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Race, Culture and Ballet


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205 replies to this topic

#16 DefJef

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Posted 24 July 2006 - 09:39 AM

Helen,

I am well aware, as most are, thate West Side Story is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliette. Same story different vernacular. I recall being told once that there are only 7 plots themes in all of litereature.

I don't care about the period of the story or the location, Verona or the South Bronx.. then and now...

Perhaps, the question is:

Is the vernacular of ballet a historical relic that we hold onto because it is part of our (europeans') past? Or is it and can it be a living art form where the color of the skin of the dancers matters not?

#17 Helene

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Posted 24 July 2006 - 09:43 AM

[ADMIN BEANIE ON]

We have a strict policy about political discussions, and that is that they must be specific to ballet. While racism in society may be related to racism that might exist in ballet, general discussion of politics or political philosophy is off limits on Ballet Talk. We state this clearly in Rules and Policies.

There are excellent forums across the Internet where discussion of general politics and philosophy are not only appropriate topics, but they are the raison d'etre for these sites. Ballet Talk has a different mission.

[ADMIN BEANIE OFF]

#18 Mel Johnson

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Posted 24 July 2006 - 09:51 AM

I wouldn't assume things about the JKO (ABT) school right yet, as it is so new that a deme has yet to emerge. And there are reasons why the Joffrey school fed a company which was noted for its inclusion, viewed from a racial perspective.

Ballet is not hermetic. It doesn't remain isolated from the society that surrounds it. Cuba has historically been an integrated society, if a bit off the beaten track. The first production of Giselle there "featured" a corps of Wilis who sat down on the scenery when they got tired, and lit up cigars! That seems like a "hayseed" joke, but it happened, much to the astonishment of the European principals. If bigotry is abroad in the world, it will show up in the arts. Art reflects life, and I don't think that there's anything that any one person can do about it except to give focus, as did the revered Dr. King. It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes the whole world to change the whole world. May we continue in productive directions.

#19 bart

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Posted 24 July 2006 - 10:57 AM

May we continue in productive directions.

An excellent idea. Thansk, Mel. :thanks:

I would love to hear some of our members' ideas about what can be done in positive, practical ways to achieve what I am sure are the goals of all of us on BT:

(a) make ballet (both practicing and watching) accessible to all kinds of people, while
(b) retaining the artistic goals and practices that makes ballet the kind of performing art it is.

#20 ami1436

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Posted 24 July 2006 - 11:58 AM

Mel Johnson really is an oracle.

I've been following this thread with interest, although I admit to quick reading....If I may pose a thought, with apologies if this is out there already, or if this is too personal.

Exclusion isn't just built on 'negatives' - exclusion in its many forms, also often has to do with 'positives'. Just think of enclaves. Yes, there's a sense of exclusion felt by *both* those who live in enclaves and those who don't. But also, within, a sense of community, commonness, etc....

Art - and I'd reckon, especially music and dance - are often tied to these communities. Yeah, so I'm one of the few South Asian dancers I know. This doesn't mean that my friends aren't interested in dance. They're much better folk dancers, Indian classical dancers, Bollywood dancers... some of them are fabulous Hindi/Sanksrit singers, play the tabla/sitar....

And this is all in the U.S. Similar questions about audience membership, artists/participants, could be asked here. In terms of participation, in some ways it can be compared to some of our talented dancers on BT4D, who come to a point where they are choosing between ballet and music, soccer... something. There's also a sense of 'connection' that many feel through their specific artistic expressions of their roots... Ballet will always be my first love, but there's something different that comes out of me when I'm folk dancing or a great bhangra song comes on at a party. That 'something extra' is beyond words.

I guess part of what I'm saying, is that while there may be structural modes at play, that serve to exclude, there are also positive networks that foster participation elsewhere, and thus a lessened desire to participate.

In terms of audience watching, the same thing could be said perhaps? Interests vary. The question could be a larger one of how to attract new audiences.

The audience members at Dance Theatre of Harlem performances at the Sadlers Wells are much different than the standard Royal Ballet audience, the audience at the Wells for the Royal Danish Ballet, which are all also quite different than the audiences for the Bolshoi and the Kirov, also at Covent Garden.

I think it'd be hard to get a fully mixed audience for every run of Swan Lake, or for that matter, Dougla. But, perhaps, over the course of a season.

In terms of participation/choreography, I'm hopeful, along with Mr. Johnson and Hans. As of this fall, the Royal Ballet will have 3 black dancers - Carlos Acosta, Eric Underwood, and a fabulous young artist from Columbia, trained in Cuba, whose name I keep forgetting unfortunately. Houston Ballet is another excellent example.... and heck, something like 16 years ago, when I was particpating in a local performance of Ballet Idaho's Nutcracker, a beautiful African-American woman was the Sugar Plum Fairy. Talk about a lasting impression on a young kid.

#21 bart

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Posted 24 July 2006 - 01:15 PM

I guess part of what I'm saying, is that while there may be structural modes at play, that serve to exclude, there are also positive networks that foster participation elsewhere, and thus a lessened desire to participate.

