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DefJef

Race, Culture and Ballet

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:excl:

Talk about mixed emotions! I should be happy that I can now see him, but I'm sad that his muse has led him down this dubious path.

Still, my inner voice is screaming, "Go, Danny!" :):):(

Thanks for the heads up, OF! And I'll step into the shower after you're done.

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There are different opinions regarding the quality of training in the US. McKenzie's statement seemed to be a way of avoiding answering the more sensitive issue and directing the attention elsewhere.

Dd trained at a large well-known school associated with a professional company for several years. During that time the school bent over backwards to attract, train and retain minority students. From year 1 her class was pretty racially diverse, reflecting the community: white, asian, black, hispanic and other minorities. The longer she remained in the school, the more students dropped out, usually because, pick one: it was getting harder or because they were no longer interested, wanted to do another type of dance, didn't have the ballet body: short legs, long torso, did not have the feet for pointe, just didn't like it and had been doing it for their moms to begin with. Dd is the only student from her class still studying ballet. She is minority, but not AA, so it's not so obvious, but she is a minority nonetheless. There are NO ballet dancers or students at any of the schools she has attended of her ethnicity. She has NO professional role models of her ethnicity to look up to, male or female. But she does have professional dancers she looks up to. They may not look like her, but she sees in them something share: the artist within. She loved being a student at the company school but ultimately left because she felt she needed to get the level of training provided to ballet students in Europe and Russia if she was to become a ballet dancer: the school's program is typical of that provided in the US, hours of training at the advanced level are 12-14 hours per week. But in Russia, for instance, (or at CPYB, in PA), students her age train many more hours per week and therefore are stronger technically. The quote about the quality of training in the US should not be dismissed lightly. Without high quality training, you will not be a competitive dancer. If the dancer is not competitive, they won't pass the audition.

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A few quick thoughts--

#1-I wonder if Danny Tidwell was attracted to "So You Think You Can Dance" by the pull of his muse, or pushed by his (possibly unsatisfactory) range of alternative choices?

#2-Whether training inside or outside the United States, if dancers of color (even AA, the original recent thread discussion of the "black swans") are not visibly and noticabley distinct, they would have a greater opportunity to 'blend in' and would not face the same issues in the admittedly 'lookist' world of ballet where appearance is so important and capricious (subjective and fickle, but not arbitrary or random) for all dancers. The concern might not exist in the same way as it does for visibly non-traditional dancers.

#3-I would also relate this question back to others raised on this thread--if dancers of color need to be twice as good to get half as far (as several have asserted on this thread), maybe they should all be training in Europe or Russia. It would seem they need every advantage.

#4-Does anyone know how these diversity issues play out in other countries? Is there the same lack of diversity (missing swans, for ex.) at all levels, and is there the same problem retaining dancers of color during training? By the way, at the studio that "bent over backwards" with so little success, who decided on the methods of retaining dancers? I was just wondering could some of the attrition be attributed to business as usual methods? I would base my strategy on what had worked for dancers (like the consultants I mentioned earlier) who did manage to follow through to careers.

#4-Do more hours automatically equal better training? Also do the Europeans and Russians train more at later stages and less at the early stages when so many dancers here (not just minority dancers) are already burning out?

I also was excited to see a professional company associated school making apparently strenuous (albeit ineffective) efforts to attract and retain a diverse group of students.

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#1-I wonder if Danny Tidwell was attracted to "So You Think You Can Dance" by the pull of his muse, or pushed by his (possibly unsatisfactory) range of alternative choices?

Unsatisfactory? He was with ABT, often dancing soloist roles although he left before he could be promoted. Doesn't sound so unsatisfactory to me! :) He may have found the prospect of a career at ABT unsatisfactory given the fact that he is quite talented at many forms of dance, but from a purely balletic standpoint, it doesn't get much better than that.

More hours do not necessarily equal better training; however, at schools with good training one usually finds the students dancing more often. It really comes down to the quality of the teaching, but anything less than 90-minute classes 5-6 days/week usually indicates a school that is not serious about ballet.

I don't have experience with a broad range of European schools, but at the big academies in Europe (i.e., Vaganova, Bolshoi, Royal Danish, Royal, and Paris Opéra) the students are in ballet class for 90 minutes 5 days/week starting from day one. This is not the case at SAB and most other schools in the US. I don't know whether there is a correlation between these schedules and burnout--I would say it is perhaps a case of there being more than one way to (forgive the inelegant expression) skin a cat.

