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Dark skin as an aesthetic issue in classical ballet

194 posts in this topic

I think the thing is though, in order to fully tackle the issue one has to get away from the worst connotations of a racist individual carrying out an act of hatred, to the more fluid concept that racism is and often can be an internalised, normalised outlook from a specific institution. That while doesn't actively seek to promote marginalisation, nonetheless presents it as a norm.

OK, I still think the term only adds fuel to the fire in this situation - "Your company is racist. But I mean that in the least offensive way!" - but I appreciate that you have a different view. But if

The issue of body size & shape isn't racist but of course the unique qualities and shape of black female bodies becomes an issue as it is the antithesis of the enduring vogue for female ballet dancers today.

then where is the institutionalized racism?

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then where is the institutionalized racism?

Take it from the point of view of a black woman. You're told, the very fact of what you are makes you unemployable within our institution.

Whether or not there's transparency is immaterial. And we're not talking "fat" "big boned" or any of those criteria which are used against white women, we're talking athletic, with breasts, a bottom that is quite plainly there. A whole ethnic group is excluded because of a "current" aesthetic which they are told will not change - but it can change, that's the issue.

And of course for the very very few, indeed one, who has been allowed past the physical checkpoint Charlie there comes the vast gulf between what they CAN dance and what they're ALLOWED to dance.

Look at Misty Copeland, she's incredibly athletic, curved, muscled, she has a chest, she bursts with health. When you think of Giselle, Aurora, Odette, she isn't the image that springs to mind, but then again neither is Ashley Bouder who has all these roles in her rep. Copeland, now nearing 30 is highly unlikely to make the transition to these roles, though it's clear she has the technique to dance them, what is needed though is a mindset from companies and audiences that they're willing to take an act of faith and reappraise who they see in the roles and the way they're interpreted.

What we're talking about is radical shift in perception and a willingness to accept a new aesthetic which accomodates both the talents and aesthetics of a hiterto excluded group from the art form.

It's a culture or mentality of internalised racism precisely because there's no willingness to reappraise or allow the art form to move on because it's never been done that way in the past.

Yes, it's true black women and men don't come to ballet or the schools in anywhere near the numbers white boys and girls do, why should they? What they see tells them what they are isn't welcome. But then again for anything to change there has to be a willingness on both sides to put yourself out there, all it takes from a company or school is the decision to break the mould, for the young black dancer it takes years of backbreaking work, sacrifice and a great great deal of money - who would be willing to put themself and their family through that for a profession where there's almost no examples of people for whom all that sacrifice paid off?

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Tangential to the main thrust of this topic, but regarding Balanchine - the original cast members that I interviewed on Agon back in '97 seemed to think that his primary fascination with casting Mitchell and Adams was not social, but aesthetic - he was fascinated by the design possibilities of dark skin against light skin. Mitchell echoed this in a coaching session in '02, when he regretted slightly using two dancers of similar skin tone - both light-skinned black, losing that contrast. It's not as if Balanchine could have been ignorant of the greater implications, but they didn't seem to think it was the first thing on his mind.

When I went to St. Petersburg and saw the enormous "Moors' Heads" vases in Yussopov Palace I wondered if that wasn't what Balanchine was showing when he worked with Josephine Baker, or the all-black cast of Cabin in the Sky, or Agon - a fascination from his childhood culture with the exotic.

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Perhaps its time to drop the word "racism." I've seen this happen to threads about the color topic again and again. The word itself (big, pregnant with history, meaning, and emotional) becomes a contentious issue all on its own. This often deflects from the reality of what is going on in schools on on the stage. The Big Question about which one can do nothing takes over. Nothing is ever resolved.

My own wish is that ballet can transition to the kind of color-blindness that has been allowed to develop (not universally of course) in theater and opera. Ballet as an art is, more than any other, about what we "see." If we want to put asside this sometimes sterile, always hurtful, debate, we will all need to learn to look at things differently. Why the resistance? Balanchine and other great 20th-century choreographers were able to change the way we saw something as beautiful and classical in movement. Designers of lighting, scenery, and costumes have had a similar effect on what we see and prefer on stage.

If one accepts the evidence that people of color in the U.S. are being discouraged from pursuing careers in ballet for which they are suited -- and which they would love to pursue -- why not accept that it's about "color"? Speaking for myself, this is indefensible, regardless of the motive of the person doing the discouraging.

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Take it from the point of view of a black woman. You're told, the very fact of what you are makes you unemployable within our institution.

