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Race, Culture and Ballet


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#196 bart

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Posted 09 February 2008 - 07:32 AM

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]

#197 Mike Gunther

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Posted 09 February 2008 - 05:54 PM

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!

#198 SanderO

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Posted 09 February 2008 - 06:47 PM

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)?

#199 kfw

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Posted 09 February 2008 - 07:12 PM

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.

#200 kfw

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Posted 09 February 2008 - 07:45 PM

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.

#201 SanderO

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Posted 09 February 2008 - 08:18 PM

I am not calling anyone a racist, especially someone who I do not know.

I think minorities would be more likely to be colorblind in their choices, because they are more sensitive to discrimination. I could be wrong. I usually am.

#202 kfw

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Posted 09 February 2008 - 08:30 PM

I think minorities would be more likely to be colorblind in their choices, because they are more sensitive to discrimination. I could be wrong. I usually am.

I imagine you're right. Raven Wilkinson for AD '08! :wink:

#203 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 08 July 2008 - 10:19 PM

This issue has been debated also among the asian community:

Where are all the Asians swans?
...as an Asian-American audience member, it makes me think, “Where are the dancers that look like me?..."

http://www.8asians.c...he-asian-swans/

#204 Paul Parish

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Posted 09 July 2008 - 03:11 PM

well, Sander O and kfw, it's not simple; remember the hatred Raven Wilkinson described so vividly, coming towards her from other African-Americans --

#205 dirac

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Posted 09 July 2008 - 05:13 PM

well, Sander O and kfw, it's not simple; remember the hatred Raven Wilkinson described so vividly, coming towards her from other African-Americans --


I don't think they were suggesting that it is simple, or to discount the complexity of Wilkinson's situation. ( I doubt that social pressure alone would have deflected Wilkinson from her goals -- the institutionalized discrimination she faced was a much more significant threat to them.)

#206 2dds

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Posted 29 August 2008 - 10:15 AM

:P There was a time I would have made a lengthy reply to this thread. That time is over. I no longer hold out hope that the American ballet community will become a non-race conscious meritocracy anytime soon enough to make a practical difference in the lives of dancers and companies I currently care about. Having said that, I would love to be proven wrong!

I continue to hope that in some future time, this will become the conventional reality. These days, however, that's all the time and energy I am willing to devote to this. You live, and you learn.

I would highly recommend Wilkinson's Ballet Review interview to anyone with serious interest on this topic. It is clear, nuanced and frank.


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