ABT performances, what would be your estimate of black faces in the audience?

#4 Alexandra

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Posted 23 July 2006 - 07:41 PM

In D.C., the racial polarization is acutely noticable. The only time there's a significant percentage of African-Americans in the audience is at Dance Theatre of Harlem or Alvin Ailey (or other predominantly black companies) performances. This is regardless of what is being danced. DTH's "Giselle" had the same demographics as a evening with "Dougla."

The reasons? Targeted advertising? If a German company is in town, one hears a lot of German spoken at intermissions -- does the embassy contact German citizens? Do people go because they want a taste of home, or to support the home team? It's a very complicated question, and an interesting one. Problem is, the only people who know are the people who aren't going :thanks:

#5 DefJef

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Posted 23 July 2006 - 08:35 PM

The reason that ballet is lilly white is racism. But this expression of racism is to be found in many places. It does not rest solely with the ADs or the owner's and sponsor's of major companies, but sure they too are guilty of racism.

It is also found in our educational system, it is found in our economic system which treats blacks in such a manner that proportionately very few can afford to do ballet even if it were "accessible".

It is found in the peer pressure of the black culture which discourages their people from "embracing" white culture. This was a tragic failure of the promise of the 60s where we thought we could all embrace all cultures. This did not come to pass.

The racism is found in the body of work which is largely about European "themes" (princes and princesses) though not entirely.

But the question is SHOULD ballet be more inclusive? Have we been denied some great dancers who never were trained? Perhaps, ballet is never going to be embraced by the black community, promoted to their young and so hardly any dancers will appear on the stage of the main companies.

There are sports where few blacks participate. Surfing and Wind surfing come to mind... sailing is another. In many of these "cultures' it is not a policy of racism which excludes blacks, but something is at work which prevents them from participating in larger numbers. What would you call it if not racism?

#6 Mel Johnson

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Posted 24 July 2006 - 04:21 AM

Jef, "never" is a very long time, and historians have learned to avoid it. And simply to cite "racism" is to avoid its opposite pole, anti-racism. There are a good many people in the world today who are openly, honestly anti-racist, and make their beliefs real in hiring practices, social connections and more.

#7 DefJef

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Posted 24 July 2006 - 05:09 AM

Mel,

Admittedly the world is full of many many talented wonderful non racists people. We read their books, watch their movies, see them dance and so on .

But, in my opinion, these "evolved" people are few and far between and vastly outnumbered by what I would characterized as "unevolved" people.

Racism is one example of the expression of power and control which seems to be so much a part of the human condition. For whatever reasons we worship power and its various forms of expression, money property, weapons whatever.

As I noted above the expression of racism in ballet is woven throughout the entire genre. I don't think that all people in the field or even most.. are racist. Arts people tend to be color blind because beauty and truth are.

But it appears to me that Ballet is a Euro-centric experience which by definition is racist. This may be unavoidable since cultures develop separately and seem to set themselves up on a pedestal. Today we call it multi-culturalism which I suppose is meant to give equal "value" to all cultures. But the fact remains that many within any one of these cultures within the multi cultures DO believe in their superiority and "purity" and seek to perpetuate the purity.

I would like to see more black faces in the ballet and in the audience because I believe that ballet is beautiful and there is no reason that blacks cannot engage in THIS form of beauty. I fear that the unstated "racist" barriers are preventing this from taking place and this will continue into the foreseeable future. It is sad, but true.

Actually to sound a really depressing note, I see very little hope for humanity, which has proved that it can and has spoiled the planet, and still resorts to violence at conflict resolution. We may be experiencing the end stage of the human experiment, our misbehavior is having a globally catastrophic effect.

Didn't Nero fiddle whilst Rome went up in flames? Take a look around the world... what do you see?

#8 Hans

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Posted 24 July 2006 - 06:27 AM

But it appears to me that Ballet is a Euro-centric experience which by definition is racist.

It doesn't have to be. Choreographers, take note! :thanks: (Actually, Adrienne Dellas-Thornton already has created a ballet for Universal Ballet based on a Korean folk tale.) I actually predict that things are going to start looking up for multiculturalism in ballet. For better and worse, ballet is very slow to change, but it is changing.

#9 DefJef

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Posted 24 July 2006 - 06:39 AM

Hans,

I suppose that as new ballets are created the librettos and stories can have more universal appeal than romance between princes and princesses and then more "ethnic" groups will "fit" in. But this means that the classic and romantic ballet will be like a relic from the past... and increasingly smaller part of the dance repertoire.