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Hans, I certainly agree with you about ABT being 'top of the line;' the reason I say possibly unsatisfactory, is I don't know why he didn't wait for the solost roles to ripen into a solist promotion. Maybe he knew something we don't know. I find it hard to believe he did not have a conversation with the powers that be prior to deciding to leave ABT. As noted above, Complexions did not work out either. Baffling.

On the hours thing, I am aware of minimum standards for pre-pro in the US, and was just observing it's not an automatic formula more hours=better training. I thought from other threads here and on our sister board, that there were some significant differences by age in hours and intensity of training between US and schools outside the US. One of the differences I thought was "day one" being a later age than some US schools.

By the way I am unaccountably fond of inelegant expressions :clapping:, including the particular one you use (even though I consider myself a friend of all felines! :innocent:).

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One of the differences I thought was "day one" being a later age than some US schools.

I think that is the case at some schools in Europe, although I don't know for sure how universally it applies to all children. For example, at the Vaganova Academy, in the past vrsfanatic has mentioned that the students generally attend a sort of pre-ballet program which involves floor exercises, learning how to point their feet, straighten their knees, do battement tendu, &c (not sure how many times/week this is). Then at age 10 some of them are taken into the Vaganova Academy proper, and they begin real ballet classes. In other countries, students might begin studying ballet or pre-ballet at age 8 at a local studio and then audition at age 10 for a larger academy where they have class 5x/week.

By the way, I should qualify my statement above that "anything less than 90-minute classes 5-6 days/week usually indicates a school that is not serious about ballet" to "anything less than 90-minute classes 5-6 days/week at an intermediate/advanced level in the US usually indicates a school that is not serious about ballet."

But now we have gone rather far :clapping: I can start a thread for this over on BT4D.

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Thanks Hans for the follow up, and to bring this back on track, I have sometimes observed that dancers of color, particularly AA, are advised to try their luck in Europe. This environment is described as one where they are more likely to be judged on their merits. Never having been to Europe, I have no idea how valid this may be. The existence of companies like "Ballet Black" suggests there may be similar obstacles in Europe comparable to those in the US. Does anyone have first hand information on this race, culture, and ballet issue outside the US context?

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The only thing I can say is that during my time at Rudra (a little less than a year), both the company and school were, while quite international, also extremely (but not exclusively) white. I don't know how that may have changed by now or what the situation may be like at other institutions.

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This is a controversial topic. Trying to answer to the "why" questions , trying to talk about "real facts" or trying to come up with percentages or numbers can be, besides dangerous in terms of accuracy, harsh and/or offensive. MY PERSONAL OPINION in regard of this topic is that it is ALWAYS possible to overcome racial issues in favor of culture, good technique and diversity. Growing up watching Ballet Nacional de Cuba's totally racially mixed company was wonderful. Not only did i see Carlos Acosta developing all the way to finally become a premier dancer . Other black dancers names in leading positions from back then come to my mind (Caridad Martinez, Catherine Suaznabar and so on), so yes, i guess it can be strange for some to see no racial diversity in some companies.

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Thanks Hans for the follow up, and to bring this back on track, I have sometimes observed that dancers of color, particularly AA, are advised to try their luck in Europe. This environment is described as one where they are more likely to be judged on their merits. Never having been to Europe, I have no idea how valid this may be. The existence of companies like "Ballet Black" suggests there may be similar obstacles in Europe comparable to those in the US. Does anyone have first hand information on this race, culture, and ballet issue outside the US context?

Reading Ruth Sunderland's article about Carlos Acosta, i recalled this old thread, and i thought it would be interesting to post this anecdote...

"In his memoir, No Way Home, he -(Acosta)-recalls an instance, after he had just joined the Royal Ballet, when he got talking to an elegant black man in a bar, who told him that because of his colour, the company had probably brought him over to play the jester. Acosta flew into a rage and replied: 'I only dance principal roles. I am Romeo, I am Siegfried... if there aren't any black Romeos, I'll be the first." :blush:

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I am sorry to bring up an old topic, I wanted to post this earlier, but could not find a newslink to my information and did not want to post prematurely.

But regarding african americans in Europe - Celine Gittens is a Trinidad Canadian (close enough?!) who was hired at 17 to the Birmingham Royal Ballet and has been cast (and reviewed) very well since she arrived ... Arabian soloist in the first Nut, a lead pdd in "Nine Sinatra Songs" and now Odette / Odile in their February Swan Lake. (As posted in the newsletter of her old studio, Goh Ballet http://www.gohballet.com/fall2007.htm and here as well http://www3.telus.net/lesbill/newsletter.html). She also had an article "Celine Gittens: A Dancer's Diary" by Celine Gittens in the Summer 2007 issue of Dance International http://www.danceinternational.org/archive/summer2007.html

Anyway, a major coup (or several) for any barely 19 year old, but also certainly good news for people looking at african women in ballet in Europe.

