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Race, Culture and Ballet


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#31 bart

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Posted 25 July 2006 - 03:17 PM

[Another MODERATOR'S BEANIE ON].

It is certainly appropriate -- and important -- to discuss this topic, as we have frequently on Ballet Talk.

"Discussion," to me, means:

-- making your point as clearly and respectfully as you can;

-- trusting that the reader will understand your point, but also accepting that they may not agree with you or even wish to respond to what you've said;

-- then moving on.

I feel this personally, and am glad that this is also enshrined in Ballet Talk's policies. When the topic begins to morph into "what's wrong with the way you (or we) are handling this topic," we've already lost our way. It cheats the topic of its very real importance. And makes it difficult to discuss what may be the most important issue of all: practical ways to reduce or elminate the effects of prejudice and discrimination in ballet.

Please, let's return to the topic.
[MODERATOR'S BEANIE OFF]

Edited to add: Alexandra and I coincidentally were posting at the same time. I agree entirely, Alexandra.

#32 papeetepatrick

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Posted 25 July 2006 - 03:27 PM

Things have probably changed a lot over the past few decades. I worked for a ballet coach here in NY back in 1983 who thought it was all wrong for African-Americans to be in ballet corps because it 'looked wrong.' I never thought about that, but I also had seen very few corps de ballet with African-Americans in them. This is probably a concern of some purists, not because of racism, but rather because of tradition, but I don't know. I do know the ballet coach was not a racist in life. Nor am I sure whether she felt differently about black soloists (I'm just now thinking about some old Allegra Kent footage with an African-American partner, but I hadn't been familiar with him before.) On the other hand, I think I noticed that the issue came up much less frequently with Martha Graham Dance Company, where black dancers were thought to be often especially desirable. In 2005, I had some difficulty in seeing two performances of 'Appalachian Spring' when the Bride was done first by a Frenchwoman and in the second by a Japanese. I couldn't ever forget that she was Japanese out in the American Midwest (or wherever it was exactly). However, this may have been caused by my perception that her rhythms were all wrong for the Bride, which had been done with much more simplicity and much less hauteur by Ms. Mycene. So I think that, even though there may have been this 'decorative concern' that some might read as racist, this is disappearing, if only gradually.

Someone else said that ballet (and other arts) would reflect the racism that is in the society in general (or not.) I don't see how this could not be true, and Paul Krugman recently had a convincing reflection on racism in the current epoch. It's also true that in certain very aristocratic circles (which are becoming outmoded) that the question of racism never comes up in a different way, e.g., it would never be imaginable that in the English royal family one of the children would marry anything but a wealthy Caucasian; and as we all know from Wallis Simpson, there are disadvantages in such circles to even being 'just American.' So that things in various elite kinds of groupings might be determined in those groups to be an aesthetic thing but actually dovetail into racism too. But at the highest levels of these groups, these questions are not countenanced, because the tradition is very strong and thought to be beyond question.

#33 bart

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Posted 25 July 2006 - 03:46 PM

Thanks for your very interestisng post, papeetepatrick. The dancer you're referring to was probably Arthur Mitchell, who broke many barriers when dancing for NYCB starting in the 50s. I've always admired Mitchell, not only for his courage and dignity at that time, but for his ongoing love for classical/neoclassical ballet, and his desire to expand the variety of dancers and audiences who can participate in it. Dance Theater of Harlem's version of Giselle is still one of my favorite memories of all time' and I loved attending the company's performances when I lived in NYC.

About the Japanese dancer cast in Appalachian Spring. Based on what I've gathered from your posts, I'm a bit older than you -- and also a white male. I very much remember having similar feelings. I knew, because of my family's politics, that this was "wrong," but it took a lot of work to come even close to the goal of being color blind, and I still catch myself noticing these things and feeling badly about it.

Younger audiences today seem to be totallly unfazed by this sort of thing (thank God!) and treat it as a complete non-issue. The dance schools I'm familiar with do the same and indeed actively recruit a variety of students.

