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Dark skin as an aesthetic issue in classical ballet

194 posts in this topic

I also find very odd implying that black children are guilty of a form of "racism" by not "relating" to white characters within fairytales? As if identification is racism.

I didn't imply that at all, I said it was the logical import of your (false) claim that

a black child doesn't grow up with these Disney images, bleached white stories feeling that they in any way shape or form can relate, there is nothing there to relate to [ . . .]

What is engraved on a black child's mind, a black adult's mind is that these cultural stories, fables and histories are not mine, that I'm living in a society where there's no shared experience.

You say it's racist for whites not to want to see black dancers. Why isn't it racist for blacks to reject white Disney characters? In fact, as I said, young kids don't make those distinctions. Yes, Disney ought to create more black and Hispanic heroes and heroines. But that is, among other reasons, so that older black and Hispanic kids relate more, not because "there is nothing there to relate to" in the white characters.

All I meant and which is backed up by years of anecdotal and first person testament by black men and women is that growing up they saw little to identify with within the popular culture of storytelling within society - which equated white, caucasian heroes and heroines with goodness and beauty and stories which had no ethnic diversity. Which leads back to many black men and women finding ballet has little to speak to them directly as there's no ethnic diversity.

Very few of those white college kids in the late 50's and early 60's who sparked the folk and blues revival in America could directly relate to being either white hoboes or black sharecroppers in the Jim Crow South either. Nor could a later generation of white kids who made stars of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh directly relate to being black slum dwellers hounded by the police in Kingston, Jamaica. Nor can a lot of today's white fans really understand the inner city background of their hip-hop favorites. But they saw/see all these performers as images of proud manhood. So why can't a black girl relate to Snow White's virtue, or Odette's fear and longing? She can.

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Most of the population in the US and Canada immigrated to North America as peasants. Few of the dancers in the royal companies anywhere were aristocrats. I don't identify with Aurora personally any more than I identify with Beowulf, but the underlying conflicts and group/power dynamics in the ballet in the ballet are universal, which is why "Giselle" dropped very nicely into the Bajou.

I suspect most people who've ever worked for their "betters" can identify with Petipa The Lilac Fairy, expected to do all the work and clean up the messes of those betters, who looked at their portrait in the ballet and were flattered, and while the doers "Make it work" as the philosopher Tim Gunn says, with grace and aplomb, regardless of the circumstances.

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I also find very odd implying that black children are guilty of a form of "racism" by not "relating" to white characters within fairytales? As if identification is racism.

I didn't imply that at all, I said it was the logical import of your (false) claim that

a black child doesn't grow up with these Disney images, bleached white stories feeling that they in any way shape or form can relate, there is nothing there to relate to [ . . .]

What is engraved on a black child's mind, a black adult's mind is that these cultural stories, fables and histories are not mine, that I'm living in a society where there's no shared experience.

You say it's racist for whites not to want to see black dancers. Why isn't it racist for blacks to reject white Disney characters? In fact, as I said, young kids don't make those distinctions. Yes, Disney ought to create more black and Hispanic heroes and heroines. But that is, among other reasons, so that older black and Hispanic kids relate more, not because "there is nothing there to relate to" in the white characters.

I'm basing this on first person testimonies I've read many times from countless black men and women talking about growing up black within a white society. But since you wish to speak of logic it wouldn't be illogical to take on board the "notion" that people are taught and identify with stories and images through the media and literature as they grow up, that we relate to images of ourselves our culture and ethnicty - it's what cultural diversity is about.

I find it odd that you choose to want to ignore the plethora of first person testimony throughout the media and literature by black people talking about no recognisable imagery of their race being represented in the culture in which they live. But still that's your choice, it's wrong, as you insist I am wrong.

I have never once said it's racist for whites not to want to see black dancers. Christian spoke of a connoisseur audience and I was responding to that, that is not something I believe in, and I do believe that the issue is far greater within the big companies between school, AD, what the AD thinks the audience wants etc.

Why is it not racist for blacks to reject white Disney characters? I am a bit dumbfounded at this question. Who said anything about rejection? How can you "reject" a cartoon character? What I was saying is that there are no examples of black characters or ethnically diverse characters within popular children's media, Christian was the one who insisted Aurora should be white as she is in the Disney Sleeping Beauty. It's not racist to want to see your ethnic group represented. Nor is it racist to identify with characters you feel represent you.

Moreover I'm not saying that it's the moral character they're not "relating" to, but ethnicity but then again why are the morally right characters predominantly white the beautiful heroes, princes, princesses white? Why must white equal moral rectitude? Again if you want to do some research all questions black men and women ask themselves when analysing the imagery they've grown up with.