Whether or not there's transparency is immaterial. And we're not talking "fat" "big boned" or any of those criteria which are used against white women, we're talking athletic, with breasts, a bottom that is quite plainly there. A whole ethnic group is excluded because of a "current" aesthetic which they are told will not change - but it can change, that's the issue.

Yes, but that isn't racist if, as you've written,

The issue of body size & shape isn't racist

I agree that discriminating in regards to body shape and size is not by definition racist.

Look at Misty Copeland, she's incredibly athletic, curved, muscled, she has a chest, she bursts with health. When you think of Giselle, Aurora, Odette, she isn't the image that springs to mind, but then again neither is Ashley Bouder who has all these roles in her rep.

I haven't seen her dance, but judging from photos she has plenty of personality for those roles.

Bart, you make a great argument, but if we drop the word "racism," which indicates bad character, I think "unfortunate" is a better word than "indefensible."

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It's not the word; it's that people don't always understand that racism and discrimination don't require animus. I remember the surprise I had when working years ago on a discrimination case. The lawyer on the case explained to me that the plaintiff did not need to prove that the defendant - an employer - did not dislike older/non-white/female/whatever people at all. The plaintiff only needed to show statistical proof (in a large enough sampling) of a trend of not hiring them.

Racism and discrimination isn't only a feeling - it's a behavior. Like one Asian woman at NYCB in 30 years. The numbers speak louder than anything else.

But haven't we been on this train already?

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Yes, but that isn't racist if, as you've written

I disagree. It's not racist to you, a white middle-class man. It is however an issue of race and discrimination to a black woman. This is such a contentious issue precisely because the institution of ballet uses the rigid current aesthetic of body shape to make a case that it's nothing to do with physical traits of a person's race. To the person excluded it's quite a different matter.

The issue of body size & shape isn't racist

I agree that discriminating in regards to body shape and size is not by definition racist.

Actually, I'd like to clarify my statement with a caveat "The issue of body size & shape isn't intrinsically racist" but it becomes so depending on who you are and which side of the fence you're on.

Again it's important to note that these criteria aren't set in stone and are very much the product of an aesthetic for ballerinas which became the norm within the last 15 years of the 20th century.

Bart, you make a great argument, but if we drop the word "racism," which indicates bad character, I think "unfortunate" is a better word than "indefensible."

Although I don't want to go against Bart, who I love more than all the tea in China and I can see where he's coming from I think when we start to split hairs semantically it's best to discuss these issues with the most appropriate words. And when the very real issues of exclusion are watered down to merely unfortunate it is in itself make a defence for the exclusion.

Sorry there's no room for you, it's just "unfortunate" that your bum sticks out, you have breasts, thighs that could crack walnuts, and dying pointe shoes to match your skin tone is too expensive.

I'm not averse to passionate exchange because this is a passionate subject, but you can't argue it from the point of view solely of a white male balletgoer, the real issue is fought daily by black ballet students, or lack thereof.

Interestingly modern dance was mentioned, but the one company where black women have never been represented is the Cunningham Company. In Chance and Circumstance Carolyn Brown wrote how Cunningham hated the intrusion of women's buttocks, thighs and hips on his choreography and choreographic line; he took Judith Dunn out of Nocturnes because of her derriere. I've often wondered if the reason why black women never entered the company had something to do with their musculature.

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Tangential to the main thrust of this topic, but regarding Balanchine - the original cast members that I interviewed on Agon back in '97 seemed to think that his primary fascination with casting Mitchell and Adams was not social, but aesthetic - he was fascinated by the design possibilities of dark skin against light skin. Mitchell echoed this in a coaching session in '02, when he regretted slightly using two dancers of similar skin tone - both light-skinned black, losing that contrast. It's not as if Balanchine could have been ignorant of the greater implications, but they didn't seem to think it was the first thing on his mind.

Fascinating. I wonder if anybody has asked Watts or Tomlinson about this. They debuted in the roles in 1981, so presumably Balanchine made the casting decision. As he was seriously ill by then, I wonder if he did any coaching or who did in that era.

I'm looking at Nancy Reynolds' wonderful Repertory in Review (1977) on Agon (pp. 182-186). I don't see any hint of race or color being discussed, even in the quotes from Adams and Mitchell about Balanchine's original intent. From the photos, later casting included Mitchell with McBride, but also Bonnefous with Kent.

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Arthur Mitchell addressed this point in the video clip I posted earlier, in which Peter Jennings also casts Balanchine as ballet's Branch Rickey.

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It's not racist to you, a white middle-class man. It is however an issue of race and discrimination to a black woman. This is such a contentious issue precisely because the institution of ballet uses the rigid current aesthetic of body shape to make a case that it's nothing to do with physical traits of a person's race. To the person excluded it's quite a different matter.