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Thank you for that report, CeC -- and for the very interesting links. I don't think the Dance International piece is online at present. The link to gohballet.com mentions that she won the Gold medal at the Genee competition in 2005.

It's been a rapid and most impressive ascent for this very young dancer. Definitely a name -- and career -- to follow. Congratulations. :tiphat:

We have several members who review the BRB occasionally. I hope that one or more will be able to bring us more news and impessions about Ms. Gittens' performances. (Postisng this in the Review thread or Dancers thread would most likely get the biggest number of readers.).

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I had the opposite experience of minorities in the USA. I was the minority when I danced in Tokyo. I had very blonde hair when younger, and considering that everyone but the usual guest performers was either Asian generally or Japanese specifically, I usually stood out. This helped my career because I was more likely to get demi-soloist, or the occasional soloist role (I did A LOT of fairies, sylphs,etc.etc.), than be relegated to corps continually. I have heard since, that they are not so amenable to hiring dancers who don't "blend" as well. But during my 3 years there, the company administrators & instructors were v. kind, the older dancers friendly, and the younger dancers tolerant if not exactly friendly. Ballet directions were still in french, and my japanese language skills improved immensely every time I negotiated the 3 trains and Shinjuku to get to/from home. I'm not sure if my salary was more or less than anyone else as my parents did the negotiating, and I just signed where they told me to.

RE: class schedules. I started age 4. Two years later classes were 3x/wk-60+ minutes each. By age nine 90mins class- 4-6 days/wk. Professionally: Two 90-min. classes back to back, M-F (with maybe an hour or two of rehearsal for whatever afterwards on alternating nights.), Sat. one 90+min class, and 4-6hrs rehearsal. Sundays off unless emergency. Of course when we were performing, that schedule changed somewhat.

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Glad to see this thread is still active and open. I reviewed the many posts and was alternately encouraged and dismayed both by what happened then and where we are now. I hope we all continue to think about these inequities in as clear-sighted, creative, and compassionate a way as possible.

I also hope everyone continues to notice that the lack of diversity has remained fairly constant, and to continue to ask and think about why this has changed so little, and if we are happy with that state of affairs. If the only faces of color you see are deployed as Arabian in Nutcracker--I suggest, that is not enough.

Happy holidays to everyone and here's to finding an accomplished African American Sugar Plum Fairy on many more stages in the coming years.

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For classical / story ballet there remains the notion that the dancers must represent the race of the characters... such a white girl for Juliette etc. It's a silly notion to cling to in ballet because ballet is more "illusion" and metaphor than anything coming close to resembling an historical presentation. Look at the ones which are pure fantasy such as Nut and Swan and Beauty, just to mention a few. So why can't we see black dancers in ANY of these roles? I think it comes down to a bit of prejudice and pandering to subconscious (quasi racist) expectations of the audience.

And then you have the cultural divide out there. There is a strong movement to embrace one's own historical heritage and culture. Nothing wrong with that, but it does tend to prevent blacks from venturing into ballet because it is perceived as part of white European culture. Ironically there seems to be a fair amount of Asians who embrace European culture. But I suppose this may be related to the fact that Asians have long established cultures and the young feel freer to embrace European culture and do not feel that they have been oppressed by Europeans (perhaps) as much a blacks do.

Thankfully, some talented dancers seem to embrace ballet regardless of all the above and any other institutional pressure (right on Danny Tidwell and Misty Copeland!). They and others need to be embrace by the ballet establishment/culture and the black culture. Blacks certainly have demonstrated that they can dance and have innovated so much to boot.

Amazing that the color of one's skin has so much "baggage" in the 21st century. That's a crying shame.

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I think the new film on Jock Soto speaks directly to the diversity discussion that's part of this thread, as outlined in the passage below from the recent NY Times article on it by C. La Rocco:

"He is determined to seek out young dancers from diverse backgrounds, and he sees the film as outreach: for American Indian children whose culture often encourages them to stay close to home, and for youngsters everywhere struggling with their homosexuality."

It's awesome to see him take this on, as an individual artist and as a representative of a major US school and company.

