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Sarah Kaufman and Diversity in Ballet Companies


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#1 Jayne

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Posted 21 June 2010 - 11:22 PM

Ms. Kaufman has brought up the lack of in diversity in Ballet companies repeatedly in her ballet criticism. This is the most recent example, in the links section for June 21.

The companies are also overwhelmingly white and dotted with Europeans -- as they have always been. Diversity in ballet remains a serious problem for the small companies as well as the large, on the coasts as well as in the heartland. In the 21st century, we can put a black man in the White House, but as last week's survey shows, we can't put a black ballerina in the Opera House. Clearly, not enough work is being done to foster African American dancers. But with public money in their coffers, ballet companies -- and the local, state and federal funders -- need to make equal opportunity in the dancer ranks a priority.

I had a knee jerk reaction, and wanted to explore this further.

First - is this criticism appropriate just for ballet? Has Ms. Kaufman also peered into the orchestra pit to check the race of each member of the orchestra? The stage crews? The lighting crews? Does this only apply to the performers on stage?

Second - why does she only mention African Americans? Most ballet companies in the United States do have a variety of minorities, but not all of them are African American. Indeed, in many of the regions represented in "Ballet Across America", the other minorities (hispanic, northern asian, southeast asian, etc) are much larger minority populations than African American populations. I believe this is a blind spot for many Americans, and not just about Ballet. They think "minority" and instantly think African American, and the Asian or Hispanic soloist on stage is somehow invisible to how they perceive the company's make up.

Third - as has been mentioned before, ballet was invented in Europe, most of the dance schools are in Europe or European-American dominated cities in North and South America, and it's not really a surprise that the majority of dancers come from those backgrounds. If she reviews Alvin Ailey's troupe, will she say they need more white people? What would she say about the dominating Asian American troups on "America's Best Dance Crew"? (My guilty pleasure TV show)

Fourth - Like it or not, in North America you need parents with adequate income to fund a ballet education at a high training level, or an interested financial sponsor who can fill the void. That excludes a lot of talented kids of all races, who pursue other cheaper dance forms in public schools or private groups.

#2 E Johnson

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Posted 22 June 2010 - 04:50 AM

From a New York-centric perspective, I'm with Ms. Kaufman. NYCB and ABT are very very white and they are in a city with wealthy families of all ethnicities, many of whom could certainly afford ballet classes. SAB has begun to make efforts to reach out to the city, holding auditions for young children throughout the five boros, but it will be a while before that effort bears fruit at the company level if it ever does. From an audience perspective, itís interesting that most of NYCB's dancers of color are men, and SAB provides much more financial aid for boys. So maybe it is a money issue, but given how many girls of color I see at the Ailey School, barely ten blocks away, I find it hard to believe that money is the only issue.

#3 Natalia

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Posted 22 June 2010 - 05:34 AM

Spot-on, Jayne.

I, for one, want to know why the gospel vocal troupe Sweet Honey in the Rock has no Caucasian or Asian performers. Why??? Hasn't Ms Kaufman noticed that all of the performers are black?

I am also baffled that Bayanihan, the National Dance Company of the Philippines, has no Caucasians or Afro-Americans.

It's about time that we see some diversity in the Peking Opera.

I'm sure that I can think of a few other examples for Sarah Kaufman's list.

#4 Helene

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Posted 22 June 2010 - 05:46 AM

Recently PNB performed "Coppelia" with an Act III corps of 24 girls between the ages of 10-14. My understanding from a Q&A is that there was a core of girls in all performances, and two casts alternating for the balance.

The corps was ethnically and racially diverse at the shorter end -- I hesitate to say younger, because some might look younger than they are, even if they don't look quite as developed as the taller girls -- but not so much at the taller, more adolescent-appearing end.

#5 stinger784

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Posted 22 June 2010 - 07:27 AM

If I recall correctly, since I was on stage with a few of the companies, there were a handful of African-American dancers present at the Kennedy Center. Then there were Asians, Italians, Russians, South American, Cuban...... And the list goes on. I think Ms. Kaufman wanted to cause some controversy and she did. I thought it was a completely ignorant comment to make when there were many minority groups represented by 9 different companies from across the US.

I have worked for a director that openly said that they would not mind hiring someone of color if they were up to the level of dancing the company needed, it is just that no one of color has ever auditioned for the company. So is it really the company to poke at or the dancer who is not auditioning? When we look at modern companies, as mentioned above, there are many African American dancers, so why not poke them and make them feel bad and diversify those companies.

That article made me upset with Ms. Kaufman and I would like an explanation as to why she chose to focus on such a petty issue.

#6 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 22 June 2010 - 07:49 AM

How many times have we seen great dancers being relegated due to, let's say, a certain height that doesn't meet the AD's standards-(or perhaps doesn't please his/her personal taste)...? Race has been, and still is-(let's face it)-, being look at, considered and analyzed. Nowadays dancers certainly don't have to deal with the issues Raven Wilkinson had to deal with, but it is a fact that there's still a long way to go.