Does the vocabulary of ballet DOES end itself to a more universal storyline than those we see in the traditional repertoire?

#10 Mel Johnson

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Posted 24 July 2006 - 06:42 AM

Realizing that my opinions are colored by my humanist bent, which to my horror, I found was similar to the Erasmian variety, rather than the popularly-denounced "secular" sort, and encouraging a healthy skepticism without becoming mired in pessimism, I still champion the idea that people are, on the whole, capable of improvement. Racism is indeed a scourge on the world, and even underlying that is, for me, a worse fault of bigotry, no matter who practices it, or who is the object. I know that here, I am preaching to the choir, but I do believe, taking a very long view, that the human condition in this respect is getting better, but still has a way to go. We can all help by encouraging non- or anti-racism in ourselves and others, and the anti-bigotry that underlies all. Blessings.

#11 kfw

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Posted 24 July 2006 - 08:10 AM

But it appears to me that Ballet is a Euro-centric experience which by definition is racist.

DefJef, it seems to me that if it's racist for Europeans and descendents of Europeans to have Eurocentric taste, then Alvin Ailey must have been racist to focus on his own heritage. Sometimes people just love what they love without hating or looking down on what other people love.

#12 Herman Stevens

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Posted 24 July 2006 - 08:25 AM

The reason that ballet is lilly white is racism.


But it appears to me that Ballet is a Euro-centric experience which by definition is racist.

Actually to sound a really depressing note, I see very little hope for humanity


Sorry to be negative, but I think this is a rather depressing topic. How do you know all these things for sure?

I'm fairly sure that every single ballet and art dance company would welcome any and every technically capable black dancer in its ranks. Often they turn out to be audience favorites, that's why.

In terms of heritage the Royal Ballet is arguably the liliest whitest company in the world. I'm sure you have heard of Carlos Acosta, the Cuban dancer. He's the Royal's single most popular male dancer.

So where is the racism?

And this is just one example.

PS I could choose to be offended by your "Eurocentric = racist," but I think I won't, thank you.

#13 canbelto

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Posted 24 July 2006 - 08:54 AM

DefJef, another mistake you are making is assuming that racism is purely a black/white thing. I've done some research on the ballet companies during the Soviet Union, and at the Vaganova Academy, children from "adjoining" areas were not allowed to stay in the same dorm as people originally from Russia. Dancers like Nureyev were ridiculed for their "Tartar" background, and Maya Plisetskaya faced anti-Semitism. Vladimir Malakhov says one reason Grigorivich didn't invite him to join the Bolshoi was his Ukrainian background. (By the way, this is totally off-topic, but is Diana Vishneva Jewish? Someone who is Russian said that Vishneva is a "Jewish" last name.)

The other thing you are assuming is that there is something inherently racist about ballet. There is not. The Cuban Ballet is very highly regarded, and that company is extremely "mixed race." Racism is something that's unfortunately prevalent in so many facets of life. For instance, take football (soccer). I watched a horrific documentary that showed neo-Nazis taunting dark-skinned players as "monkeys" and throwing them bananas. One victim of these awful chants was Thierry Henry, that French player you might have heard about because he happens to be one of the best in the world. In American football, there was a time when blacks were considered "unfit" to be quarterbacks because they were "too dumb" to call plays. I am not kidding. There is nothing inherently racist about football (both forms). But racism is there, because, well, there's always going to be a part of the population that is bigoted, ignorant, ugly, sadistic, and so insecure that they have to denigrate others to feel better about themselves.

The way to fight racism is to look it straight in the eye, not to say, "humans are bad, nothing can change, we will always be racist."

#14 Helene

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Posted 24 July 2006 - 09:27 AM

I suppose that as new ballets are created the librettos and stories can have more universal appeal than romance between princes and princesses and then more "ethnic" groups will "fit" in. But this means that the classic and romantic ballet will be like a relic from the past... and increasingly smaller part of the dance repertoire.


Scenario A: A guy from the elite slums it and seduces a girl from the other side of the tracks. His rich girlfriend shows up, and he's exposed.

Scenario B: A guy is reminded of his obligation, but he's not ready to settle into an arranged marriage, and feels that there's something else out there.

Scenario C: A guy is about to marry the girl next door, but drops everything for the unusual newcomer. The girl next store is practical and marries the boy down the street.