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For classical / story ballet there remains the notion that the dancers must represent the race of the characters... such a white girl for Juliette etc. It's a silly notion to cling to in ballet because ballet is more "illusion" and metaphor than anything coming close to resembling an historical presentation.

Great statement, SanderO. I totally agree. Still, i feel that traditionally- (and wrongly)-ballet gives black dancers less access to certain roles than , let's say, opera to black singers ,despite of the fact that physical and dramatic skills should be the main points to take in consideration when picking lead performers-(or performers in general)-in both art forms...

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For classical / story ballet there remains the notion that the dancers must represent the race of the characters... such a white girl for Juliette etc. It's a silly notion to cling to in ballet because ballet is more "illusion" and metaphor than anything coming close to resembling an historical presentation. Look at the ones which are pure fantasy such as Nut and Swan and Beauty, just to mention a few. So why can't we see black dancers in ANY of these roles? I think it comes down to a bit of prejudice and pandering to subconscious (quasi racist) expectations of the audience.

Amazing that the color of one's skin has so much "baggage" in the 21st century. That's a crying shame.

Well said SanderO; I have always thought that only the appropriate talent should apply when casting roles but in the past I have heard audience members commenting on the fact that Juliet was being danced by a Japanese dancer (for example). The irony being that Northern Ballet Theatre's most celebrated Juliet is the recently retired Chiaki Nagao, who became synonymous in the role.

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For classical / story ballet there remains the notion that the dancers must represent the race of the characters... such a white girl for Juliette etc. It's a silly notion to cling to in ballet because ballet is more "illusion" and metaphor than anything coming close to resembling an historical presentation. Look at the ones which are pure fantasy such as Nut and Swan and Beauty, just to mention a few. So why can't we see black dancers in ANY of these roles? I think it comes down to a bit of prejudice and pandering to subconscious (quasi racist) expectations of the audience.

Amazing that the color of one's skin has so much "baggage" in the 21st century. That's a crying shame.

Well said SanderO; I have always thought that only the appropriate talent should apply when casting roles but in the past I have heard audience members commenting on the fact that Juliet was being danced by a Japanese dancer (for example). The irony being that Northern Ballet Theatre's most celebrated Juliet is the recently retired Chiaki Nagao, who became synonymous in the role.

Maybe i'm wrong, but it always occured to me that for a lot of people, particulary for those for which ballet is resumed to the Nutcracker once a year, -IF- or just a couple of ballet experiences in a lifetime, they expect the spectacle to fallow the films/theater plays/(even Brodway?) role casting pattern, which,sometimes-(and wrongly)- relays more on the racial context of the characters.

ballet is more "illusion" and metaphor than anything coming close to resembling an historical presentation.

Perfect! :clapping: i think this is the key for a lot of generalized confussion and a great concept for we can justify a lot of , otherwise, unjustifiable facts of ballet. So then, we know than Zefirelli's R&J can't be analized from the same perspective, regarding racial issues on the leading roles than, let's say, Martins' version for ballet. Also, this concept closes lots of controversies regarding not also race, but age and dancing, without even thinking of terms like "ageism" . Now , accepting the "Illusional" perspective, we can have a Giselle double the age than her Albretch (Alonso/Vasiliev), a young maid character played by an aged ballerina being the object of affection of her young partners, (the recent Fracci's role), or my favorite Alonso-after-Fedorova all-adults production of the "Nutcracker" without thinking about how wrong can be having grown dancers playing children-(or "trying to act like children"). At the end...it's all a fantasy...an "ilussion"!!! (Thank you SanderO for putting it so clear!)

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From Orlando Patterson's review of The Race Card by Richard Thompson Ford, in today's NY Times Book Review:

"[Ford] writes that framing antifat discrimination as a civil rights issue is 'an uncomfortable stretch.' The rejection of a fat but fit and qualified woman for a job as a Jazzercise instructor in San Francisco was defensible, he claims, on the grounds that the company advertises itself as a weight-loss organization: 'Asking Jazzercise to hire fat instructors is not like asking a lunch counter to hire blacks; it's more like asking a cosmetics company to hire models with severe acne.' Furthermore, he says, fat people can change themselves in ways blacks cannot, there is general agreement that being overweight is undesirable and unhealthy, and no significant fat identity movement exists. Whoops! Overweight Americans, far more numerous than blacks, can point to medical evidence that fatness is partly genetic, to sociological findings that they suffer job discrimination and to a growing fat-acceptance movement led by feisty bloggers in the 'fatosphere.'