Yes, but I think we all do a lot better adjusting feelings to facts than defining facts by feelings. It's completely understandable and sad that African-Americans might see racism where only custom and custom-derived taste exist. But I think it's unwise, and it's positively unfair to the accused when they're innocent, to simply agree out of empathy. With respect, Simon, it sounds like you do think there is an element of standard, nasty racism at work here. Or if you really don't , then by using the word "racism" with all its historic potency, you're having it both ways.

you can't argue it from the point of view solely of a white male balletgoer

When you're defining motive, the only thing that matters is that motive, not someone else's perception or misperception of that motive.

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Yes, but I think we all do a lot better adjusting feelings to facts than defining facts by feelings. It's completely understandable and sad that African-Americans might see racism where only custom and custom-derived taste exist. But I think it's unwise, and it's positively unfair to the accused when they're innocent, to simply agree out of empathy. With respect, Simon, it sounds like you do think there is an element of standard, nasty racism at work here. Or if you really don't , then by using the word "racism" with all its historic potency, you're having it both ways.

You present as a fact your feelings and views regarding this issue. Whereas for someone coming from a different angle the "facts" as such are very different. As Leigh pointed out "feelings" have nothing to do with it, but empirical evidence derived from data would be the overriding concern within a court of law to prove any allegation. Perhaps it's sad how divorced ballet is from society that a culture of seemingly obvious discrimination has never been deemed important enough to be argued anywhere outside of ballet boards.

For the record I don't think the state of ballet nor ethnic mix will ever change, certainly not in the top companies mainly because I don't think ballet will ever be important enough to the black communities to force an issue.

When you're defining motive, the only thing that matters is that motive, not someone else's perception or misperception of that motive.

I wasn't prescribing motive, merely saying that an issue has no one answer, no one defining view and the facts can be interpreted a myriad ways depending who you and and which direction you're coming from.

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Arthur Mitchell did dance in roles that some people may have forgotten he performed; Bourree Fantasque, Stars and Stripes, I've seen a photo of him in Divertimento No. 15, Western Symphony as he mentions here - the New York Public Library's site has a lot of interesting information on that, I did not see him dance, I wasn't living in New York or going to ballet then.

I should have been clearer: by "Arthur Mitchell roles" I meant the major ones created for him that are still in the rep, especially "Agon" and Phelgmatic in "Four Temperaments". I think there was only one production of "Slaugher on Tenth Avenue" during his six or so seasons with NYCB, and during that run I'm not sure he was cast. (I saw a half dozen performances with Joseph Duell, Robert La Fosse, and Christopher d'Amboise.) Balanchine cast Mitchell like a dancer he wanted to see, whereas Tomlinson, was cast differently. (He did do some other roles, like the revival of "Kammermusik No. 2".)

I do remember Suzanne Farrell writing or saying -- maybe in her memoir? -- that The Powers That Be at the Ed Sullivan Show made Farrell and Mitchell dance behind a screen when they did an excerpt from "Slaughter", but Mitchell led them out from behind the screen.

Also using terms such as size zero isn't helpful, size zero being that egregious fashion term to validate borderline anorexia within models as being a desired norm "you're not nearing organ failure, you're a perfect size zero".

It's not helpful because it can mean a range of sizes, most of them vanity sizes. Even size "00", beloved of preteens who shop at Hollister, isn't helpful.

But haven't we been on this train already?

I think the original question in the topic was why, for the very few black dancers that have danced ballet professionally, have there been no prominent dark-skinned female dancers, when this does not seem to be the case for men. We've veered off into a discussion about body type, which we have flogged several times before.

I do think the underlying factors are the same: look at the contestants of the Miss Universe pageant, where almost every candidate, and especially one of the 20% who are considered in the running, conforms as closely as possible to a Caucasian aesthetic and a Barbie doll figure.

In India where things aren't remotely politically correct, there are non-stop TV commercials for skin lightening products, and in the marriage ads, which already are divided by religion and ethnicity in the sub-heads, the typical "ask" for a bride, or the way a bride is advertised by her relatives as being a good catch, is "light-skinned and from a good family". The ask for grooms is "[has great job/education/owns land] and is from a good family". (And those are just the ads in English.) A glance at "School Daze" tells a similar story.

I'm of the school that stylistic uniformity should trump physical uniformity, and the DePrince of the Gamzatti video could be my cup of tea. Not remotely so is the DePrince in the YAGP video, who looks more Mariinsky or POB than a typical American ballet dancer.

