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Black ballet dancers


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#46 Dance Fan

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Posted 11 July 2001 - 09:57 PM

Before she became a star with Alvin Ailey, Judith Jamison was a member of the Harkness Ballet. There was also a Harkness dancer with the fabulous name of D'artagnan Petty. John Jones was in the company at that time as well. If I'm not mistaken, I believe Jerome Robbins originally choreographed "Afternoon of a Faun" on him, or it may have been Louis Johnson. At any rate, a pas de deux with a black man and a white woman was seen as quite a racial statement in the ballet's early days. This was just before the peak of the civil rights movement, and segregation was still the law of the land in much of the country.

One of Balanchine's "lost" ballets is "The Figure in the Carpet". It featured several leading couples, among them Arthur Mitchell and Mary Hinkson. Ms. Hinkson was one of Martha Graham's principal dancers, but she was initially trained in ballet. She performed the role on pointe. Many black dancers were steered to modern dance because the chance of a ballet career was considered unlikely.

#47 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 12 July 2001 - 12:47 AM

Robbins is quoted in Repertory in Review as saying that one inspiration for Faun was watching a rehearsal of Louis Johnson and another student practice the adagio from Swan Lake, but he says nothing about having made the ballet on him. Robbins says it was made on Le Clercq, but does not mention the man by name.

All the same, the story makes me wonder if the fact that Balanchine insisted his pas de deux "weren't about anything" was one of the reasons that Mitchell and Diana Adams could do Agon. Interracial dancing was probably controversial enough at that time, I'm not sure what sort of reaction the story (and the final kiss) of a dance like Afternoon of a Faun would have provoked half a century ago. Again interestingly, none of the original cast of Agon seemed to feel Balanchine was making a political statement, but many mentioned his sculptural fascination of seeing a white and a black dancer together and the designs it could produce.

Another pioneer I've read about in books, but have never even seen pictures of, was Janet Collins, whom I believe was the first black principal dancer with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet.

#48 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 12 July 2001 - 06:43 AM

here is a link I found to a page on janet collins that includes a photograph: [url="http://"http://www.isomedia.com/homes/bhd2/janet_collins.htm"]http://www.isomedia.com/homes/bhd2/janet_collins.htm[/url]
as well as one on raven wilkinson:
(but you have to scroll down a bit, i picked this one because it has a nice sylphide picture, though there are sites with more biographical information). [url="http://"http://www.csmonitor.com/atcsmonitor/specials/bhmonth/arts/p-012999arts.html"]http://www.csmonitor.com/atcsmonitor/speci...012999arts.html[/url]

#49 Dance Fan

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Posted 13 July 2001 - 10:45 PM

Thanks to Leigh Witchel for the info on "Afternoon of a Faun". But as for Balanchine and racial political statements, one could say that the hiring of Arthur Mitchell was a pretty powerful statement for its time. Also I seem to recall a story that, long ago, when Balanchine's Balanchine's was broadcast, instead of the usual pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier, the ballerina was partnered by all of the male principals from the second act, which included Arthur Mitchell. (This was back when the Arabian Dance was performed by a man instead of a woman.) Because it was never performed this way on stage, there was some thought that Balanchine was making a comment on racial equality, using the powerful medium of television. Maybe someone out there knows more about this.
By the way, Janet Collins and and the modern dancer Carmen de Lavallade are cousins. Certainly they are both strikingly beautiful.

#50 felursus

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Posted 13 July 2001 - 11:19 PM

Now that you mention it, I think I must have seen it that way as a child. I'd completely forgotten about it.

#51 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 14 July 2001 - 12:03 AM

Dance Fan -

Re: The four cavaliers. It's an interesting concept, but I think it's equally possible that Balanchine was just trying to get rid of the Sugar Plum Fairy's Cavalier. He didn't like the role (he's quoted in interviews as saying the poor fellow was not in the original story) and pared out his variation for that reason as well.

There's precedent as well before Balanchine for the four cavaliers in the grand pas, it was done that way in Russia (by Vainonen, I think, Jeannie or anybody, do you know?)

#52 vrsfanatic

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Posted 14 July 2001 - 06:49 AM

Perhaps I am mistaken but I think the Vainonen Nutcracker was choreographed in 1934 or there about. Therefore Balanchine would not have seen it. Unless it was seen while on tour in Russia. Or maybe he had heard of it. Maybe he took this idea from Rose Adagio?

#53 Mel Johnson

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Posted 14 July 2001 - 08:11 AM

Right on on the 1934 date for the Vainonen Nutcracker, vrsfanatic, but Balanchine hadn't been back to Russia yet when his version was televised. If he had seen the Vainonen at all, it might have been during a western tour by the Bolshoi or Kirov on a "Highlights" program. Of course, as you say, it could have come from other sources, too, or just a case of parallel development.