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#7 papeetepatrick

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Posted 22 June 2010 - 09:01 AM

Spot-on, Jayne.

I, for one, want to know why the gospel vocal troupe Sweet Honey in the Rock has no Caucasian or Asian performers. Why??? Hasn't Ms Kaufman noticed that all of the performers are black?

I am also baffled that Bayanihan, the National Dance Company of the Philippines, has no Caucasians or Afro-Americans.

It's about time that we see some diversity in the Peking Opera.

I'm sure that I can think of a few other examples for Sarah Kaufman's list.


I'd like to know what you mean about Peking Opera. It's hard to see how that one even enters the picture, but you may mean dancers that could learn it from the expat communities in China, or in Taiwan. As far as singers, I wonder if Caucasians or blacks living abroad in China ever think of training their children in Peking or Shanghai Opera, I rather think (and know, in fact) that they tend to send them to ballet classes. Because to be a real performer in Chinese opera, you have to start in early childhood. Not that I object to it, but China is still a very closed country, despite their economic boom, and I don't see them opening up their traditional cultures yet. All you have to do is read about various crackdowns at the current Expo in Shanghai to know that an unexpected capitalist boom does not mean any interest whatsoever in individual liberties until the state is ready to grant them. I'm glad you brought it up, though, because I wonder if any non-Chinese (other than other SE Asians, perhaps, and probably the rare Japanese) ever have 'made it' in Peking or Shanghai Opera.

#8 Natalia

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Posted 22 June 2010 - 09:25 AM

......I'd like to know what you mean about Peking Opera. It's hard to see how that one even enters the picture,.....


Papeetepatrick, I mean exactly as I did with the other two examples. That certain arts are specific to certain cultures. Why force an integration if it is not natural? In fact, compared to the other examples, ballet has a greater degree of integration of races. Ballet has opened the door to the participation of races other than the principal race that created the art. Take it a step further -- in many ballet competitions, such as the current IBC in Jackson, Asians are in the majority among finalists! Is Ms Kaufman aware of that factoid?

My Point: Why choose as examples of 'naughty bigotted arts' only those that are primarily Caucasian (white) to begin with? Nobody seems to mind that Sweet Honey and similar gospel groups are 100% black or that the Peking Opera is 100% Asian.

#9 papeetepatrick

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Posted 22 June 2010 - 09:50 AM

Thank you, Natalia, I follow you now, sometimes on the net it's hard to tell what the tone is. No, I frankly agree with you totally, but have found that it's very difficult to make the case in discourse about 'all-Caucasian' as opposed to 'all-African', because of history. I used to try to do it, and I always was paid no attention to, so I'm glad to see you still have the guts to do it. But frankly, there just are cultural differences, and to give another example, it's hard to imagine 'integrating' a Black Gospel choir with Caucasians and Asians and it still be Black Gospel. But I can see the other side too; the problem is that the historically more fortunate side (the 'ruling class' is usually referenced as this) is always expected to do ALL the compensating very often, not just some of it, or even just most of it.

#10 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 22 June 2010 - 09:53 AM

Nobody seems to mind that Sweet Honey and similar gospel groups are 100% black or that the Peking Opera is 100% Asian.


...or Mitchell's DTH when first created. According to Sara Mistretta...


[size=4][font="Comic Sans MS"]"How was Mitchell going to dispel this myth that blacks can never be good classical ballet dancers? By creating an all-black dance troupe, a full-fledged ballet company composed only of blacks. Although this may seem contradictory in doing so, I believe that his decision towards having a one-race group proved to be beneficial in the long run. Beneficial in that the companyís initial success could then be linked to only one determining factor: dancing talent. If the company was composed of, for instance, ten blacks, two Asians, one Indian, and five whites, then the companyís success could not only be explained by the groupís ability to dance well, but could also be explained by other factors, such as being multi-ethnic (i.e. having white dancers). However, because the company started off as an all-black group, their success was going to be more or less linked to their dancing capabilities rather than to an automatic acceptance into the white-centered ballet world. If the company was composed of whites, blacks, and other races, then the company might have been easily accepted into the ballet world based on it looking similar to other ballet companies of that time. Ballet companies were composed of mostly white dancers with only one or two non-white dancers. Therefore, Mitchellís company would find success through their talent rather than their racial makeup". [/font][/size]

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#11 dirac

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Posted 22 June 2010 - 09:58 AM

Second - why does she only mention African Americans? Most ballet companies in the United States do have a variety of minorities, but not all of them are African American. Indeed, in many of the regions represented in "Ballet Across America", the other minorities (hispanic, northern asian, southeast asian, etc) are much larger minority populations than African American populations. I believe this is a blind spot for many Americans, and not just about Ballet. They think "minority" and instantly think African American, and the Asian or Hispanic soloist on stage is somehow invisible to how they perceive the company's make up.


