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Dark skin as an aesthetic issue in classical balletHow do you make it a non-issue?


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#1 Tapfan

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Posted 18 September 2011 - 09:49 AM

Let me be clear. This is not an attempt on my part to to reopen the much-discussed topics concerning; the lack of diversity in ballet, whether enough is being done by the classical dance establishment to increase diversity or if diversity should even be a primary concern.

I personally believe that increased diversity is happening regardless of what is or isn't done by the powers that be.

But I wonder as to how the concept of classical dance corps de ballet unity can be delt with in a multi-cultural world.

I know that the corps de ballet of many major companies have many non-white Latinas and Asian women and that a few have black female dancers.

But none these women seem to have very dark skin.

Surely there are fine classical dancers with all the right stuff to have great careers - technique, musicality, stage presence, work ethic and good attitude - who will nonetheless, be steered to Broadway or modern dance because their skin tone is too many shades away from the supposed ideal color.

What was it that Mr. B said was the ideal? Oh yes, the color of a peeled apple. :unsure:

I know the reptilian part of the brain makes more noticable, that which is most different from the whole. But should we still be giving in to such instincts in 2011?

From now to the end of time, must a sylphid, a Willi or heck, even a Giselle, always look like a young Nicole Kidman clone?

#2 Alexandra

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Posted 18 September 2011 - 10:26 AM

I think the way this becomes a nonissue is for corps de ballet to become more integrated. As it changes, perceptions will change.

I came to this conclusion long ago, when watching the National Ballet of Cuba dance "Giselle" in 1979. That company was the most integrated I've seen, before or since. At least half the corps, both men and women, had very dark skin. About a quarter had fair skin, and a quarter were....tan.

I noticed this for the first five minutes, and remember thinking, "This doesn't look "right." "Giselle" is set in the Rhine and there's no attempt to make these people look like Rhinelanders." And then the dancers were so good, so alive, so absorbing to watch that I stopped thinking about it. Their second act corps was very regimented then -- this was a different version. No corps was more "alike" than those multicolored dancers.

Ballet is about harmony, yes, and balance and symmetry. But skin color -- or hair color or eye color -- doesn't have to define symmetry. Style should define symmetry in classical ballet.

#3 Tapfan

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Posted 18 September 2011 - 11:15 AM

I don't think the supposed historical settings of ballets matter much when it comes to casting because there has to be such a suspension of disbelief anyway.

Dancing spirits? People dying of a broken heart? Murdering people by dancing them to death? Come on!


LaBayadere is almost always cast with white dancers. How historically correct is that?


Besides, black women and other women of color have been singing lead roles at the world's most prestigeous opera houses for over 50 years and nobody thinks a thing about it. Why? Because people have become accustomed to seeing it.


And where do you see the most non-traditional casting of Shakespeare? In the land of his birth. The Brits don't seem to think that you can do damage to Shakespeare with imaginative casting.

I can't remeber the last time I've heard of a high profile British production of Romeo and Juliet that didn't have the Montagues and Capulets cast as families of different races.

#4 Alexandra

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Posted 18 September 2011 - 11:19 AM

Uh....yes. That was my conclusion as well, as noted in my first response.

Others have any opinions on this? Or perhaps not. This topic has been discussed here many times.

#5 Tapfan

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Posted 18 September 2011 - 11:39 AM

Sorry. Didn't mean to sound as if I was attacking you or anyone.

And yes, I know that diversity has been discussed here many, many times before.

I was just wondering how do the AD's take the first step to getting past colorism?

I worry about young dancers like Michaela DePrince, who shows great promise but who may make some folks uncomfortable because she has dark skin.

Will she be told to do modern dance or contemporary ballet even if she has the chops to do classical? Dance Theater of Harlem and Ballet Black have only so many slots.

#6 California

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Posted 18 September 2011 - 11:48 AM

I don't want to rehash what I consider a closed issue in diversity in the main ensembles. Just as attitudes toward interracial marriage have evolved dramatically in recent decades, so has our acceptance of racial diversity in so many other settings.