#54 Dance Fan

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Posted 14 July 2001 - 11:06 PM

Leigh - regarding the Sugar Plum Fairy's cavalier: Perhaps Balanchine did dislike this part, but, as far as I know, the version with the four partners was done only for television. I have never seen it done that way on stage.
I think we've gotten away from the original subject of this thread (it has been interesting). Why is there so much resistance to black dancers in ballet, and is it because of racism, or are there other factors? In the past, one could say that not enough black dancers trained intensively, but that is not the case today. Is it just out-and-out racism, and if it is, what can be done about it?

#55 Alexandra

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Posted 14 July 2001 - 11:36 PM

Dancefan, of course, we can have the discussion again, but you might want to look in the archives for a thread entitled Racism. It was an interesting discussion here several months ago. Maybe we could start a new thread for that?

We had gotten OT, although it was interesting. I had put up this thread to celebrate the black dancers who havegraced ballet.

#56 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 15 July 2001 - 12:44 AM

Dance Fan - although it's not stated explicitly in either Choreography by George Balanchine or Repertory in Review it seems the change was made in '58 and restored in '59 - and from the way Walter Terry and BH Haggin are quoted, I think it might have been done that way for a full season. Most of the quoted discussion centers on people's dissatisfaction with the omission of the cavalier. The NYC audience may have already been accustomed to Mitchell by then; this was one season after Agon.

Please don't get me wrong, there's plenty to indicate Balanchine's racial tolerance (Arthur Mitchell and his work in Cabin in the Sky are two examples) and I think your idea has validity and make sense. I just keep checking the sources I have because everything I've read to date suggests that while Balanchine definitely had opinions (and in fact, especially dealing with the Soviets, his positions were very hard-line) he tended not to be a man given to political actions.

#57 cindy

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Posted 16 July 2001 - 09:56 PM

I would like to put in a plug for my hometown professional ballet company Carolina Ballet located in Raleigh, North Carolina. As for black ballet dancers, we have Christopher Rudd, originally from Jamaica, who trained at the Miami Conservatory and Isanusi Garcia from the Cuban National Ballet in Havana. And, of course, we are most fortunate to have the talented Debra Austin as Ballet Master.

#58 Dance Fan

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Posted 22 July 2001 - 01:18 AM

Thanks again to Leigh Witchel for the historical perspective. While it's true Balanchine seemed to be apolitical (although I seem to recall Danilova describing him as somewhat right wing), and although the NY audience might have been used to Arthur Mitchell by 1958, that broadcast went all across the country. And in 1958, segregation was the law of the land in much of the U.S. Hard to believe that there was no pressure on Balanchine to change the casting for the telecast.

Back to the original topic, Eric Vu An of the Paris Opera Ballet certainly had an interesting career. Although I believe he is half Vietnamese, he identified himself as black, and lamented that because of his color, he would never be given princely opportunities with the POB. Does anyone know where he is now?

#59 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 22 July 2001 - 04:42 AM

i guess, tho, that if there had been pressure to change it, it would have consisted in making him somehow not touch her at all, but the way it is, he (as the arabian) partners diana adams as sugar plum in just the way the other three do. when i saw it i thought it was rather brave, considering the way some might have reacted. remember that years later, when captain kirk kissed lieutenant uhura in star trek, there were places where that episode was not shown at all!

[ 07-22-2001: Message edited by: Mme. Hermine ]

#60 Estelle

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Posted 22 July 2001 - 10:59 AM

Originally posted by Dance Fan:

Back to the original topic,  Eric Vu An of the Paris Opera Ballet certainly had an interesting career.  Although I believe he is half Vietnamese,  he identified himself as black,  and lamented that because of his color,  he would never be given princely opportunities with the POB.  Does anyone know where he is now?


Now he is the director of the Ballet de l'Opera d'Avignon et des Pays du Vaucluse, a small (state-funded) company associated to the Avignon Opera. In 1995, he had become the director of the Ballet du Grand Theatre de Bordeaux, a much larger company, but stayed there only for two years (it seems that there were a lot of local conflicts there), and also during that period he suffered from a severe injury (broken Achilles tendon). The Ballet d'Avignon is a small company with limited financial means, but he seems to be quite active there (and also choreographing for the company).

I remember reading an interview of Vu An in which he said that his father is from Vietnam, and that people were surprised to see that when he was a kid his hair was very curly, until they remembered that his mother had ancestors from the Antillas... :)
There's a photo of him at the following URL: [url="http://"http://www.galadesetoiles.com/bios/vuan.html"]http://www.galadesetoiles.com/bios/vuan.html[/url]


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