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.

Look at Misty Copeland, she's incredibly athletic, curved, muscled, she has a chest, she bursts with health. When you think of Giselle, Aurora, Odette, she isn't the image that springs to mind, but then again neither is Ashley Bouder who has all these roles in her rep.
I haven't seen her dance, but judging from photos she has plenty of personality for those roles.

I didn't notice her skin color in the peasant pdd in "Giselle."

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It's not the word; it's that people don't always understand that racism and discrimination don't require animus. I remember the surprise I had when working years ago on a discrimination case. The lawyer on the case explained to me that the plaintiff did not need to prove that the defendant - an employer - did not dislike older/non-white/female/whatever people at all. The plaintiff only needed to show statistical proof (in a large enough sampling) of a trend of not hiring them.

That is what I thought when I read this thread: de jure vs. de facto discrimination.

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Tangential to the main thrust of this topic, but regarding Balanchine - the original cast members that I interviewed on Agon back in '97 seemed to think that his primary fascination with casting Mitchell and Adams was not social, but aesthetic - he was fascinated by the design possibilities of dark skin against light skin. Mitchell echoed this in a coaching session in '02, when he regretted slightly using two dancers of similar skin tone - both light-skinned black, losing that contrast. It's not as if Balanchine could have been ignorant of the greater implications, but they didn't seem to think it was the first thing on his mind.

Does this have anything to do with representations of opposition?

Sometimes I have watched a ballet and thought it was racist or misogynistic. On reexamination, I thought that the ballet was asking the viewer to examine an issue and was conveying ideas through stereotypes for a reason.

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Although I don't want to go against Bart, who I love more than all the tea in China and I can see where he's coming from I think when we start to split hairs semantically it's best to discuss these issues with the most appropriate words. And when the very real issues of exclusion are watered down to merely unfortunate it is in itself make a defence for the exclusion.

Quite right. Racism takes many forms,something that could only be fully realized when many (not all by any means) of the more naked and hostile aspects of the phenomenon disappeared, and excluding the term from discussion would only serve to obfuscate.

Again it's important to note that these criteria aren't set in stone and are very much the product of an aesthetic for ballerinas which became the norm within the last 15 years of the 20th century.

Yes. And in general women particularly are subject to changing fashions in looks and body types.

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It took Balanchine a number of years to get that look, and the Mariinsky, Bolshoi, and POB self-select for it. If every forty-something classical/neoclassical ballet AD decided to change the aesthetic today, despite having been reared and successful in the current aesthetic, it would take a while to change the bodies in the pipeline, and then only a handful trickle into large major companies each year.

It's easy for Hollywood or modeling to change the aesthetic on a dime. They toss out the old with regularity now, and as long as they're looking for young, they're looking at bodies and faces, which don't require years of training.

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The thing is that a number of female soloists in ABT have the technique to be principals. That is true of any company. I don't know if Copeland will or will not become a principal, but if she doesn't it might not be because of her skin color. Most soloists don't become principals.

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I didn't get to see Alicia Graf perform with Dance Theater of Harlem, but given the reviews I read I was shocked when she wasn't scooped up by another ballet company when DTH folded and she ended up dancing with the Ailey company. Does anybody have any thoughts or comments about her career in relation to the issues discussed in this thread?

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The thing is that a number of female soloists in ABT have the technique to be principals. That is true of any company. I don't know if Copeland will or will not become a principal, but if she doesn't it might not be because of her skin color. Most soloists don't become principals.

Hi Vipa

I wasn't suggesting that there was some kind of conspiracy of silence in place keeping Copeland away from principal status, I know full well that many dancers stick at certain levels, regardless of talent and that's their career.

The reason why I discussed this in terms of Copeland is because she's the first and only black female dancer to be officially recognised with a title above corps in one of the world's top companies. This is the problem one's hardly spoilt for choice in finding examples of ballerinas - there have been four black female dancers in all the histories of those companies combined.

I think it's not even a question of her becoming a principal but that should Mckenzie take a massive risk or leap of faith with casting and cast Copeland, just once as Giselle, Aurora, Odette/Odile, I think it would be the balletic equivalent of Rosa Parks, which is bizarre to say in 2011.

Since this conversation is largely regarding aesthetics, this article might be of interest:

http://www.columbia.edu/itc/journalism/gissler/anthology/webrhone.html

This is an interview with Lauren Anderson, to date the only black female principal with a "white" company, Houston Ballet. From 14min to 20min she talks about weight, body shape and racism:

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The reason why I discussed this in terms of Copeland is because she's the first and only black female dancer to be officially recognised with a title above corps in one of the world's top companies. This is the problem one's hardly spoilt for choice in finding examples of ballerinas - there have been four black female dancers in all the histories of those companies combined.

