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Mel Johnson

de facto segregated roles

52 posts in this topic

Or it's possible that people do not think "A&A" are great dancers for reasons that have nothing to do with race :) Sorry to be the contrarian, but I've seen both dance and I do not put them in the top rank (and it has nothing to do with race or skin color). I have several friends who insist that Acosta is really top of the line, but in the performances I've seen, he gets the steps but nothing in between. I've seen Andersen dance several roles and remain unimpressed. She has an adequate, though not stellar, technique, and I thought her performances were very muted -- again, not a good actress. I'm not writing this to bash either dancer -- I have read, over and over, on this board and in print, that Lauren Anderson is the nicest, friendliest, etc. person in the whole entire world and she may very well be, but I'm referring only to stage performances -- but my overall point is that not ranking either or both dancers at the top of the pile doesn't equate with racism. (Not that it matters, but I've never thought of Acosta as "black." I think of him as "Cuban.")

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OK, even if you don't think them as topnotch

dancers, are you not troubled by the criticism of Stevenson's casting them in ballets, like the Nutcracker???????

[ 07-27-2001: Message edited by: campvaldes ]

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I really don't have enough information to be troubled by it. I don't know what was said, nor the reasons, nor did I see the performance, so I can't judge what was said, nor the motivation for saying/writing it.

If someone is bothered simply because two black dancers were cast in "Nutcracker," then of course it is troubling -- more than troubling. But without context I can't make a judgment.

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Alexandra it may not matter to you, but your description of Carlos Acosta as "Cuban" rather than black is not incidental. A very large percentage of the Cuban population is black, descended from the same kidnaped Africans as black Americans. But in many fields, from baseball to ballet, black Cubans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, etc. could get jobs that black Americans of similar skin color could not get, simply because they had a Hispanic last name. If Lauren Anderson were Laurena Acosta, would that change the perception of her as a black dancer, and wouldn't that likely have an effect on her career? I just read a story in the New York Times that stated that the great jazz composer Jelly Roll Morton was allowed to stay in the same hotel in Indiana as the members of a white band he was recording with, because they told the management he was "Cuban". The same man, the same great talent, and yet if he proclaimed his identity as a black American, he would not have gotten a room, and perhaps he would not have made that early recording. These petty distinctions that mean little to the white population have had, and continue to have, powerful effect on the lives of black people.

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Regarding my previous post, I actually believe Lauren Anderson has had a pretty good career, no matter her race or ethnicity. But if Albert Evans were Alberto Vasquez, maybe he'd be doing Siegfried at Covent Garden along with Carlos Acosta.

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I suppose it's useless to try to explain, but I think you misunderstood my comment. I don't care whether any of the dancers you mention are the color of ebony or ivory. I could not pick out a crayon that matches Acosta's skin color. I do not know his family history. He comes from Cuba. To me, he's a Cuban. That's all I meant. I don't think it's a useful exercise to go through every dancer in America and imagine that if they were this or that their career would be different. There have been black Americans invited to Covent Garden, by the way -- Eddie J. Shellman, I'm certain of, and I believe Ronald Perry, at least. To dance "Apollo," which is not a character role.

My only point, and I believe that of several others, is that every time a dancer of color does not get a role, the reason is not, ipso facto, racism. You can go through every dancer in America and say they should have had this or they should have had that, but it's all speculation -- I've yet to meet a dancer who says, "Yes, I was totally unsuited to the role of Siegfried and I prayed every night that they wouldn't give it to me." :)

We're at the dead horse beating stage on this issue, I fear, and I'm withdrawing from it. I'd just be making the same point over and over.

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Sorry, Alexandra. It is not my intent to get into a personal colloquy, but there seems to be a lot of misundertanding here. "Cuban" is a nationality; "black" is not.

There are many reasons why dancers are not cast in certain roles. And if a black dancer performs a role poorly, the audience and the critics should not feel any constraint in registering their disappointment. But my point is that a principal dancer of Albert Evans' accomplishment, who considers himself a classicist, as Evans does, should at least have the opportunity to fail as Siegfried, or Apollo. But apparently he doesn't.

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I'm coming in on this late and may have read too fast. But do we know that Albert Evans has not been given those opportunities?

I understand the point of the thread but I don't really think skin color or ethnicity really is the reason behind most of the casting decisions or opportunities given/not given.

