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Dark skin as an aesthetic issue in classical ballet

194 posts in this topic

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.

On the subject of Ash, here's a couple of interesting things: Her blog site talking a great deal about black women in ballet:

http://theblackswandiaries.blogspot.com/

And a paper talking about black women in ballet, including Ash, Graf, Tai Jiminez, Anderson etc

http://www.performingartsconvention.org/diversity/id=39

Interestingly there are several posts about how Ash was told repeatedly that her body was too muscular, too "black" and her dieting etc in order to try and conform to the white ideal. E said that he saw her as being a prototype Balanchine physique, her bosses didn't.

I also think that it's important to stress that of course not all Black women are hugely muscular, but we're talking here about Copeland and DePrince who both do have very muscular bodies and a criticism and criteria in ballet schools, certainly the ones attached to major companies have of young black students is that they're afraid once late adolescence hits they'll become too muscular.

Copeland is mixed race with very caucasian features, however DePrince is absolutely 100% African American - and much as I hate to say it, I do think she'll struggle to gain a corps position in one of the major companies.

Of course schools like Ailey, Harlem which have strong links to multicultural, ethnically diverse companies and choreographers will have a large proportion of black,mixed race and ethnic pupils. However once you get to the schools linked to the main ballet companies, the number of black girls drops to near zero to absolute zero depending on the year. There's always one or two black boys now because ballet needs men.

I think it's very naive people saying that if the schools took more black pupils then the AD would take more black dancers into the company. Schools feed the ethos and need and aesthetic choices of their company.

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According to this New York Times article, there have been two black female principals in major U.S. companies, Lauren Anderson with Houston Ballet and Tai Jimenez with Boston Ballet.

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/06/arts/dance/06kour.html?pagewanted=all

Also, Anna Benna Sims along with the previously mentioned Nora Kimball, preceeded Misty as an African American female soloists at ABT.

My only reason for starting this thread was to open a discussion as to whether a dancer who fits all the criteria for a position at a major company except the "right" skin color, might be denied a spot because of it.

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My only reason for starting this thread was to open a discussion as to whether a dancer who fits all the criteria for a position at a major company except the "right" skin color, might be denied a spot because of it.

Reading between the lines of the Anderson interview, your chances are a lot better if you have someone like Ben Stevenson making the decisions.

Anderson became emotional when talking about him and his influence on her career.She also mentions that the Houston Ballet insulated her from the worst of the poison pen reaction, including those from the KKK.

This supports the idea that strong, principled, courageous leadership -- the kind willing to take risks but also the educate the public -- does make a difference.

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It's almost impossible to answer that question, which structurally is a closed "Yes"/"No" question. What an AD decides to promote or choose a dancer, there are many legitimate factors that go into the decision, including many moving parts; just a few are current and upcoming rep, the dancers already in the company and what their career trajectories are, including their types, which used to drive the roles in which they would be cast more strictly but still does to a degree, existing and potential partnerships, coaches, temperament, etc. The bigger the company, the more relationships -- the formula is (N * (N-1))/2, where N is the number of people involved -- and the more complicated the Big Picture. A perfect fit for a company one year might be completely different from what they need the next year. All of these things can be used as excuses to mask decisions based in active or passive racism, sexism, agism, and just about any -ism in the book. Most of the time rationales/rationalizations are not aired publicly, if at all.

If you don't have incriminating documentation or speech, you're left with results/behavior. Does the behavior of a small organization -- most regional US companies have 30-50 dancers, and ABT and NYC have less than 100 -- be large enough to establish a legally significant pattern of discrimination?

Reading between the lines of the Anderson interview, your chances are a lot better if you have someone like Ben Stevenson making the decisions.

Word.

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Does anyone know if Cynthia Lochard every reached soloist level at NYCB? I know I saw her in demi- and soloist roles.

Neither Google nor bing is helpful with this info, but I did learn that after NYCB she danced with Sydney Dance Company and Bangarra Dance Theatre, and then studied Pilates, became a grand master teacher, and opened a studio in Sydney:

http://www.pilatesm.com.au/our-instructors/

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I apologize, I haven't read all posts, but has anyone mentioned Debra Austin?

