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Mel Johnson

de facto segregated roles

52 posts in this topic

This one may raise a few hackles, but, after all, what are message boards for? ;)

Especially at NYCB, have certain roles (read Arthur Mitchell's former parts) become "the black guy part"? Is the racial identity of the dancer an important dynamic in casting these roles? What think?

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Oh, goody Mel. Just what we need, another armed conflict :)

It's a good question, though. There have been "black roles" in certain companies, and I've never been sure whether the roles are seen as racially specific and so dancers are recruited for them, or a black dancer is hired and seems to be placed in those roles. There is one school of thought that the "Agon" pas de deux was meant to be black-and-white. Yet other Arthur Mitchell roles -- Puck, for example -- were certainly not racially specific.

"Othello" is one that has certainly aroused controversy. I remember the Joffrey Ballet, when Christian Holder was a star, cast him as The Moor in "The Moor's Pavane" and the Blackamoor in Petrushka as a way around the blackface problem. When DTH did Smuin's "Song for Dead Warriors," they did the police in white face (no one objected, at least audibly).

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Not all of Mitchell's roles seem to have acquired this apparent racial casting. Puck, for example, was second-casted by Deni Lamont, and I saw him dance it a couple of times. Even though Mitchell was far and away the best Hoofer I ever saw in "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue", it never got stereotyped. But "Agon" is a good case in point, as is the Phlegmatic variation in "The Four Temperaments".

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I disagree about Agon pdd. For years, Farrell and Martins were first cast. Lindsay Fischer also danced it frequently.

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Dear Mel: I would just like to bring up Desmond Richardson's career at ABT. He was brought in only to dance Othello, as the one lead role he danced in two years with ABT. The other "major" roles he danced, that I saw

him in, was Carabose in Sleeping Beauty and

Tybalt in Romeo. Now these are "character roles" that older dancers would normally do. But, Desmond who was in some of his prime years, was not used correctly to me. I know that he is not of as a classical ballet dancer primarily. But, coming from a company

like Ailey, he should have been given a chance to perform in more classical roles. A great dancer, not at all testing his potential. I don't pretend to know the whole

story. But, Mel, your question, and looking at this subject while thinking about Desmond

got me writing. It has bothered me for a few years.

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That's the sort of thing I mean. It's really an insult to some of these dancers to be used like that. Mitchell used to dance "Divertimento #15" back in the City Center days. Has Albert Evans danced that? Did Mel Tomlinson? At least those would show off the excellent classical technique both of the latter have. (At least we know Evans can dance a mean csardas'!)

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I think alot of directors are still uneducated in terms of racial stereotyping.I mean in most companies where there are dancers of color,they are relegated to the Arabians,or the exotic roles.I mentioned Erika Lambe dancing sugar plum in another thread,but that is a first for Boston Ballet.The dancers of color get to dance the Balanchine,and the demi-character and jazz lead,but... I don't know if it is conscious though.I think the directors(in BBC's case AnnaMarie Holmes) cast what they know and are afraid to take the chance that the audience might not like someone of color in a particular role ,or because they've never seen it,it doesn't occur to them to try it.All I can say to that is,try it and see.

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It really saddens me that with dancers like

the ones at DTH, Lauren Anderson, a Priniple

Dancer in the Deep South of Houston, Carlos Acosta, it just seems to me that ballet companies ,at least in the NE US,are resistent to allowing ballet dancers of color

the chance to star in the Swan Lakes, the Giselles and other established and revered parts that are part of the barometer you use to evaulate a career in ballet. You figure

that they would at the very least try to tap

a set of demographic populations, that might

go to a perf., and realize they might want to go and see some more ballet and dance.

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There's definitely segregation -- as has been discussed on this board several times -- but I have to raise the issue of Desmond Richardson, a modern dancer, not being cast in "classical roles" simply because of his color. I don't think that is the case, and I think in classical ballet that the notion of proper casting is crucial to the success of productions. For me, serving the ballet, the art form, is the key, not making dancers happy.

I think the notion of color-specific roles is unsettling (I'm not saying it doesn't exist). A dancer of any color should be cast in the roles for which his/her talents are suited. Suited can include technique, dramatic ability, and suitability to the role in more intangible ways; someone who is stiff as a performer isn't suited to a jazzy role, or a poetic/lyrical role, for example. In classical ballet, body type -- length of leg and neck, arch of foot, line, body proportions, etc. -- are important; they define roles.

But I'd resist the notion that only a black dancer could dance the man's part in the "Agon" pas de deux (should it ever come to that) as much as that no black man should ever dance Albrecht. Ronald Perry was a very fine Albrecht, in my eyes; very dark-skinned, but with a beautiful classical body and every technical and dramatic quality necessary to make a believable Albrecht.

I also think that the racial issue in American ballet isn't going to be solved at the professional level until it is solved at the school level. There aren't enough black Americans studying ballet to produce a talent pool large enough from which to choose.