Scenario D: A little girl has a dream of a fairy tale (and sometimes nightmare) after a holiday celebration, perhaps triggered by an unusual member of the family.

Scenario E: The step-child who is ignored in her new blended family, gets recognition for a physical attribute that her snobby relatives don't have.

Scenario F: A good girl and a bad girl fight over the boy.

Scenario G: A good girl tries to decide between a caricature of a good boy and a caricature of a bad boy, who solve the problem for her by fighting it out between them and not asking her opinion.

Scenario H: A husband hunts down the man who has rejected his mistress and who seems fascinated with his wife.

Scenario I: A girl decides not to choose between a bad boy and a good boy.

Scenario J: A boy and girl from rival families have a tragic romance.

Scenario K: A girl who denouces love turns out to be a softie in the end.

These are the general plots of most surviving classical (and Romantic) ballets. It doesn't really matter whether the characters are dressed up in fancy clothes and are called Prince, Duke, Countess, Apollo, etc. There is good and evil, elites and the downtrodden, marriages that are pushed by families for social and economic reasons and marriages that are forbidden for the same. The stories and relationships are universal. They appear in various guises in traditional folk stories across ethnicity, language, and religion; many dance rituals are religious in nature and involve storytelling.

One of the most successful versions of Giselle I've ever seen was set in Creole Louisiana, and the story could have been set and filmed by Spike Lee. Romeo and Juet to West Side Story has no friction, despite being set among completely different social classes. Arranged marriages are still commonplace among my co-workers from and in India and among the Hassidim I know.

The exception is Sleeping Beauty, which addresses the responsibilities of ruling and the renewal of a hierarchical society.

#15 DefJef

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Posted 24 July 2006 - 09:33 AM

First, let me dispel the notion that I believe that racism is a white expression of superiority over blacks. It is far more pervasive than that. And yes Alvin Ailey would be practicing racism by excluding whites from his company, were he to do it.

Call it bigotry, tribalism chauvinism.. it exists in many flavors and nuances. Some is very overt and ugly... some is less obvious but insidious. For whatever reason humans define themselves in terms of membership is some group... some of those groups are genetically determined and others you can chose.. and acquire membership in, or earn it by some metric standard of achievement. All of these groups practice on some level a sort of me first you second (or not at all) exclusionary "racism".

"Membership has its privileges." was even an American Express marketing slogan some years back.

Tribalism in the past may have served as a survival strategy. We still very much embrace the notion of the family as being the ultimate place of refuge and support. Blood is thicker than water as the saying goes.

Tribalism and all that goes with it - "racism" is a vestige which we need to deal with. The great Dr King told us that it is the content of your character, and not the color of your skin which matters. And with this simple phrase he was telling us that we can come from different tribes, different cultures and so forth, but it is how we conduct ourselves that that matters, that we are to be judged by our actions, ideas and achievements, not our ancestors and so on.

Many institutions are being dragged into the 21st century despite Dr. Kings plea coming almost 50 years ago. In some area we have made advancement, in others we have not and perhaps regressed. Americans, in particular if not in the top economic segment are "losing" ground at we advance into the 21st century. Our democratic freedoms are being taken away from us at an alarming rate. Racism is not disappearing.

To bring this back to ballet and away from the larger political discussion, how can ballet be MORE inclusive or rather LESS exclusionary or Africans, Asians, and other no Europeans? What is ballet as a mega institution doing to fight this type of racism? What are the various communities doing to fight racism?

If you look to the middle east you can see how we fight bigotry in the 21st century. We try to destroy our adversary... In ballet do they largely ignore them?

Cuba is an example of a non Euro centric country which HAS ballet and HAS produced many wonderful dancers who have gone on to bigger stages and to appear on the world's stage. And I suppose these geniuses are embraced and thrust out in to the spotlight for their talent as well as to prove that there is no racism at work.

But I ask why must so many, perhaps most of these talented black and Hispanic dancers come from outside our borders? Why are they not coming from within our own cities?

That is the question and the place were I suspect you can see the racism in the institution of ballet. This may be due to the racism of society at large more so than within ballet itself... but I am curious as to what and how the grand ballet companies are facing this issue? Are they seeking a pass on racism by taking on the Cubans, for example?

I am not a dancer and don't know what the make up of the ABT or Joffrey school is, for example, but I suspect it is quite white. Why IS that?

I never said that things cannot change... I am only saying that from my perspective we may not be making much progress.


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