Ami1436, thank you for your entire post -- but especially for the point I've quoted above. You've captured what hits me as a great truth. In a very elegant sentence!

When we focus on the demographics behind ballet participation, we tend to forget the vast range of OTHER cultural opportunities available for people of many cultures to choose. These opportunities are, I think, expanding in most parts of the world, and certainly in the US.

And the idea that one can "choose" is becoming more universal than ever before in history.

As the act of choosing becomes more possible, and more meaningful, an increasing number of individuals may feel freer to take paths that lead them away from the familiar and possibly towards an experimentation with ballet.

As this happens, ballet must be in a position to welcome and receive them. One way to do this is to remain a growing, creative art form, and not just a custodian of tradition (though that is important, too). Another way is to create programs -- publicize dancers -- find ways to reduce ticket prices, as Sadlers Wells does, compared to Covent Garden -- so new audiences can take a risk and come. This does happen. But it's often not followed up on, and most companies drift back into their old way of dealing with audiences -- and to their old concept of "the audience" itself.

Maybe acompanies need to invest in serious, sophisticated 5-year plans to develop new, more diverse audiences rather than putting on one or two programs and hoping that that will do it.

#22 omshanti

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Posted 25 July 2006 - 07:17 AM

Defjef I think calling ballet and ballet world [racist ] is a very subjective idea and not fair at all, and I have to say that all the other posters in this thread have been objective and right in my opinion. I really think the way you see ballet can reflect the way you see the world ( I am not meaning politically but generally), and I think that you should get rid of this over-sensitiveness on racial issues and be natural. Just try to see people as individual human-beings rather than putting them in racial categories and enjoy ballet as it is (you will enjoy it much more) . Over-sensitiveness on racial issues and [racism] are two sides of the same coin in my opinion.

#23 DefJef

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Posted 25 July 2006 - 08:09 AM

Omshanti,

I do tend to see the world in a non racists way, which is easy for me as a white man who has had a good education and so forth. However, my wife is Hispanic and works with underprivileged people in her job and is exposed to the effects of racism has on society on a daily basis. It was actually her comment to me about the lack of black faces at the ABT which inspired me to raise this issue for discussion.

My sense is that ballet itself is not racists but is very much a Euro-centric dance and very much a "relic" or a tradition which dates back a hundred fifty years or so at most (guess). However, is there a place for blacks inside of such a Euro-centric vernacular? When I visit a museum and view renaissance paintings from Italy I do not expect to see Blacks in the paintings. They were not part of Italian renaissance society for the most part.

Ballet as abstract art form... movement, discipline and so on is NOT stuck in a cultural milieu as such. So if you can "see past" the librettos you could cast a black in any role... or as I believe Helene suggested to frame the libretto to a more contemporary setting which skin color would not seem so "discordant".

Again, my sense is that Ballet is NOT making much of an effort to remove race barriers, and neither are other races running to embrace it. We are less of a melting pot (as in alloy) and more of a stew of races all in the same pot!

I certainly would not say that there a direct effort at exclusion, because I simply have no evidence of such. But from the financing of ballet as noted on another thread, the appeal to the extremely wealthy patrons DOES hearken back to even the Renaissance where arts were done for and at the behest of wealthy patrons and nobles. Why our city can give George Steinbrenner hundreds of millions of dollars and public parks (in the poor south Bronx) and give hardly anything to our arts institutions baffles me and I suppose it means that the arts must be supported by wealthy patrons, who I would imagine are 99.9% lilly white.

So I ask YOU omshanti.. Why do we see proportionately fewer blacks on stage, in the ballet schools and in the audience than what we have in the general population in NYC for example?

#24 Hans

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Posted 25 July 2006 - 08:43 AM

My sense is that ballet itself is not racists but is very much a Euro-centric dance and very much a "relic" or a tradition which dates back a hundred fifty years or so at most (guess).

Just to be picky, ballet's roots can actually be traced to the 15th century.

#25 Herman Stevens

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Posted 25 July 2006 - 12:38 PM

So I ask YOU omshanti.. Why do we see proportionately fewer blacks on stage, in the ballet schools and in the audience than what we have in the general population in NYC for example?


You don't have to ask omshanti in this ominous fashion.

This has been adressed many times before in the threads that were linked at the top of this thread.And BTW not every one is on this white guilt trip.

#26 Kate Lennard

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Posted 25 July 2006 - 01:13 PM

May I say in defence of DefJef. Perhaps yes, his tone was agressive towards omshanti, however I don't blame him in the slightest for becoming frustrated and losing his "cool".

His point is an exceptionally valid one and he has been accused here of "white guilt", had his pertinent and very real concerns belittled, mis construed and had his relative ignorance of the ballet world and history used as a weapon against him.

The truth is that if we are to address the art as it is lived today, performed today and represented today within society then we have to recognise the fact that the product onstage is woefully underrepresetative of a huge proportion of western society. As is the audience demographic too.

And this is a concern for the seasoned balletomane, we've all sat there in the half empty houses, wondering just how the art we love is going to survive, we've all bemoaned the egregious excesses of technique and flexibility which provide the mainstay of companies whose artistic ethos is in decline, but these excesses are necessary to attract audiences.