When it comes to employment, however, the opportunities in classical ballet seem much less than in modern, Broadway, or most other dance forms.

What are the most important factors in this: audience? patrons? choreographers? administration? the feelings and choices of the dancers themselves?

#34 papeetepatrick

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Posted 25 July 2006 - 04:07 PM

About the Japanese dancer cast in Appalachian Spring. Based on what I've gathered from your posts, I'm a bit older than you -- and also a white male. I very much remember having similar feelings. I knew, because of my family's politics, that this was "wrong," but it took a lot of work to come even close to the goal of being color blind, and I still catch myself noticing these things and feeling badly about it.


As I think more about this, I actually think it was the dancing itself that, in fact, made me unable to lose consciousness of the superficiality of the 'Japanese-ness.' Now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure, but the combination probably made me unable to sort it out. I've definitely seen other Graham dances with Japanese in them that I thought were marvelous--but I have forgotten which they were precisely because I truly did not find it a conflict with anything artistic going on. It also may be that certain roles really do need a traditional look to them--unless the differently ethnic dancer is miraculously able to forget it--and make the viewer forget it. But not nearly all, of course. I do know that I didn't see this as politically wrong, but it probably made me think that there were kinds of movements that are specific to certain groups that just don't work within old traditions. I know that the very sharp, angular dancing of this Graham Japanese dancer seemed nothing like the Bride to me, as had the slower and very curvilinear look that Ms. Mycene had used so masterfully.

When it comes to employment, however, the opportunities in classical ballet seem much less than in modern, Broadway, or most other dance forms.
What are the most important factors in this: audience? patrons? choreographers? administration? the feelings and choices of the dancers themselves?


I'm not sure which ones of these would be the most powerful, probably the audience. But classical ballet, like all the other classical arts, would carry old traditions with it much more than the more popular arts, just by the very nature of what the classical is, as something that has a strong line through long periods of time. Since the nature of all players in the classical arts would have changed less than those in the popular arts, all aspects of the fabled traditions would be held onto more closely, as the matter of trendiness is not so strong. For example, even though we love the American musical, only a few--say 'Gypsy' and 'The King and I' and 'Candide'--keep getting revivals that prove their perennial appeal. on the other hand, there are scores of operas that are much older than these that have never gone completely dark.

As for modern dance specifically, it has long actually dealt with the modern issues, even as subjects within their narratives, much more than classical ballet has. There is much more modern dance about war and concentration camps and AIDS and 'verismo' scenes of all kinds than there is ballet about these things. Ballet always has a slightly bigger-than-life quality, often fantasy. This is wonderful to us, but there are the obvious pitfalls within a 'Sleeping Beauty', for example, that just don't come up with a new work by Molissa Fenley or Bill T. Jones.

#35 DefJef

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Posted 25 July 2006 - 04:15 PM

Jazz is very much an American music. It's roots are from the African American communities and probably the most well know jazz performers are black males. But there are white jazz musicians and many famous and talented onces. Jazz, albeit modern, and "improvisational" seems to be open to the influence of different forces and not as closed as more tradition based performance arts such a ballet. Notes are colorblind... No?

Dance as a whole certainly includes all ethnic groups.. and this makes sense since dance seems to be something common to all humans.

One can also observe many Asian musicians who "embrace" European music and are indeed masters at it. Classic music and opera seem to have more African Americans, but still proportionately, they seem under represented. The audiences seem to mirror the ratio of performers.

When a performance piece is from a very specific genre and the cast is princes and princesses and so forth... it may be more "accurate" to "follow the script". Othello the Moore is meant to be an African and it might look odd were he Asian. Dunno.

But, why do we see race.. which in dance would only be evident in skin tone, facial features and body "type" (perhaps) more than we see the movement itself?

Does this make any sense?