But I have always been intrigued by Balanchine's interracial casting in the main pas de deux in Agon in 1957 (Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams).
http://www.nycballet...rep.html?rep=13
This was repeated in the televised version with Heather Watts and Mel Tomlinson in the 1980s:
http://www.nytimes.c...ut-in-agon.html

People often refer to Agon as his "Sputnick ballet" but I sometimes wonder if it is really his Brown v. Bd. of Education ballet. That 1954 decision desegregating the schools unleashed a virulent racist uproar in much of the country. It was a decade before the 1964 Civil Rights Act finally ended the ugly Jim Crow laws still rampant in so many states. Balanchine was not in ignorance of what was happening in the country when he cast that ballet. Imagine how provocative the choreography would have seemed in the 1950s in much of the country with an interracial couple.

I've never seen Balanchine discuss this angle to the ballet and wonder if others have seen any interviews along these lines. And I can't think of other Balanchine ballets in which race seemed to be used to make quite the statement that this one does. This racial element is referenced in a recent blog posting:
http://thewinger.com...gory/rehearsal/
(scroll down to: "A Very Lengthy Recap Post" about rehearsals in 2010 at Vail, directed by Watts):

Balanchine famously said that when you put a man and a woman on stage you already have a story; but what is not always acknowledged is the narrative power of putting a black man and a white woman together on stage in one of dance history’s most abstractly erotic dances during a time in America when racial separation, rather than symbiosis, was the rule. Thus Agon may be one of the abstract ballets but it is undoubtedly informed by the cultural politics of the time it was choreographed in – not only by the hyper-frenetic New York City of the Beat generation but also by the events at Little Rock and across the nation. The original casting of Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams suggests the influence of this era on the ballet, if not in direct and purposeful rebellion than at least in some sort of subtle irony. So the pairing of Eric and Carla, with this knowledge, becomes even more striking; not to mention they are two of the most gorgeous people in ballet.



#7 Tapfan

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Posted 18 September 2011 - 12:00 PM

I'm much less concerned about opportunities for men of color than I am about opportunites for women of color. Particulary those women whose very dark skin makes them stand out more.

That's why I mentioned it as an aesthetic issue for some.

How to get past the notion that only black women who pass the "brown paper bag test" need apply?

#8 Alexandra

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Posted 18 September 2011 - 04:29 PM

Thanks, Tapfan. I just wanted to be sure I hadn't been misunderstood :)

I think the fact that this issue has been raised repeatedly in the media for at least 30 years is not encouraging.

#9 bart

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Posted 18 September 2011 - 05:04 PM

People often refer to Agon as his "Sputnick ballet" but I sometimes wonder if it is really his Brown v. Bd. of Education ballet.

I love the way you express this, California. And I think you are right.

I apologize for repeating myself so often on this topic, but -- My first season as a ballet goer coincided with the Agon premiere. Up to that point, this particular white, suburban 10th grader had given very little thought to matters of racial injustice except on the theoretical level..

There was an "about time" quality about Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell dancing this thrilling, intimate, sexually charged choreography that bowled me over. I saw Agon at least twice that season, and felt the positive energy in the theater and lobby each time. Sometimes I think of it as the one ballet that actually changed my life.

Perhaps the relative strangeness of the score -- compared, for example, with the much more accessible Swan Lake -- that opened people's minds and hearts, so that they might suspend their cultural expectations and allow beauty of the dancing, and the "rightness" of the partnership, take hold.

As for classical ballet today, I agree with Alexandra about Ballet Nacional de Cuba. But Cuba has invested many decades in cultivating a color-blindness and color neutrality among its people. In the U.S., young people seem to have moved quite far in this direction, at least as far as entertainment is concerned. As an "aesthetic issue," I think, the battle is being won, slowly and unevenly.

