Jayne

Sarah Kaufman and Diversity in Ballet Companies

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....When I've talked to black friends, they've occasionally said in as many words at times that ballet was for white people.

So to rephrase the question in a positive manner, how do we convince people that ballet is for anyone?

The same thing happens with ice hockey. Here in Washington, DC, hockey is hugely popular, as the Washington Capitals is a very good team with some stars from Europe & Russia. This past season they played to mostly sold-out crowds. Nonetheless, for a city with 75-80% black population, we could rarely see a non-white face in the house. And the arena is smack in downtown (which was initially a concern to die-hard Caps fans who had to venture from suburban VA and MD into the "mean streets" of downtown DC!).

So what do the Caps do to develop non-white hockey fans? Creative outreach to the schools with players visiting inner-city institutions; occasional freebie tickets to games for groups from disadvantaged areas (but that doesn't help to build fans among the many well-to-do blacks in the city!); etc. Exposure is the only way to begin. It should be the same for ballet.

p.s. We cannot blame the economy & high price of tickets to the big pro sports. The price of tickets to Washington football, basketball and major-league baseball games are as expensive as they are for hockey games, yet there seem to be as many whites and non-whites in the audience. Hockey is, simply stated, still considered to be a 'white' sport. Just like the Winter Olympics are mostly white despite the rare inroads by the Jamaican bobsledders and a Debi Thomas in figure skating (and now the new French champ Florent Amodio or the German pair skater Szolkowy).

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......how do we convince people that ballet is for anyone?

I don't think "convince" is the right concept. I suspect all of us ballet lovers convinced ourselves that ballet was for us once we saw it. A better question might be how do we get people from more diverse cultural backgrounds to give ballet a shot. (The suggestion of marketing is on the right track I think).

I am reminded of a situation we just had here in Seattle with the Seattle Opera. Seattle Opera commissioned a new opera "Amelia" this season (the first in over 27 years). In my judgment it is a wonderful opera, as well as being unique in one aspect. The opera deals in part with the Vietnam War, and uniquely contains some singing in the Vietnamese language (extensively in Act II). We have a large number of Vietnamese living in this diverse city. One rarely sees a Vietnamese person at the Seattle Opera, but not this time. There were lots of Vietnamese in the opera house (no doubt to hear what their native language sounded like in the western opera idiom). Indeed, I saw the opera 3 times, and it was clear to me that the number of Vietnamese in the audience increased with each proformance. They even came in families. I suspect the word spread within that community. My bet is that some of them even discovered that they liked opera and we are likely to see them return next season.

Indeed, I had my own personal experience with this "exposure" phenomenon: We use a painter on our house who came from Vietnam to America when he was a little boy. His whole life is entwined with his Vietnamese relatives (some of whom don't speak English). This guy has become quite successful in growing his business over the years due to his acumen with employee, client, and business management. He has some bucks now too. He was over here the other day giving me a bid to paint our trim. We got to talking -- as he and I always do (he's a very interesting person). I asked him if he had seen or heard of "Amelia". No he hadn't. In fact he knew nothing about opera at all. I preceded to tell him about "Amelia". I believe my words were fairly inspiring because I really, really loved this opera, and especially by how it showed the possibility of healing and understanding between Americans and Vietnamese who were directly involved in the war. He became very excited. He loved the idea that HIS language (he speaks perfect English too) was set to music (especially music that was specifically designed to reflect the tonal quality of the language). Had I spoken to John before the opera run was over, I'd bet dollars to donuts he would have attended. Maybe a large number of his family would have attended......who knows.

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To those folks who use the argument that " Nobody complains about the NBA being too black, so why pick on ballet as being too white?," well, that is indeed a specious argument. Nobody before or since has systematically barred whites from being in the NBA. Indeed there was a time many, many, years ago when it wasn't a majority black league.

Ballet like other classical performance arts, DOES have a history of denying access to training and employment to people of color in this country. That's not a fairy tale. It's a simple fact. Just snapping your fingers and declaring that the playing field is now level is absurd.

I admire the stones of those folks who one minute complain that we're all just Americans and if ballet remains overwhelmingly white, it's only due to lack of interest, some sort of racial inadequacy or lack of finances on the part of people of color. Yet when folks of color form arts organizations of their own to prove otherwise, they get accused of being segregationists. Can't have it both ways.

Also, why is ballet supposed to get off the hook for it's lack of diversity just because other art forms and sports do a poor job at diversity? That's hardly a mature attitude. It sounds like a thirteen year old complaining about being called on the carpet for getting into trouble because "Johnny did it too."

And if diversity is unimportant, then why do all arts organizations pay lip service to it? Why give in to the "oppressive p.c. police" if diversity isn't important to the health and vitality of the art form?

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