#36 Hans

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Posted 25 July 2006 - 04:18 PM

As I think more about this, I actually think it was the dancing itself that, in fact, made me unable to lose consciousness of the superficiality of the 'Japanese-ness.' Now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure, but the combination probably made me unable to sort it out. I've definitely seen other Graham dances with Japanese in them that I thought were marvelous. It also may be that certain roles really do need a traditional look to them--unless the differently ethnic dancer is miraculously able to forget it. But not nearly all, of course. I do know that I didn't see this as politically wrong, but it probably made me think that there were kinds of movements that are specific to certain groups that just don't work within old traditions. I know that the very sharp, angular dancing of this Graham Japanese dancer seemed nothing like the Bride to me, as had the slower and very curvilinear look that Ms. Mycene had used so masterfully.

I think perhaps I have misunderstood you...not every Japanese person moves in a sharp, angular way, and surely not every French person is slow and curvilinear. Please help me understand better what you mean. :mad:

As for a Japanese person being in the midwest, well, I know several Asian-looking people who are from Ohio (they were born there and so were their parents). You might be surprised at the reactions they get from people who ask, "Where are you from?" (I sympathize with them, actually. Upon finding out my name, people are usually not impressed when told I am from Maryland. :thanks: )

#37 papeetepatrick

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Posted 25 July 2006 - 04:25 PM

It's roots are from the African American communities and probably the most well know jazz performers are black males. But there are white jazz musicians and many famous and talented onces.


You answer much of what is probably being asked here by pointing out that the roots of jazz are black. Then it becomes something else as well. So that the reverse would be true of ballet certainly. It did not begin with African-Americans or even any Americans. It started out white, and therefore it takes a longer time for it to become more inclusive. However, all these things do change the original, but that's inevitable. It's a fine line to walk as I see it: it's important to keep many of the traditions intact, without which the essence of the art disappears, i.e., it's necessary to see race and ethnicity as part of the meaning of the work itself, but also to know that that is only part of it. At that point, it then becomes necessary for the 'color-blind' ideas to enter in, and they do; but they don't need to completely dominate either, because then you have a situation, for example, in which 'black blues' no longer really exists; and a situation in which a real Petipa-esque Aurora no longer exists. It has to go back and worth between these two poles and ought not to be expected to be too comfortable a process (little worry of that, it will definitely be difficult.) the 'roots of American modern dance', as well, are not Chinese, but gradually these elements work there way into it. and so on.

#38 papeetepatrick

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Posted 25 July 2006 - 04:36 PM

I think perhaps I have misunderstood you...not every Japanese person moves in a sharp, angular way, and surely not every French person is slow and curvilinear. Please help me understand better what you mean


No, I didn't mean that all Japanese dancers were sharp and angular, but that this one was; and especially since I'd fallen in love with Mycene, who did dance the role with a slow voluptuousness. It was not to say anything about Japanese or French dancers in general as I sought to demonstrate by the 'other Graham dances with Japanese dancers..' etc.

As for a Japanese person being in the midwest, well, I know several Asian-looking people who are from Ohio (they were born there and so were their parents). You might be surprised at the reactions they get from people who ask, "Where are you from?" (I sympathize with them, actually. Upon finding out my name, people are usually not impressed when told I am from Maryland. :thanks: )


Yes, I understand you, but a modern Midwestern Japanese would never seem unusual to me, whereas the idea of a Japanese 'frontier lady' is hard to imagine in the 'ballet for Martha' about a time much earlier than Martha even. I saw a review of that same season in which the 'Pioneer Woman' as I believe the character is called, was danced by Heidi Stoeckeley, and the writer pointed out how this 'Oklahoma native' had the look that so befitted the vast flat country. I experienced this very strongly with Ms. Stoeckeley myself (who was, incidentally, in both performances, and so preserved for me some sense of continuity from the previous performance). So that I think we still like to find what seems most traditionally authentic, but we can learn how to look at it in a more subtle way as we keep working at it. I'm now sure that it was this particular dancer I just didn't care for in the part. I thought she was exquisitely beautiful as well as a fine dancer. I just didn't think she was the Bride--but again, Ms. Mycene had me weeping so uncontrollably with what she had done two weeks prior that I probably could not have seen anyone of any race whatever do it and be rational about it. NOW I remember that even when I read about Graham herself dancing the Bride I resented it!!!