There's still a lot of room for companies and schools to become more assertive in promoting this way of "seeing" dancers on a stage. Sometimes, as Balanchine seems to have known, change only happens with a strong push from the top.

#10 Simon G

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Posted 18 September 2011 - 05:05 PM

Besides, black women and other women of color have been singing lead roles at the world's most prestigeous opera houses for over 50 years and nobody thinks a thing about it. Why? Because people have become accustomed to seeing it.


I think that the issues surrounding black men and women in opera are far more complex than just audience familiarity. Black culture is indelibly linked and ingrained with music. Moreover there is a richness and timbre to many black voices which is unique and crosses race boundaries or perceived boundaries within the high arts.


And where do you see the most non-traditional casting of Shakespeare? In the land of his birth. The Brits don't seem to think that you can do damage to Shakespeare with imaginative casting.

I can't remeber the last time I've heard of a high profile British production of Romeo and Juliet that didn't have the Montagues and Capulets cast as families of different races.



That's a slight exaggeration. There have been several productions with interracial casts and really they have been non starters for exactly the reason that it's a director imposing a racist issue on a play that isn't about race. The Capulets and Montagues can't even remember why they hate each other, the interfamilial loathing isn't there to highlight differences in race or class but to give counterpoint to the main point of R&J - the absolute overwhelming power and thrust of love, specifically young, first love.

As soon as you have a family of caucasians hate irrationally a family of blacks, Asians etc (both ethnic groups I've seen in R&J) you have a race issue, a play about race, with sadly the white family coming off worse as they fall traditionally into the mould of racist oppressors.
It destroys, not heightens or ameliorates the message and point of the play.

#11 Simon G

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Posted 18 September 2011 - 05:37 PM

I think the real question here is will a black ballerina ever dance with one of the world's top companies: Paris Opera, Mariinsky, Bolshoi, Royal Ballet, Royal Danish, ABT, New York City Ballet.

In all those companies histories combined there have been two black women corps members and one black soloist.
Two black male principals, two black male soloists, 1 black male sujet and three or four black male corps de ballet members. (Not counting Carlos Accosta whose position is fairly unique in the ballet world.)

Of those combined numbers six belonged to NYCB, one to ABT, and 2 who both belonged to ABT & the RB and one to Paris Opera.

I think the thing to actually just come and and say on the face of it the highest tier of classical ballet companies are instituionally racist, if not to the point of burning crosses and finding novel ways to use bedsheets, the figures speak for themselves.

Speaking of inclusivity and recruiting black students is one thing, however who in their right mind would push their child into a career, or encourage them in a career where there hasn't been a single documented case of any person from your ethnic group reaching the top.

Michaela DePrince seems very talented, certainly very talented athletically, but you can see she's already getting that exceptionally athletic physique which as much as skin colour is the antithesis of what ADs look for in ballerinas. It's not just the aesthetics of skin but body that are such a major issue in ballet and for that to change there is going to have to be such a major shift in the mindset of ballet. Muscular men have a place and are accepted, muscular women not.

There are no easy answers however one could equally ask not just, "when will ballet accept black women" but why would a black woman want to be accepted by an art form which resolutely refuses to acknowledge her existence.

#12 Simon G

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Posted 18 September 2011 - 05:56 PM

I don't think the supposed historical settings of ballets matter much when it comes to casting because there has to be such a suspension of disbelief anyway.

Dancing spirits? People dying of a broken heart? Murdering people by dancing them to death? Come on!


LaBayadere is almost always cast with white dancers. How historically correct is that?



I think sadly this argument also carries a strong counter argument. Sadly race and specifically skin colour is an issue in itself, you can't say it shouldn't matter when the very crux of the argument is that ethnicity is the issue.

With suspension of disbelief also comes the crux that ballet has never concerned itself with socio/political and economic realities. Neither in much of the content of the classical canon, nor it's audience members, who if they are to believe they're watching a temple dancer, ghost of a maiden, princess turned into a swan etc also don't want to focus on what actually is going on in the world outside the theatre.