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Regarding the pool of available black talent, I have to disagree with Alexandra. I believe there are more than enough serious black ballet students to increase the ranks in the major companies. But it's a chicken and egg kind of thing - if there were more opportunities, you would see more dancers pursuing them. Because of the cost of training (and the cost of toe shoes) an inordinate number of white dancers come from wealthy families. Although the black middle-class is large and growing larger year by year, it is difficult to justify the expense of professional ballet training when the financial "pay off", in the best of situations, is not great. I have known of several outstanding black dancers who chose not to go on dancing because their families expect them to achieve economically. Add to that the limitation of segregated roles, and you have the recipe for scarcity.

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Campvaldes, not sure if you were making an exception of Lauren Anderson and Carlos Acosta or not, but if so, you are correct in that they both dance many classical roles and have never been limited, at least by Houston Ballet, to character roles. Lauren has danced Swan Lake, La Sylphide, Giselle, and just about everything else in the repertoire. I don't believe that there have been any limitations at all in terms of color there. Interesting indeed that a southern company appears to have less segregation than most northern companies. The director is British, however not sure this is the main factor. Both Lauren and Carlos are adored by the Houston public.

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Dancefan, I don't think we really disagree -- I don't mean that there isn't enough potential in the black community, by any means, but that -- for economic and social reasons, peer or parent pressure, perception they won't have a career, etc. -- there aren't enough black youngsters taking serious pre-professional training. Victoria, what is the ratio of professional dancers to "sorry, not enough turnout, not the right body," etc? One in ten? Or is that high? So you'd have to graduate a class of 1000 to get 100 dancers (if my ratio is correct).

I'd also say that money isn't just an issue for middle-class black parents. I know white parents who've forbidden very promising children from going into a company at 18, insisting on college "so they'll be prepared for something, and then they can do what they want." (It's not new, either. Eddie Villella springs to mind.) I think that money, much more than the stereotypes associated in the public's mind with male dancers, is the reason there's a perennial shortage of men. When the Royal Danish Ballet had a strong male contingent they were well paid, compared to the rest of that society, and the retirement age was 50, after which they got a high pension. Most importantly, after they'd been in the company for five years they couldn't be fired. That time was enough to weed out dead wood; after that, a dancer had to be given time to recover from an injury and couldn't be cut at a director's whim. If our dancers could expect to make a high, steady income it would be seen as a serious career, not just something young women can do until they get married (from the mouth of my physician, who pulled his daughter out of ballet school when he learned that "the most she'll ever earn is $35,000; this, 15 years ago), and men of all races will be attracted to ballet as a profession.

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Returning to the Agon pas de deux, when this was staged at Covent Garden this spring, the casting was Carlos Acosta and Zenaida Yanowsky. I understand the choice was deliberate, and influenced by the stager from the Trust (and maddeningly, her name escapes me right now). Yanowsky is noticeably taller than Acosta. I understood the idea was to replicate the black and white combination.

By the way, can you tell me if it is usual for the stager from the Balanchine trust to join the cast for a curtain call ? I hadn't noticed this practice before.

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Hi Lynette -

Good to see you on Ballet Alert!

Agon was originally staged at the Royal Ballet by Patricia Neary in the mid-70's. Did she return to refresh it? I think that might have been possible, she has worked with the Royal Ballet several times on settings.

In this situation, I've talked to or read several accounts which state explicitly that Balanchine was fascinated sculpturally by the interracial partnership. Someone like Neary might have heard him say as much.

In other cases, because Balanchine wasn't much for explicating the philosophy behind what he was doing, I think the setters, especially those who worked with Balanchine during his lifetime, tend often to imitate his actions because they have little other evidence to go on.

I've actually seen a few instances where the person responsible for the staging of a ballet gets a bow, not merely with the Trust or Balanchine involved.

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Desmond Richardson is primarily modern dancer. But, Ailey dancers are trained

rigorisly in ballet. All I am saying is that

when you allow such a talent into a co., you can see in a REP. EVE. if he could do it.I think he can do a lead row in a classical ballet. Ballet dancers and companies crossover to take on modern works all the time. Why is it

assumed, that it can't be the other way.

With Anderson& Acosta, yes they are the exceptions. That I can see. But, even there,

they are thought of as Black Ballet Dancers

1st.

[ 07-25-2001: Message edited by: campvaldes ]

[ 07-25-2001: Message edited by: campvaldes ]

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I have to disagree. Not with the fact that Desmond Richardson is a very talented dancer, he is. Nor with the idea there should be more classical ballet dancers of every race. I'm anxiously awaiting the day Albert Evans gets his due at NYCB. But classical ballet isn't just about dance talent, it's knowing the ports de bras and having them drilled into you for years - and having some consistency with the rest of the company you're in. It's a dancer's center of gravity, it's his or her carriage. Desmond Richardson is quite talented, but he isn't a classical ballet dancer, and watching him at ABT made it rather clear of his limited use to the company.

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Not in Houston they're not, campvaldes! :)

Alexandra, I have no idea of the percentages and can only guess, but I'd say your estimate is high. Maybe by about 50%.

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Ah, Victoria, you know what an optimist I am :) So one out of 20, in a good class at a good school (regardless of race, of course) might make it in a classical company?