#39 kfw

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Posted 25 July 2006 - 05:17 PM

Jazz is very much an American music. It's roots are from the African American communities and probably the most well know jazz performers are black males. But there are white jazz musicians and many famous and talented onces. Jazz, albeit modern, and "improvisational" seems to be open to the influence of different forces and not as closed as more tradition based performance arts such a ballet. Notes are colorblind... No?

It's not that jazz is more open and ballet is more closed, it's that whites of their own accord began playing jazz (and blues, and reggae, and other "ethnic" musics), which African-Americans had been playing for themselves, having no thought for sharing it with whites or reflecting white taste or experience. When whites took it up, in some rare cases (Artie Shaw, for example) they played it as well as blacks, and in other cases they took it in new directions. I'm not aware of any African-American choreographers working primarily with the language of classical or neo-classical ballet.

#40 Cliff

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Posted 25 July 2006 - 09:47 PM

Before ascribing racism as the cause for minimal black involvement with ballet, perhaps one should consider other explanations. Such as:

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.


If many young black potential dancers get discouraged by the lack of role models, then there will continue to be a lack of black dancers. And so on into the next generation.

#41 2dds

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Posted 25 July 2006 - 10:59 PM

Keeping weird hours and I discovered this thread on a topic of general interest to me, and specific ballet interest as well.

Just a few observations: for several reasons, these issues seem to be of perennial interest to a lot of people, but also very volatile and produce some of the most questionable behavior requiring moderator intervention. I believe this occurs and reoccurs not only because these are "hot" topics, but also because race does still matter in the U.S. and the nature of our racial divide is such that our experiences are very different depending on where we are positioned in respect to this divide, so this topic instantly becomes very personal, very subjective. This seems to lead too frequently to the violation of certain forum rules, and also to a fundamental disagreement about the sheer existence of racism, as well as the degree of racism, as well as what constitutes evidence of it in our daily lives.

I think a good starting point helps. Just as men are not ideally positioned to fully appreciate the ins and outs of gender discrimination, our lived experience definitively differs and determines our racially defined realities in this country--with our American history it cannot be otherwise. As mentioned in other posts, some have the priviledge (luxury?) of not having to think about race, while others must confront at least the possibility of it affecting their lives every day as soon as they leave their front door (maybe even before). Not only are these viewpoints radically different, they do not confer equal expertise in discussing this issue. We must first get past this to have a productive discussion. Then we have to move forward as people of goodwill to explore productive creative remedies to achieve a better climate specifically for ballet.

I think it would be good to first agree that we want ballet to be more inclusive, more representative, but I'm not sure everyone agrees this is desirable. I do think this needs to be an acknowledged desirable goal. Whether we think there is discrimination or not, can we agree there is underrepresentation? If we can make this a given, can we procede to identify greater diversity and inclusiveness as a valuable change we would like to see in ballet--be it audiences, administrators, performers, students, teachers, choreographers, critics, or patrons?

I think agreement on these points:
#1-the extreme subjectivity of our viewpoints and the lack of equivalence and level of expertise of these viewpoints
#2-the underrepresentation of people of of color--noticeably and demonstrably non-white--throughout all levels of the ballet scene
#3-the desirability of having ballet in the future thriving while evolving in a more inclusive and racially diverse world
would go far toward furthering discussion. :wub:

I am not a moderator, so maybe I am in no position to even make these suggestions; I'm certainly in no position to enforce them (please note my very few posts) :blush:

However, I have had some experience as a diversity trainer; and I have loved ballet for many years. I also have some academic interest and expertise on this as well. Moreover, I strive to be a constructive person of goodwill, and would like to see this discussion continue and lead to positive change.