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i recently read an interview with albert evans where he spoke to this very point about classical ballet. this is a quotation from the interview (which is found on-line at http://www.timeoutny.com/dance/301/301.dan...ance.open.evans

AE: I've never been inspired to do the classics. [Whispers] I always thought they were so boring. You don't even get a chance to dance. So many of my friends that I went to school with are still in the back, you know, being peasants! It's not for me. I never had the inclination to join ABT. I have a hard time going to watch things there, but I go in support of my friends.

[ 08-01-2001: Message edited by: Mme. Hermine ]

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I don't know...I don't think it might be intentional,but I think many directors stray from assigning black dancers in certain roles because there haven't been any there before and they aren't sure if a dancer of color might bring the same "quality" to the role.I am optimistic and I hope none of these decisions are truely based on race.I look forward to the time when more than two or three "special case" dancers(ie. the Lauren Andersons and Carlos Acostas of the world who have been given the opportunity to proove their ability...)are given the opportunities..Even if they fail,they've been considered and that is a step in the right direction.To be honest,I think most directors have so much to think of that they don't even think of "diversity"issues.I mean,it would be great if they did,but most of them are preoccupied trying to keep their companies afloat.Maybe ten years from now,there will be some noticible changes in companies and schools.

Originally posted by Diana L:

I'm coming in on this late and may have read too fast.  But do we know that Albert Evans has not been given those opportunities?

I understand the point of the thread but I don't really think skin color or ethnicity really is the reason behind most of the casting decisions or opportunities given/not given.

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I believe that as long as some1 fufills the technical requirements and is good enough, they should be given a chance..............skin tone doesn't matter.......................I sometimes think that people implement that sort of "prejudice" so that they can get the role................... frown.gif .................but that's just what I think...............no offense

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this race card is a tough subject.Yes,I think there may be instances of people using the "race card" to their advantage,but to be honest,I don't think ballet teachers or directors think of the impact.I don't think they really think of the impact that a really good dancer of color would have in their circumstance.to be honest I think it woulld be a good reaction from the public,mainly because this country spends so much time trying to be P.C. that if a black or otherwise ethnic dancer got up and danced the heck out of something,there might be a sense of surprise and then delight.A sort of,"it's about time " thing...But that's my opinion.We can only wait amd see.....

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Bijoux, I was struck by your comment about a "black or otherwise ethnic dancer getting up and dancing the heck out of something" -- doesn't that happen now? (Albert Evans just danced the heck out of Phlegmatic last weekend as a guest with the Washington Ballet, and everybody noticed.) I'm not trying to imply that things are equal. As has been said on this and other threads here, they're not. But I think there are some excellent "dancers of color" today (and in the past as well.)

Since this thread has been opened again -- thanks! -- the really tough question about segregated roles -- beyond who's being given chances -- is breaking a different kind of barrier, I think. In Tudor's "Pillar of Fire," say, could Hagar be black and her Little Sister white and her Older Sister Chinese? (This kind of ethnicity-blind casting has been done in theater for years, of course.) When whites took on roles of other ethnicities, they would make up for the role -- not just the now-taboo blackface, but what Sir Alec Guinness did in "Table for Two" (dirac will correct me if I've got the title wrong smile.gif ) -- a subtle make up to make him seem credible as a Japanese gentleman.

This kind of thing might be considered offensive today. I wonder what the solution will prove to be. To me, a solution isn't pretending that there is no family resemblance among the cast members. How do we get to be color blind and respect dramatic conventions? A Danish example -- the hero of Napoli, Gennaro, is Italian. Danish Gennaros traditionally put on tan makeup and dye their hair black for the role. Is this acceptable today? Conversely, if a black dancer were cast as a blond -- not that there is a Jean Harlow ballet, or a Marilyn Monroe one, but, for the sake of argument, say that there is one. There might be a black or Latino dancer who would be perfect dramatically and technically for such a role. Is any make up acceptable?

This problem may be solved when (I have to believe this is a "when" and not an "if") we become color blind, and will see skin color as a distinguishing characteristic, like hair and eye color, and nothing more. What is the best way to handle things in the meantime?