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Some of that also depends on the age and the level. Once you get to the top level class in a top level school, the selection rate has already winnowed it down to a potential crop and the ratio is a little higher. At the youngest level of a feeder school? Maybe one in one hundred!

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Yes, I'd say one out of 20, at best, which is also being optimistic. And Leigh is also right about the percentage greatly increasing at the lower levels, even in a very good school. There will be exceptional years, where there might be two or three out of say, 25 in the top class, but generally one in 20 would be about it. Our percentage in Florida was higher, I think, but in a short period of time when I was teaching there we had a rather exceptional number of extremely talented students. Also, going way back to the years when I was trained in Florida there seemed to be a rather large number of working dancers coming out of there over a period of a few years. There were a couple of good schools in Miami turning us out (no pun intended ;) ) with great regularity down there!

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I agree with you, about ballet and its specialization. But, I disagree with your point about Desmond's capabilities in ballet.

In that case, on the flip side, why are ballet dancers doing modern works, they don't look "exactly right" either. But the public still seems to enjoy these excursions?????

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Not everyone enjoys them, I assure you :)

I agree with Leigh. It's a matter of muscle training. Ballet isn't just something you pick up in mid-career to try something out. There's very little pure modern dance left today, but in general, I agree with you: ballet-trained dancers without specific modern dance training and modern dance sensibility should stay out!

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In reference to stagers of Balanchine works, I have been greatly privaleged to be part of numerous stagings and all tolled the commitment to the work and Balanchine that existed in these folks was well worth the bow and then some. In most cases the dancers stressed the importance to THEM for their stage presence even if the stager felt shy about the moment!

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I'll have to agree with dancefan about there being enough black talen out there in schools,but it is an issue of reality for many students.If they come from a family who hasn't been exposed to ballet before and their parents haven't seen many dancers of color onstage in featured roles,the parents aren't likely to encourage their child do pursue something they feel they might not succeed in.even if they come from the upper middle class,their parents might not put as much stock on ballet as they would classical music or theatre.There have been alot more musicians of color and actors who have been recognized than there have been ballet dancers,so it again comes down to whether or not the parents want to spend the time and money on an artform that doesn't seem to want to recognize the potential of a black dancer..Another component of this is that most black ballet students are one in twenty.Unfortunately,unless they have something exceptional about their dancing,they might not be encouraged by their teachers.I'm talking about great facility,or natural turns or jumps.When I was a child and i studied ballet,I had alot of natural facility most of my teachers hadn't seen in black bodies before9nice feet,high extension,long limb and I was smart)),so I was pushed and I got chosen for things that black students before me weren't.It is great when you are a child because you imagne it can only get better from here.But then I looked around and realized I was the only black girl in my class,and when I went to see ballet performances,there weren't any black women onstage.I had to wonder if I could ever make it in the ballet world .I think the same question lingers in many ballet students of color.Of course ballet students in general come to that question at some point in their training.There are so many talented dancers in the world,but so few openings.As a dancer of color,the question becomes,will they accept me as one of their own?Yes,Lauren Anderson and Carlos Acosta are the exceptions of today.Again I salute Ben Stevenson for having the determination to put them out there.Of course the audiences love them because they are great dancers,but it talks a director who is willing to take chances to let the audiences see his treasures.So I guess there are many reasons why there aren't many black dancers in ballet companies.The question remains,how can we change it? I don't mean by creating another Dance Theatre of Harlem.It just seems to me that it wouldn't be an issue if there were three or four black men and women in a ballet company.I mean there are several of any other race and nobody questions it.If there were more,nobody would be able to say,"you know,the black dancer they have..."

Originally posted by Dance Fan:

Regarding the pool of available black talent,  I have to disagree with Alexandra.  I believe there are more than enough serious black ballet students to increase the ranks in the major companies.  But it's a chicken and egg kind of thing - if there were more opportunities,  you would see more dancers pursuing them.  Because of the cost of training (and the cost of toe shoes) an inordinate number of white dancers come from wealthy families.  Although the black middle-class is large and growing larger year by year,  it is difficult to justify the expense of professional ballet training when the financial "pay off", in the best of situations, is not great.  I have known of several outstanding black dancers who chose not to go on dancing because their families expect them to achieve economically.  Add to that the limitation of segregated roles, and you have the recipe for scarcity.

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Reading the previous post made me think up

these questions: 1)If Anderson & Acosta are so great (and I think they are after seeing them in Don Q., in WASH.DC), how come they have not been to NYC more than once or twice?

NYC..the "DANCE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD"!?!?

THEY HAVE GUESTED TOGETHER OR SOLO IN MANY CITIES ALL OVER THE EARTH!!!!

2) Ben Stevenson said that

people have questioned his judgement casting

A&A in ballets like "Nutcracker".

This sets up a troubling situation. First, they might not have seen A&A dance, and they

have criticized S anyway. Or, more troubling,

they have seen A&A dance, and don't like two

black ballet dancers performing in certain ballets, no matter their talent & artistry.

Now, I know that ballet fans in Houston adore A&A for the most part. Maybe Stevenson's critics are really not ballet fans, but simply people who are prejudiced. BUT, prejudice is a subject that rears its ugly head from time to time.

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