I wonder what others think? : :shake: :thanks:

#42 omshanti

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Posted 26 July 2006 - 01:01 AM

I agree with the starting points 2dds suggests and I do think the intention of this topic is a noble one. However We have to direct the arrow of this noble intention to the right direction. First of all I think over-sensitiveness on racial issues can be dangerous, because by being over-sensitive people are still seeing each other in groups rather than individuals. It can easily turn in to racism like turning a coin.This is probably why a society can be so over-sensitive in one area(such as black and white issue) and so insensitive in another (such as calling a whole nation terrorist) at the same time. So I think the most important and difficult thing is for each person to be natural and to treat people as individual beings rather than putting them in racial categories ,and to spread this naturalness little by little, generation to generation.

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?


I am not sure if I am the right person to comment on this because I do not live in America. I think the problem lies in the society rather than the ballet world. We can use the ballet world as a mirror that reflects the problems, but We should not blame ballet and ballet world for a problem that a society or a country has. We should differentiate between things objectively and rationally. The problem is in the root of the tree rather than the leafs.

I grew up in warzones and refugeecamps of the middle east with a Japanese Mother, and because of my half Japanese looks I was often mistaken for a Hazara and treated badly ( if you know about the hazaras in the middle east you will know what I mean). So by experience I know what racism is, but I do not look at the whole world through my experience. I am not ignoring America s past and I know it is deep but In my opinion when a black( or white or any race) person looks at ballet and can not feel any thing about it only because of balck and white or racial reasons, the problem is in that person s mind rather than ballet and ballet world. The point is why does a society create such a mindset in its people, and this has nothing to do with ballet and ballet world. In my opinion if the problem in the root is fixed , the ballet world will follow.

#43 DefJef

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Posted 26 July 2006 - 02:47 AM

2dds and omnshanti make excellent points.

We cannot address the ills of society which are manifest within the subsets of the institutions which make up that society by saying that when society cleans up its acts all the institutions which make it up will follow suit. Which comes first.. the chicken or the egg?

In a sense, passing a law such as providing equal access is such a measure. It is a step, but it is not changing minds and behavior.

The issues which I am trying to understand are:

Do racial featues which are not basically European "jarr" with classical ballet? Does this act much the way saying tbat someone who is say.. too short... would not be a suitable person for ballet? Does ballet (classic) require dancers who are Euro-centric because of its traditional (stereotypical) nature and history?

Even if ballet (classic) is more suitable to dancers of European extraction, why are there not more mixed race audiences who can find this form of art attractive enough to attend performances. If the classic librettos don't work with non Europeans should the repertoire be more inclusive or works which are more colorblind and could appeal to and include more racial diversity on both sides of the curtain? Or are other forms of dance filling this "need" for diversity?

How much does the appearance of a person account for their ability to be a "successful" dancer completely apart from their technical and artisitic ability? Why do WE see race when we watch movement (dance)?

#44 Herman Stevens

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Posted 26 July 2006 - 04:10 AM

I think it would be good to first agree that we want ballet to be more inclusive, more representative, but I'm not sure everyone agrees this is desirable. I do think this needs to be an acknowledged desirable goal.


It is a desirable goal, sure. But it's not top on my list, or of the companies I can think of. Maintaining the highest technical and artistic standards, both in dancers and in the repertoire are the top priorities. As far as the composition of the audience is concerned I think all companies are concerned and work hard to attract and invite a younger audience, so as to avoid and forestall the blue-rinse syndrom. Like it or not, this is the true challenge of today, much more so than the exact ethnic composition of the audience.

As far as I have been able to observe outreach projects towards minorities are very much marketing projects ultimately serving to make the existing audience feel good about themselves, rather than opening up new audiences. As has been hinted at in various posts above, there may just be a insurmountable element of peer pressure and reverse racism that keeps certain minorities from coming to classical ballet in huge numbers. You cannot force people to come.