Nor can a lot of today's white fans really understand the inner city background of their hip-hop favorites. But they saw/see all these performers as images of proud manhood. So why can't a black girl relate to Snow White's virtue, or Odette's fear and longing? She can.

Firstly, you don't have to be black to live on the poverty line, in an inner city or ghetto, a great deal of those white fans aren't living in Scottsdale or the Hamptons, they can relate to the tales of violence, struggle and class warfare just fine. This is an example of benign racism, the immediate stance that a white kid listening to rap is doing so within the comfort of a middle class milieu.

It's not about relating to the moral character of these characters, it never was, it's about representation, if they can relate to Odette or Aurora, why the hell can't they dance it.

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It's not at all uncommon in pop culture and the arts in general for the mainstream to pick up on and celebrate art forms and trends created by marginalized groups such as blacks and gays. This attention is not without its ambiguities and has its negative aspects. I too have read interviews with African-American dancers who mention the importance of children and young people being able to recognize and relate to who's on stage and what's happening up there, and it seems like a very reasonable, indeed obvious, point to me.

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It's not at all uncommon in pop culture and the arts in general for the mainstream to pick up on and celebrate art forms and trends created by marginalized groups such as blacks and gays. This attention is not without its ambiguities and has its negative aspects.

It's not uncommon at all, and blacks understandably have mixed feelings when whites pick up a black art form, water it down, and make a whole lot more money off of it than its creators did, at the same time bringing those creators wider recognition and more money. But "Love and Theft," to quote the name of a Dylan record that quotes a book by a black writer and borrows/steals from a myriad of black and white sources - the appropriation is a form of appreciation and respect. In other words, it has nothing to do with that marginalization, and goes a good ways towards countering it.

I too have read interviews with African-American dancers who mention the importance of children and young people being able to recognize and relate to who's on stage and what's happening up there, and it seems like a very reasonable, indeed obvious, point to me.

Well, the ideal is for us all to look for what we have in common, so if kids can't relate - and again I think that's a problem older kids have, when they have it at all - that's an opportunity for adults to teach. Justified black resentment is a understandable barrier to identifying with whites, but it is no longer true that most white people are racist, except in the sense that, as the researchers tell us, we're all to some degree racist, sexist, and my groupist. To the extent that black students believe or fear that the ballet world is racist, black examples are important.

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... as the researchers tell us, we're all to some degree racist, sexist, and groupist.

I think this statement resumes the whole thing very well. :clapping:

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Justified black resentment is a understandable barrier to identifying with whites, but it is no longer true that most white people are racist, except in the sense that, as the researchers tell us, we're all to some degree racist, sexist, and my groupist.

A highly debatable point, but leaving that aside, I believe other posters already responded adequately to this aspect of the discussion earlier in the thread.

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But since you wish to speak of logic it wouldn't be illogical to take on board the "notion" that people are taught and identify with stories and images through the media and literature as they grow up, that we relate to images of ourselves our culture and ethnicty - it's what cultural diversity is about.

I find it odd that you choose to want to ignore the plethora of first person testimony throughout the media and literature by black people talking about no recognisable imagery of their race being represented in the culture in which they live. But still that's your choice, it's wrong, as you insist I am wrong.

Simon, I neither ignore that testimony, nor deny that culture and ethnicity help shape identity, nor that African-Americans have been severely under-represented in the media. All those facts are clear and obvious.What I take issue with is the assertion that kids can't relate outside those boundaries, that black kids can't relate to stories about whites, that poor kids can't relate to stories about the rich.

There are other first person African-American testimonies, like that of the writer Albert Murray http://www.vqronline...-albert-murray/, who was a mentor to Wynton Marsalis.

I have never once said it's racist for whites not to want to see black dancers.

You've said it was institutional (white) racism that to this day holds black dancers back in the schools and in the companies, so if it's racist for white ADs not to cast black dancers, it's racist for white audiences not to want to see them. I personally prefer to get away from the term as often as possible, because its loaded, even when you put "benign" in front of it.

It's not racist to want to see your ethnic group represented. Nor is it racist to identify with characters you feel represent you.

Right. It's just ordinarily racist not to identify with any others, although as I say below, there is a great big mitigating circumstance in this case.

Moreover I'm not saying that it's the moral character they're not "relating" to, but ethnicity but then again why are the morally right characters predominantly white the beautiful heroes, princes, princesses white? Why must white equal moral rectitude?

Er, because you and I aren't casting directors? :-)

Firstly, you don't have to be black to live on the poverty line, in an inner city or ghetto, a great deal of those white fans aren't living in Scottsdale or the Hamptons, they can relate to the tales of violence, struggle and class warfare just fine. This is an example of benign racism, the immediate stance that a white kid listening to rap is doing so within the comfort of a middle class milieu.