Put a black woman on stage and suddenly there's a race issue by mere fact of her being there. Of who she is and what she represents.

Also it's hardly unique to ballet this bizarre misrepresentation of historical fact. Just think of the most famous Jewish man of all time, Jesus Christ, given the geographical, ethnic and historical situation of his birth, it's most likely that were he to walk onto a bus in Georgia circa 1950 he'd have been made to sit at the back, not the anodyne blond hippy he's routinely portrayed as being by the church throughout the world. Even in African countries.

#13 vipa

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Posted 18 September 2011 - 06:11 PM

Artistic Director are looking for a dancers who are in a particular range of body types. That isn't going to change and IMO shouldn't.

Body type is the thing. I know white women who were really good dancers who were big boned or big breasted who couldn't get hired by major companies. These companies are competitive for everyone.

If there were more dark skinned people out there in major competitions or auditioning for schools attached to major companies there would be more dark skinned people being hired. It is a chicken and egg thing.

Many, many light skinned dancers audition for schools and companies. Most are rejected. If an equal number of dark skinned dancers auditioned then we'd see more skin tones in companies. I don't see that happening because dark skinned people, justifiably, see ballet as a dead end endeavor. I wouldn't assume that a dark skinned person was rejected because of skin color.

I don't see it as an aesthetic issue really. I wouldn't care if there were varying skin tones in the Swan Lake line up.

#14 kfw

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Posted 18 September 2011 - 06:18 PM

I think the thing to actually just come and and say on the face of it the highest tier of classical ballet companies are instituionally racist, if not to the point of burning crosses and finding novel ways to use bedsheets, the figures speak for themselves.


Well, institutions are made up of and directed by people, of course, so what you're doing here is calling all those ADs and their school directors racist. The number of successful dancers of color doesn't tell us anything definitively - we have to look at raw talent. So the best place to look for racism would probably be the schools


Speaking of inclusivity and recruiting black students is one thing, however who in their right mind would push their child into a career, or encourage them in a career where there hasn't been a single documented case of any person from your ethnic group reaching the top.

I think maybe someone who loves the art form and isn't surprised that white roots have produced a white trunk.


Michaela DePrince seems very talented, certainly very talented athletically, but you can see she's already getting that exceptionally athletic physique which as much as skin colour is the antithesis of what ADs look for in ballerinas. It's not just the aesthetics of skin but body that are such a major issue in ballet and for that to change there is going to have to be such a major shift in the mindset of ballet. Muscular men have a place and are accepted, muscular women not.



So you think that this particular aesthetic taste is racist?

#15 Simon G

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Posted 18 September 2011 - 06:25 PM


I think the thing to actually just come and and say on the face of it the highest tier of classical ballet companies are instituionally racist, if not to the point of burning crosses and finding novel ways to use bedsheets, the figures speak for themselves.


Well, institutions are made up of and directed by people, of course, so what you're doing here is calling all those ADs and their school directors racist. The number of successful dancers of color doesn't tell us anything definitively - we have to look at raw talent. So the best place to look for racism would probably be the schools


Speaking of inclusivity and recruiting black students is one thing, however who in their right mind would push their child into a career, or encourage them in a career where there hasn't been a single documented case of any person from your ethnic group reaching the top.

I think maybe someone who loves the art form and isn't surprised that white roots have produced a white trunk.


Michaela DePrince seems very talented, certainly very talented athletically, but you can see she's already getting that exceptionally athletic physique which as much as skin colour is the antithesis of what ADs look for in ballerinas. It's not just the aesthetics of skin but body that are such a major issue in ballet and for that to change there is going to have to be such a major shift in the mindset of ballet. Muscular men have a place and are accepted, muscular women not.



So you think that this particular aesthetic taste is racist?



Do you honestly, honestly think that's what I'm saying?


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