The high arts have to compete with an incredible number of other forms of entertainment. More people, of any race or background, don't than do go to the ballet. You cannot change this. All ballet goers belong to a single minority which can be labeled "ballet fans". Nobody's keeping anyone from joining. And if I'm totally honest I think this "ballet = eurocentric = racism" talk only serves to make ballet less accessible to people who aren't into ballet yet, just like the old "ballet = anorexia" thing, due to its negative slant. You want more people to go to ballet? Tell 'em it's beautiful and sexy. Don't tell 'em it's bad.

How much does the appearance of a person account for their ability to be a "successful" dancer completely apart from their technical and artisitic ability? Why do WE see race when we watch movement (dance)?


I have noted before that every top ballet company is totally eager to hire colored dancers of equal ability, for the simple reason that in many cases they wind up being tremendous audience favorites. I mentioned Carlos Acosta of the RB. In Amsterdam there are two dancers who stand out for their (relatively) darker skin and they are very popular. And I suspect this is the way it works in virtually every company. Apart from that we do not just see race when we see dance; it's just one of many things we notice. One looks at the way a dancer is built, his or her specific body language and musicality and the list goes on.

#45 bart

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Posted 26 July 2006 - 05:05 AM

Thanks for all the recent posts above. Truly, Ballet Talk never sleeps. :thanks: And this is the one topic that arises on BT which seems guaranteed to touch the heart and expose the frustrations of many of us.

As I read I find myself in the odd position of agreeing even with those who appear to be in disagreement with each other. :wub: Maybe that's because it's such a complex problem.

Clearly there's systemic racism that affects the behavior of all individuals and institutions to some degree. On the other hand, it's just as clear that individuals and communities may do their own self-segregating after a while. Most posters seem to fall on one side or the other of this divide. Thanks for putting your positions so well -- and listening and respecting those who come from another direction.

Ballet began as a socially elite (and, by definition, all-white) art form. But the great appeal of ballet in certain non-European (especially east Asian) settings -- and the increasing inclusion of people of color from Latin America -- suggests that ballet can make the transition into a more multi-colored, multi-class world.

Ballet -- or any art -- can't be expected to become a mirror of the society at large. It's very essence implies an escape from that kind of down-and-dirty complexity. But ballet should be able to attract those who want our "alternate" world -- either as audience members, dancers, or other kinds of professional. And not only "attract" -- it may be necessary to subsidize for a while.

It seems to me that the barriers to entry into the ballet world today probably have more to do with high ticket prices -- and a near-total unwillingness to educate and explain the art to those who are not familiar with it from the start -- than with any inheritence from the long-gone court of Louis XIV.

Children still read fairy stories and see versions of them on TV. The stretch to Sleeping Beauty or Nutcracker is not that great, even today. After all, the main themes of story ballets -- love, jealousy, revenge, silliness -- are deeply woven into every culture that I've ever heard of, and should be recognizable to all of them to one degree or other.

Young people are, for the most part, simply not as hung up about the color of performers in ANY art as we are. Broad-based education and public relations, aimed at attracting younger audiences of all colors and backgrounds to serious ballet, combined with reduced ticket prices for certain performances or programs, is something that has rarely been tried. Or, at least, not in a sustained way. The programs need not be dumbed down. No need for fusion hip hop/ Petiipa. The real thing, if performed in a thrilling, honest and artistic way, would be enough, based on my experience observing students of all sorts of racial, cultural, class, etc. backgrounds. The intervention would also have to reach down to the dance schools and to an attempt to include dance programs in public school phys ed programs. And, most important, it would have to be sustained -- not just one visit to the ballet followed up by ... nothing.

Donors who will give a million for this or that producation might actually come up with money for a "development" program of this sort, if approached by an AD or Development Director with a vision and a carefully thought-out business plan. If I ran the National Endowment for the Arts, it would be one of my priorities.


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