As I recall, Nora Kimball was a soloist with ABT, Simon (someone correct me if I'm wrong here), if she was the only other, then Misty Copeland would be the second.

Having checked, yes, and here is a link to a review by Anna Kisselgoff of a performance she gave with ABT in 1985 as Myrtha in Giselle:

http://www.nytimes.com/1985/09/13/arts/ballet-theater-harvey-in-giselle.html

ONE of two major points of interest in maintaining the 19th-century ballet classics in the international repertory is the opportunity for dancers to perform and interpret time-honored roles. On this count, Cynthia Harvey, Ross Stretton, Michael Owen and Nora Kimball, a new soloist in American Ballet Theater, offered some excellent and dramatic moments in ''Giselle'' on Wednesday night at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Miss Kimball was a willowy Queen of the Wilis. Highly noticeable here in the past when she appeared with the Netherlands Dance Theater, she again showed off her natural dramatic and commanding presence. This first view of her in a classical role revealed a brilliant and exciting jump, some need to smooth out transitional steps and an always interesting dancer.

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I do not think it is accurate to say that the reason there are so few dark ballerinas is that there aren't enough students/aspiring ballerinas out there. I've been taking my (white) kids to class at the Ailey school for a long time now, and I see plenty of dark-skinned young women in pointe shoes. They don’t seem to think that ballet is not "for them" or an unattainable career. Sure, lots of them don’t have the body type/talent for a top ballet company, but that is true of a lot of white ballet students as well.

Also, on the body type issue -- Monique Meuniere [sp?], who was Latina but not dark, had a very curvy/ voluptuous body and nevertheless was, for a while, an NYCB principal and also danced with ABT. She admittedly had a lot of body/weight issues while dancing but it didn’t stop her from advancing. The one black woman I remember in NYCB - Aesha Ash - was considerably closer to an "ideal" Balanchine body. It’s easy to generalize about black women's bodies, but it’s not really helpful. If the issue is darker skinned women, there are dark skinned women of Asian and Latin descent, as well as African descent, who aren’t built like the Williams sisters.

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Thanks for the link to the Anderson interview and the article, Simon. Interesting.

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This is an interview with Lauren Anderson, to date the only black female principal with a "white" company, Houston Ballet. From 14min to 20min she talks about weight, body shape and racism:

It took until the 14th minute, because in the first minute or so she let Ernie Manouse's two questions about whether she ever thought she couldn't dance ballet and why she chose ballet over other forms of dance drop like the rocks they were. I can't imagine someone starting off an interview with Sarah Mearns and asking her those questions.

Off topic, I loved her comment about competing with a fellow student: it wasn't about being the best in class, but about being better than the last thing they did. "Pas de save" has made my day.

Thank you so much for posting this, Simon. I love listening to people who like to talk, and I'd be in heaven to hear her and Jacques d'Amboise in the same discussion, wherever it went.

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For me the turning point came the point in the interview at which she said the key words: "It's the black thing." I was impressed by the way Anderson did NOT take the interviewer up when he opened doors, earlier on, to talking about color. When the time came to talk aobut color (HER choice of time), she was articulate and right on target. She told the story of a woman and dancer, obviously black, but held off for a while taking on the labeling: America's Only Black Principal Female Dancer.

I was also interested in her point about "the way African Americans (women) are perceived - strong, exotic, sexy -- never vulnerable and dainty."

Her most satisfying and successful partnerships: Carlos Acosta (black) and Dominic Walsh (white). It's shared strengths and attitudes, not color, that made the partnerships work.

And the story about Theme and Variations: how she began in the back row of the corps as a young dancer and remained there all season, not being "bumped up" in this ballet while having to watch apprentices being called up to dance in front of her. However ... "next time we did it I was the lead, and I've been the lead in it ever since."

In response to a question about her future plans (Outreach Associate for Houston Ballet, teaching, guesting, working with young people) she says something I've often heard from African American friends who have aimed high: "I've got to be good at it because I CAN'T be mediocre."

I like this woman! She doesn't deny the importance of race, body type, and other people's stereotyping in her life. But she will not allow them to take over. Watching the Lauren Anderson interview (having just having watched the admirable Sarah Mearns in a very different interview format), I found myself thinking: people of character, imagination, and discipline are bigger and much more interesting than the things that conspire to hold them back.

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