And consider this: The great choreographer George Balanchine held that a ballerina's skin should be the color of a peeled apple, a view shared by many in ballet circles. I can see no difference between Ford's defense of Jazzercise's action and an artistic director's refusal to hire a talented black ballerina because ballerinas are expected to be white, thin and flat everywhere. Justice sometimes requires the rehabilitation of standards unfairly naturalized by convention."

I hope there's enough context here to make sense.

(Complete review at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/10/books/re...mp;oref=slogin)

Overall, Patterson praises Ford's willingness to take on egregious cases of "playing the race card"; the quoted passage comes in a section where Patterson identifies parts of Ford's argument that don't work so well. It should be troubling that Patterson can draw on ballet's whiteness so easily as an example of unreformed racism.

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Thanks, Ray, for that link. Although I want to take more time to read the review, you reminded me about a few comments I was intending to post when I first found them in the FAll 2007 issue of Ballet Review.

The speaker is Raven Wilkinson, the very gifted African American ballet dancer who performed with Ballet Russe in the 50s and the Dutch National Ballet in the 1960s and 70s:

BR [Michael Langlois]: When you arrived in Europe did the whole issue of your being a black ballet dancer change?

Wilkinson: Yes. The Dutch were not so conscious of it. In Holland there are many people of color from the Antilles and Indonesia. They'd been there for generations and they were considered as Dutch as anyone else. To the people over there I was simply an American. I wasn't black. I wasn't African American. I was an American.

People in Europe, in Holland anyway, were more concerned aobut who you were than what you were. They didn't look at you and your clothes or your skin color to decide if they liked you or not.. Of course, our history of slavery didn't exist there and, by implication, the institution of racism, so there wasn't this hurdle I had to jump over to be accepted.

When we toured to England, though , it was like being back in 1940s New York. Everyone was trying to place you, to decide how they should act toward you. [ ... ]

Different cultures -- coming from different historical experiences and value systems -- behave differently. It is useful for Americans to learn about alternatives to the way we habitually think about -- and universalize -- race and color. As one who would be quite delighted to watch a black Juliet (or Romeo) in a mixed or even all-white cast, I can only imagine how liberating this experience in the Netherlands must have been for Wilkinson, and how sad that she had to travel thousands of miles from home to find it.

By the way, the entire interview with Wilkinson is worth seeking out on many levels. Only a relatively small part has to do with racial matters. The rest has to do .... as it always would in a perfect world .... with BALLET !

["A conversation with Raven Wilkinson," Michael Langlois, Ballet Review, Fall 2007]

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Ultimately it comes down to who hires... in Washington Ballet (D.C.) we have Black, Hispanic, Asian dancers... I think that when choreographers / artistic directors, like Choo San Goh or Septime Webre, are comfortable with multiple cultures, then they are more likely to be clued in to great potential hires, just because they know where those applicants are coming from. In other words, it's not just who you (as a dancer) know, it's (even more important) who knows you!

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Mike Gunther hints that the AD or some one in management who is non white male would be more open to non white casting or more accurately hiring.

This seems to mean that the "racism" that we may see, assuming it's there, is because of top down "prejudice". That's troubling, isn't it (if true)?

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Raven Wilkinson's strength of character and pride in her own identity is striking throughout the Ballet Review interview Bart mentions. I was especially moved by the moment of consciousness raising she relates in regards to auditioning for Eugene Loring for a ballet he was doing for Joffrey Ballet. Loring expected her to be familar with "modern movement," but, no, she told him,

"I am trained in classical ballet [. . .] I'm a ballet dancer just like every other member of the Joffrey."

Then after waiting several weeks to hear if she'd been selected, she inquired of Joffrey himself, telling him she needed to know because she had an upcoming chance to dance in Europe.

When he heard this he banged his hand down on his desk and screamed, "Why are you black dancers always going off to Europe! This is your home!" I just sat there a moment until he'd calmed down, and then I said, "You know why, Mr. Joffrey? This is why. This is one of the reasons why." There was a long silence, and then he said, "I understand."

I'm both moved by Wilkinson's ordeal and touched by the well-meaning Joffrey's moment of revelation.

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Mike Gunther hints that the AD or some one in management who is non white male would be more open to non white casting or more accurately hiring.

This seems to mean that the "racism" that we may see, assuming it's there, is because of top down "prejudice". That's troubling, isn't it (if true)?

Well the AD has to choose, that's his or her job, and we all tend to love most and choose most often what we know best. Sometimes "prejudice" is just limited experience. In the interest of consciousness raising and equal opportunity in ballet, it might be best to avoid alienating people we don't know by condemning their taste as racist.

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