If I remember correctly she entered NYCB as a teenager in the 1970's. I just recall Balanchine created a soloist role for her in Ballo della Regina. Austin was wonderful in it - her big jump was used beautifully. I think Austin went on to an excellent career in Europe and was a principal with Pennsylvania Ballet.

I think Balanchine like certain aspects of her physicality and ability and used those without regard to race. That is an assumption on my part.

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I think Balanchine like certain aspects of her physicality and ability and used those without regard to race. That is an assumption on my part.

He's reported to have said that he'd like to have a company half white and half black, so he could play checkers.

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I'd never heard of Debra Austin.

I must admit that I learn something new and have my petty assumptions challenged time I come to these boards.

I never knew that New York City Ballet had employed any black female dancers before Aesha Ash and Andrea Long, let alone one during Balanchine's lifetime.

Based on having read the anecdotes of several black female dancers, I assumed that City Ballet was/is almost hostile towards black female dancers.

And googling Debra Austin led me to discover that she's a ballet mistress with Carolina Ballet - which I had recently been pooh-poohing for being so darned pale.

Shame on me.

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Thank you so much for that link to Lauren Anderson's interview. She has been an inspiration to our family as far as dance goes. (and football :) )

It's interesting to me that only major companies are considered as the epitome of achievement in this thread. Certainly they are "The" epitome of success in the ballet world and should be rewarded as such. But there are a handful of female dancers of color who are currently in medium and small regional companies where there is no ranking of the dancers. Those dancers are performing Principal roles but simply without the title of Principal. This simply because the company doesn't rank any dancers. Sadly, these dancers receive no press because of where they chose to dance. (And yes, some of them chose smaller companies because the opportunity to dance lead roles in classical ballets would be offered sooner than later).

I'm happy to see that this year, even though it's likely the ballet press will ignore it, that two African American dancers we know personally will dance the role of Cinderella, Snow Queen and Sugar Plum in small-medium classical ballet companies. And they will have the opportunity to be cast well in other classical ballets for the rest of their seasons. While the companies they dance for are not major companies, the dancers themselves are deserving of credit for dancing the classical roles they are getting to dance. And lucky for them that in both cases they understand that with the exception of Lauren Anderson, they are breaking records. It's just sad that because it's not ABT/NYCB no one will notice. .

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I'd never heard of Debra Austin.

I must admit that I learn something new and have my petty assumptions challenged time I come to these boards.

I never knew that New York City Ballet had employed any black female dancers before Aesha Ash and Andrea Long, let alone one during Balanchine's lifetime.

Based on having read the anecdotes of several black female dancers, I assumed that City Ballet was/is almost hostile towards black female dancers.

And googling Debra Austin led me to discover that she's a ballet mistress with Carolina Ballet - which I had recently been pooh-poohing for being so darned pale.

Shame on me.

Hey, no need to feel bad, and thanks for the news about Austin. :) Vipa mentioned that Balanchine put her in Ballo Della Regina. If memory serves, she's on the Dance in America recording.

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... thanks for the news about Austin. :) Vipa mentioned that Balanchine put her in Ballo Della Regina. If memory serves, she's on the Dance in America recording.

She is indeed, and tears up the floor. And considering that she's in a performance with Merrill Ashley, makes it even more impressive.

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Vipa mentioned that Balanchine put her in Ballo Della Regina. If memory serves, she's on the Dance in America recording.

She was, along with the other three original cast member soloists: Bonita Borne, Stephanie Saland, and Sheryl Ware.

I saw Debra Austin dance once, when Pennsylvania Ballet came to BAM in 1985 and brought a triple bill: "Bolero", "Awakening" -- both by Robert Weiss -- and "La Sylphide". I wasn't impressed by "Bolero", but I loved Austin's dancing, here with Roy Kaiser. All three female leads were great, Austin, Melissa Podcasy in "Awakenking", and Tamara Hadley as the Sylph.

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And while in the subject...does anybody knows who's the black female dancer in the Snow scene from Balanchine's "Nutcracker" DVD...? The inclusion stands out even more particularly because of the whiter than white nature of the sequence.

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This isn't a comment about dancers with dark skins but about audiences. My only visit to America was in 2000 to Atlanta to see Atlanta Ballet performing Michael Pink's Dracula. Walking around Atlanta, the majority of the population we saw was African-American but I would guess that the audience was 99% white. At one performance my friend and I got chatting to the lady sitting next to us (African-American) and she commented on the make-up of the audience and finished by saying she was from California!