A final thought -- I remember reading an interview with a black actor -- I think it was Morgan Freeman, but I'm not sure now; it was several years ago -- in which he said he had wanted to play Hannibal Lechter in "Silence of the Lambs" but the studio thought that the casting would be offensive to many people (Hannibal being a cannibal, as the actor pointed out). To me, this is the bad side of PC -- understandable, but unfortunate, and just as limiting as the Bad Old Days.

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Oh,yes,I know that there are some good dancers of color out there,I just think some directors are still uncertain as to what to do with them.I live in the New england area and I often see Boston Ballet,so I always have that company fresh in my mind.They have a black dacner who is quite capable,yet they don't do much with her.I went to see their last program and she danced a soloist role.The audience seemed to really like her(you could hear an audible raise in enthusiasm..)Yet,the company doesn't do anything with her.I have seen the company for many years and I have seen her now and again,but not as often as some of the other girls they have in the company.Yes I agree that Albert Evans is fantastic an it was great to hear that e is being appreciated,but I don't think it is happening everywhere.Getting back to miss Lambe.She has the most powerful jump I've seen in a woman in a long time.And she has a strong pressence onstage.Boston Ballet is doing Giselle in the spring and it would be great to see her as a Myrtha.It would be a first for Boston Ballet ,but I believe she would do the role justice.It is like the Albert Evans as Albrect.He would be lovely because he has such a clean lyrical sense about his dancing and she'd be great because she can be so strong.Oh well,we can just wait and see.

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Well, if we are to be completely color-blind and cast a Black dancer in our hypothetical Jean Harlow or Marily Monroe ballet, what about the opposite: casting a white dancer as the lead in a ballet about (say) African slaves? We have already had an analogous fuss: remember when Jonathan Pryce came to the US to reprise his role as an Asian in "Miss Saigon"? The Asian actors assn. in the US made a hue and cry about it - and this over the usual hue and cry about allowing in a Brit to play a lead on Broadway. Somehow I suspect that if a choreographer decided to do a ballet on an African or Black-oriented theme and chose a white dancer in a lead part (except as, eg. a white slave-owner) there would be lots of outraged letters to the company and the local newspaper.

On the subject of makeup - I remember when Grace Bumbry first sang the role of Amneris, daughter of the Egyptian Pharoh with Leontyne Price as Aida (a princess of Ethiopia). Theoretically, at least, an Ethiopian would have darker skin than an Egyptian, however in "real life" Bumbry's skin is darker than Price's. And yes, there was actually an article written at the time over whether Price would make up darker or Bumbry lighter - or both.

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Originally posted by campvaldes:

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.


That is true, and it's certainly a possibility, but I've encountered less prejudice in Houston than in most places I've lived and worked, so I think that it's not the reason in this case.

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Actually,Boston Ballet did a ballet a few years ago with an Aboriginal theme.( I can't remember the name,but it was choreographed by Laszlo Berdo)Anyway,the dancers wore"tribal" costumes and the music was suggestive of something that was not anglo, and I believe the dancers wore dark makeup(not blackface,but something to make them seem darker),but, neither black woman in the company was used in the piece.It was an entirely white cast with the exception of a latin American couple,and nobody said a word.Do you really think audiences would get that upset if a black dancer danced a "traditionally"white role?I just say,if you have someone capable of dancing the role,let them do it.Ballet is make believe.

Originally posted by felursus:

Well, if we are to be completely color-blind and cast a Black dancer in our hypothetical Jean Harlow or Marily Monroe ballet, what about the opposite: casting a white dancer as the lead in a ballet about (say) African slaves? We have already had an analogous fuss: remember when Jonathan Pryce came to the US to reprise his role as an Asian in "Miss Saigon"? The Asian actors assn. in the US made a hue and cry about it - and this over the usual hue and cry about allowing in a Brit to play a lead on Broadway. Somehow I suspect that if a choreographer decided to do a ballet on an African or Black-oriented theme and chose a white dancer in a lead part (except as, eg. a white slave-owner) there would be lots of outraged letters to the company and the local newspaper.

On the subject of makeup - I remember when Grace Bumbry first sang the role of Amneris, daughter of the Egyptian Pharoh with Leontyne Price as Aida (a princess of Ethiopia). Theoretically, at least, an Ethiopian would have darker skin than an Egyptian, however in "real life" Bumbry's skin is darker than Price's. And yes, there was actually an article written at the time over whether Price would make up darker or Bumbry lighter - or both.