This topic has been discussed pretty exhaustively on BT, as you'll find if you do a search, but it is also an ongoing issue. African-Americans hold a special and especially difficult place because they were brought as slaves to this land and endured hundreds of years of the most vicious and debilitating kind of discrimination even after slavery ended, receiving full civil rights only a few decades ago. (Which is not to discount the experience of discrimination by other ethnic groups, please note.)

Nobody seems to mind that Sweet Honey and similar gospel groups are 100% black or that the Peking Opera is 100% Asian.


I'd rather not hash this out here, but if you look for wide-ranging discussions of racial issues you will be able to find writings that will explain to you why this is a specious form of reasoning.

Race has been, and still is-(let's face it)-, being look at, considered and analyzed. Nowadays dancers certainly don't have to deal with the issues Raven Wilkinson had to deal with, but it is a fact that there's still a long way to go.


I think that's fair enough. Progress has been made and there's more to be done.

#12 Natalia

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Posted 22 June 2010 - 10:17 AM

Thank you, Natalia, .....I can see the other side too; the problem is that the historically more fortunate side (the 'ruling class' is usually referenced as this) is always expected to do ALL the compensating very often, not just some of it, or even just most of it.


Right, papeete. In fact, calling it "Black Gospel" is racist. Better to call it "gospel"...and America has gospel singers from all races.

Yup, the Mea Culpa Tour never ends. Reverse Discrimination is as bad as Discrimination, IMO.

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#13 leonid17

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Posted 22 June 2010 - 10:27 AM

Spot-on, Jayne.

I, for one, want to know why the gospel vocal troupe Sweet Honey in the Rock has no Caucasian or Asian performers. Why??? Hasn't Ms Kaufman noticed that all of the performers are black?

I am also baffled that Bayanihan, the National Dance Company of the Philippines, has no Caucasians or Afro-Americans.

It's about time that we see some diversity in the Peking Opera.

I'm sure that I can think of a few other examples for Sarah Kaufman's list.


Off the point a little, the population of Beijing is about 13 million. There are just over 200,000 foreigners working in Beijing and I think few of them are ready to become members of the Peking Opera. To see diversity in this instance is expecting too much and there is of course the question of respecting a 200 year old tradition. Training for the Peking Opera begins at an early age and these days only takes place in China.

I respect dance companies that reflect their countries traditional heritage and who employ indigenous nationals to that end and I have over a long period of time witnessed many companies whose excellence is peculiar to their ethnic traditions.

I know that whilst ethnic others are accepted in leading roles of academic classical ballet, a single ethnic corps de ballet member may to some audiences appear not to be integrated among 31 others, in Swan Lake for instance. I am also sure that the management of some companies are nervous of taking steps to employ dancers of other contrasting ethnicities as I am sure was once the case of the Royal Ballet who now employ a number dancers of Chinese origin, Japanese origin and an African American all with real talent.

Would the Kirov or the Bolshoi permanently employ dancers of an obvious ethnic difference? Do people condemn them because they do not? Is there an aesthetic problem here rather than an ethnic one?

There is no easy solution or even a necessary solution to companies that see no problem existing. I would hope to see more precise funding for other ethnic children to have the opportunity to enjoy training and perhaps become professional ballet dancers.

As the Baynihan company was mentioned I think ther following is of interest from their website.

"Bayanihan, the national Dance Company, looks back at its triumphs as it moves onward with each new presentation. From Folkdance translated into the modern stage, Bayanihan carefully advances into Folklore, and beyond, with Filipino History and national identity as its guide. After all Bayanihan literally means patriotism or love of country, its root word being bayani (hero), - a kind of hero that renders personal service to his community which during Spanish times was known as polo and, or, falla. In this regard, we dare say that each one of those involved in Bayanihan are literally national heroes and artist who reiterate through dance, music, percussion, dress and action what is Filipino."

#14 SandyMcKean

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Posted 22 June 2010 - 10:48 AM

Thanks Jayne for taking on Ms. Kaufman .

It seems I often think Ms. Kaufman lives on another planet. Certainly she has the facts right, but that she doesn't seem to understand the obvious reasons for these facts is a puzzlement to me (much less indirectly blaming the system for these facts).

Maybe the "real" observation ought to be "Where are the blacks in the audience?" Maybe, just maybe, it has somelthing to do with what you were exposed to as you grew up, what sort of peer pressures you experienced as an adolesent, and what circles you run around in as an adult.....you think?

#15 stinger784

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Posted 22 June 2010 - 11:11 AM

Maybe the "real" observation ought to be "Where are the blacks in the audience?" Maybe, just maybe, it has somelthing to do with what you were exposed to as you grew up, what sort of peer pressures you experienced as an adolesent, and what circles you run around in as an adult.....you think?



Well said. What about the audience? That is a better question.


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