My second husband was black, and before we married I'd had a good thirty plus years of ballet going, and at the start of our relationship I tried to instill my love of ballet into him and I remember his first visit with myself, under duress, to the Royal Opera House. And his verdict - it's all white. There was nothing there which he felt spoke to him, to his ethnicity to his experience either on stage or off.

I do worry about this rule of no politicised debate, because I truly feel that certain areas of any art must be discussed on a political level, without which an art cannot survive. It is a part of society, if it has no political agenda, relevance then it has no relevance full stop.

I'm sorry that DefJef has laid down his gauntlet or perhaps just not bothered, because his was a sincere, sensitive and intelligent approach to trying to understand an art form he was new to and which he was trying to reconcile to his political and cultural self.

This is most unfair to DefJef, it was he who was wronged not vice versa. And this is something the seasoned balletomane has to get into our heads. We have to listen and really listen to new converts to ballet. And listen to their very real concerns.

Poor DefJef has had practically every insult heaped upon him and he didn't deserve that. He deserved better, he deserved to have his views taken in as much seriousness and value as recollections of Ulanova, Fonteyn et al Because the Def Jef's are the future without new audiences recollection is all we'll have.

#27 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 25 July 2006 - 01:22 PM

[MODERATOR BEANIE ON]

Kate, this is a fascinating post and an interesting issue

I need to insist though, that the finger pointing stop immediately from all parties (I'm not leveling this at Kate - it was just time to step in). It's an issue to discuss, not to take personally - not here at least.

If it keeps up, I will close the thread.

[MODERATOR BEANIE OFF]

#28 papeetepatrick

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Posted 25 July 2006 - 01:25 PM

I really think the way you see ballet can reflect the way you see the world ( I am not meaning politically but generally), and I think that you should get rid of this over-sensitiveness on racial issues and be natural.


The topic is 'race, culture and ballet.' It's therefore perfectly normal to be talking about racism, and there is not really any point in putting racism in brackets as [racism] We are not trying to make racism 'quaint.' This 'get rid of this over-sensitiveness on racial issues and be natural' is a trifle much.

Just try to see people as individual human-beings rather than putting them in racial categories and enjoy ballet as it is (you will enjoy it much more) . Over-sensitiveness on racial issues and [racism] are two sides of the same coin in my opinion.


Again, the subject is race, not how not to be 'over-sensitive' about it. And the brackets really are bizarre, as if the term 'racism' did not really mean anything and had to be parodied by putting it in brackets. This is probably not what you meant, but it does come across somewhat this way, if only because you don't bracket anything else.

***OKAY: sorry, omshanti, I looked back at some of your other posts and you do use brackets, which is very uncommon as a substitute for quotation marks. However, racism does not need quotation marks-- as 'racism'--if 'racial issues' does not have them either. It's a legitimate term and very much a matter of daily dialogue, not at all exotic.

Personally, I am not all that involved with 'race and ballet' issues, but it's a logical topic to have if people want to talk about it, I would think.

#29 DefJef

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Posted 25 July 2006 - 02:47 PM

First, I want to say that A few aggressive comments on an online discussion board is not going to offend me after almost 6 decades of dealing with all sorts of people from all classes, races from every corner of the earth.

Second, I came to BT as an audience goer. I am not a student of ballet, a teacher, an arts critic, a dancer. I have been "consuming" the arts since I studied architecture in the late 60s, including ballet, theater, music, art and architecture.

In the past 6 or seven years at my initiative, my wife and I have begun to attend the Met regularly for ballet and opera. As I watched I realized how beautiful ballet was and how little I understood and so I sought out information and landed here. Isn't the internet a great thing!

Politics and art we are told often to do mix. But tell that to some artists who were so political that they changed the world and the way we see it. There is a tremendous element of escapism with the search for truth and beauty in the arts. But the arts have always been about the human condition and how we struggle and suffer and triumph and fall.

To tell someone to stop being sensitive to issues of race and therefore you can focus on other things is to ignore the very problem by denying its existence.

I usually don't address any poster specifically, but was responding to omshanti's dismissive remarks and simply requested an answer to my direct question. If it was not meant to be aggressive and if this offended anyone, I do apologize.

I have, in fact, read the other threads which were linked here and I don't believe the issue has been decided.

If BT member do not want to discuss this matter, I will at some time in the future pursue this with some black dancers (if I can find them to speak on this topic) etc., the ABT and the NYCB and whomever else can shed light on it.

#30 Alexandra

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Posted 25 July 2006 - 03:03 PM

[MODERATOR BEANIE ON]

Kate, this is a fascinating post and an interesting issue

I need to insist though, that the finger pointing stop immediately from all parties (I'm not leveling this at Kate - it was just time to step in). It's an issue to discuss, not to take personally - not here at least.

If it keeps up, I will close the thread.

[MODERATOR BEANIE OFF]


Gentlefolk, this was not a two-mintue warning, nor an invitation for more of the same. Please discuss the issue. Do not discuss each other.

Thank you.

Alexandra


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