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In the late 50's, NYCB did a television version of The Nutcracker with Arthur Mitchell dancing Arabian. . .and partnering white women, which for the time must have raised quite a few eyebrows. Thank G-d we've progressed since then.

That same broadcast, by the way, featured a Drosselmeyer by the name of something like Balanchivadze. . . .

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And in the old Ballet Suedois production of "Creation du Monde", the dancers wore allover body-stockings designed by Fernand Leger to follow a traveloguesque libretto by Blaise Cendrars. It always defied me how someone could interpret Milhaud's sophisticated and relentlessly urban score as primitivist, but Jean Borlin sure tried!

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Are there REALLY truly, roles that are typically meant for any race in particular?

Since it's coming up, let's look at Nutcracker.

We have Russian, Chinese, Spanish... yet I don't think a child in the audience would sit up and say that the dancers don't look any of those ethnicity's.

I understand why people feel strongly on this subject, but ballet is in no way uniqueBallet IMO suffers from it's own lack of popularity amongst the "general public". Costs aside to study it.

And just because any of us thinks a dancer has the ability or would be great doing a role, doesn't mean the dancers wants to, i.e. Evans.

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The casting of Arthur Mitchell partnering a white woman was deliberately done by Balanchine - as was his pairing with Diana Adams in "Agon". Balanchine loved the contrast. It was the 50s and so caused quite a stir. It wouldn't cause any raised eyebrows today (except amongst members of the Aryan Nation and their fellow travellers, and thank goodness they don't seem to be too keen on ballet).

Talking about being PC - what about those little black "slaves" (children) in the POB "Bayadere"??? Is it ok because they were there in the original (were they???) and if so, is it ok only if the co. uses only black children or are white kids in dark makeup ok??? How many black kids are at the POB school? Do we apply the same standards to European comanies as to American companies???????

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I think the use of "painted" black children would definitely raise some eyebrows.When I heard that Boston Ballet was going to do "La Bayadere" last year,I went and got the Kirov tape to see what to look for,and I was surprised to see all of those children in blackface out onstage.I was fearful that Boston ballet would do the true Kirov version of the ballet,but I was releived to see that it had been modified a bit.The children were "dirty' but not in black face.The only misgivings I had politically ,was in the "warrior Dance".It was a wild spirited dance for eight men and a woman, where the woman wore a bikini top and little skirt and ran around like a Banshee,and Erika Lambe(the black woman in the company) was cast to dance most of the shows.She was great and had alot of energy which the role required,but I wonder if it was typecasting or if they could have gone another route.(Most companies have cut that number from the ballet...)

Originally posted by felursus:

The casting of Arthur Mitchell partnering a white woman was deliberately done by Balanchine - as was his pairing with Diana Adams in "Agon". Balanchine loved the contrast. It was the 50s and so caused quite a stir. It wouldn't cause any raised eyebrows today (except amongst members of the Aryan Nation and their fellow travellers, and thank goodness they don't seem to be too keen on ballet).

Talking about being PC - what about those little black "slaves" (children) in the POB "Bayadere"??? Is it ok because they were there in the original (were they???) and if so, is it ok only if the co. uses only black children or are white kids in dark makeup ok??? How many black kids are at the POB school? Do we apply the same standards to European comanies as to American companies???????


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actually, bijoux, the little children (who accompanied the golden idol) were, as you know, dressed in gold like him, and had gold, not dirt, on their faces. in addition, there were three casts for the warrior dance; the other two girls were caucasian, one blond and blue eyed and one brunette and dark eyed. erika was very very good but it was because she was very good and spirited and strong in the dance, and my suspicion is that this quality is what got her the part!

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I think what has happened there is a failure of makeup design against the old pocketbook. There is a waterbase foundation called "Texas Gold" which, because of small metallic particles in the mixture, bronze perhaps, imparts a golden sheen to the skin. The same company makes a different product called "Texas dirt" which, because it doesn't have the shiny stuff in it, is much less expensive. I can just see some bean-counter somewhere in the POB organization saying, "Wotthehey! They're both Texas, aren't they? Take off the gold, bring on the dirt!"

[ November 19, 2001: Message edited by: Mel Johnson ]

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