I find the same sort of thing in England. For instance, a good proportion of the population in Bradford is of Asian ethnicity but there are very rarely Asian people in the audience.

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JMcN, that is kind of troubling, isn't it? It would seem to me that this disconnect shows how little the local population identifies with the theatre in their area, which in the long run could surely hurry along the ultimate demise of that theatre. :(

There are not many dancers of very different skin colors in the bigger theaters where I live, either. Well, to be fair, the population as a whole is pretty homogen in most places, too. But, it is true - one is more likely to see a dark-skinned man in a ballet company than a dark-skinned woman.

-sigh-

-d-

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I find the same sort of thing in England. For instance, a good proportion of the population in Bradford is of Asian ethnicity but there are very rarely Asian people in the audience.

You find the same sort of thing in jazz clubs, at least in the U.S. - whites and Asian tourists, but very few African-Americans, even when everyone on the bandstand is black.

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I find the same sort of thing in England. For instance, a good proportion of the population in Bradford is of Asian ethnicity but there are very rarely Asian people in the audience.

You find the same sort of thing in jazz clubs, at least in the U.S. - whites and Asian tourists, but very few African-Americans, even when everyone on the bandstand is black.

And you base this statement on an exhaustive list carried out from surveys, polls and statistics from the thousands of Jazz clubs throughout the US, in every city, every performance 365 days year over how many years?

Thank goodness for European & Asian tourists, without whom the doors of jazz clubs would be closing throughout the US.

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As well as Janet Collins (Metropolitan Opera) and Delores Browne. Raven Wilkinson is interviewed in this film segment as well, with some video sequences. the modern studio sequences shown appear to be at the Boston Ballet studios, but I do not know the dancers.

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I find the same sort of thing in England. For instance, a good proportion of the population in Bradford is of Asian ethnicity but there are very rarely Asian people in the audience.

You find the same sort of thing in jazz clubs, at least in the U.S. - whites and Asian tourists, but very few African-Americans, even when everyone on the bandstand is black.

And you base this statement on an exhaustive list carried out from surveys, polls and statistics from the thousands of Jazz clubs throughout the US, in every city, every performance 365 days year over how many years?

I base that comment on 30+ years of club-going in Chicago, Boston, NYC, D.C. and elsewhere, and also on 30+ years of reading the jazz press. Other people are of course free to disagree.

Speaking now as a moderator on this forum, I will remind you that Ballet Alert! has a tradition of frank but respectful discussion and debate. Snide and sarcastic questions are unnecessary and unwelcome. You can find Ballet Alert!'s Golden Rules here. Kindly observe them.

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I base that comment on 30+ years of club-going in Chicago, Boston, NYC, D.C. and elsewhere, and also on 30+ years of reading the jazz press. Other people are of course free to disagree.

Speaking now as a moderator on this forum, I will remind you that Ballet Alert! has a tradition of frank but respectful discussion and debate. Snide and sarcastic questions are unnecessary and unwelcome. You can find Ballet Alert!'s Golden Rules here. Kindly observe them.

I've been to several jazz clubs over the years and every time there's been a far larger ratio of black to white punters than at many events I've been to. It's purely anecdotal, but to suggest that jazz a black art form doesn't have a strong, firm, committed and large African American or Afro Caribbean audience, I really have a hard time believing.

There are thousands of Jazz venues throughout the US, considerably more than ballet or dance venues, can you or anyone honestly say they've been to EVERY jazz venue, concert and festival and been able to successfully note and quantify the audience and from that establish a mean ratio for jazz-going and habits?

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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.

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 just found this longer interview with Mitchell where he also discusses the Nutcracker broadcast with the reworking of the Grand PDD to include 4 cavaliers and Balanchine's desire to work with black female dancers.

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And while in the subject...does anybody knows who's the black female dancer in the Snow scene from Balanchine's "Nutcracker" DVD...? The inclusion stands out even more particularly because of the whiter than white nature of the sequence.

Cristian -- I believe it's Andrea Long. She danced with NYCB for about 8 years during the late 80's and early 90's then moved on to Dance Theater of Harlem.

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