If you're going to accuse me of benign racism, that's fine, because I value straight talk. But kindly do it for something I actually write. I did not say that all white kids who listen to rap are comfortably middle class. I said that many whites who are comfortable can relate to the less fortunate performers instead. Ditto for the other musical forms. The folk revival didn't start, nor did it really take hold, in the white working class, but in Cambridge, Mass. and Greenwich Village and at elite universities. To this day, it is educated whites who listen to Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, and the like, not the working class people who could most easily relate to their circumstances.

My only point here is that the gap can be breached. Of course black audiences have a hurdle to leap which whites don't, resentment at the fact that racism has, at least in the past, kept black dancers and would-be dancers off the stage. But racial healing has to involve both sides, including the side that's been wronged. I think that political correctness on this issue,well-intentioned though it may be, only hurts African-Americans by encouraging them to see racism under every rock. At some point, as Murray understood, that's counter-productive. Is that easy for me to say? Yes. Does that make it untrue?

It's not about relating to the moral character of these characters, it never was, it's about representation, if they can relate to Odette or Aurora, why the hell can't they dance it.

Of course, as I've agreed all along, they should be given the opportunity to dance it.

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... as I've agreed all along, they should be given the opportunity to dance it.

One little thing here...let's not shift the whole weight/responsability to the AD's side...it wouldn't be fair...

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One little thing here...let's not shift the whole weight/responsibility to the AD's side...it wouldn't be fair...

True, but you have to start somewhere. If not the AD (and the heads of the pre-professional schools), where else do you start?

Waiting for public opinion to change on its own rarely works in any political context. Talking about cultural traditions or aesthetic conventions as though they were fixed in eternity just tends to maintain the status quo.

The AD hires and does the casting. Has great influence over advertising. Has access to the local media. Has the ear of the Board of Directors, and the responsibility to advise it.

No one is better placed to initiate and foster change. IF, that is, he or she wants the change to happen and is willing to take chances to move it along.

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The folk revival didn't start, nor did it really take hold, in the white working class, but in Cambridge, Mass. and Greenwich Village and at elite universities. To this day, it is educated whites who listen to Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, and the like, not the working class people who could most easily relate to their circumstances.

Reviving superannuated forms of pop and folk is often a form of academic excavation and it makes sense that it would appeal to educated bourgeois and aspiring bohemians.

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The folk revival didn't start, nor did it really take hold, in the white working class, but in Cambridge, Mass. and Greenwich Village and at elite universities. To this day, it is educated whites who listen to Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, and the like, not the working class people who could most easily relate to their circumstances.

Reviving superannuated forms of pop and folk is often a form of academic excavation and it makes sense that it would appeal to educated bourgeois and aspiring bohemians.

Academic? Bob Dylan said that rock'n'roll songs "weren't serious or didn't reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings."

Eric Clapton called Muddy Waters a father figure.

I'll wager that for every fan who pursued a degree in ethnomusicology, 1000 took up the guitar. They weren't reading papers at Club 47 or The Kettle of Fish. They were singing and swapping songs and emulating their heroes. They were relating cross-culturally.

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The folk revival didn't start, nor did it really take hold, in the white working class, but in Cambridge, Mass. and Greenwich Village and at elite universities. To this day, it is educated whites who listen to Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, and the like, not the working class people who could most easily relate to their circumstances.

Reviving superannuated forms of pop and folk is often a form of academic excavation and it makes sense that it would appeal to educated bourgeois and aspiring bohemians.

Academic? Bob Dylan said that rock'n'roll songs "weren't serious or didn't reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings."

Eric Clapton called Muddy Waters a father figure.

I'll wager that for every fan who pursued a degree in ethnomusicology, 1000 took up the guitar. They weren't reading papers at Club 47 or The Kettle of Fish. They were singing and swapping songs and emulating their heroes. They were relating cross-culturally.

A golden age, to be sure. I have heard of Clapton and Dylan.

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The folk revival didn't start, nor did it really take hold, in the white working class, but in Cambridge, Mass. and Greenwich Village and at elite universities. To this day, it is educated whites who listen to Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, and the like, not the working class people who could most easily relate to their circumstances.

Reviving superannuated forms of pop and folk is often a form of academic excavation and it makes sense that it would appeal to educated bourgeois and aspiring bohemians.

Academic? Bob Dylan said that rock'n'roll songs "weren't serious or didn't reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings."

Eric Clapton called Muddy Waters a father figure.

I'll wager that for every fan who pursued a degree in ethnomusicology, 1000 took up the guitar. They weren't reading papers at Club 47 or The Kettle of Fish. They were singing and swapping songs and emulating their heroes. They were relating cross-culturally.

A golden age, to be sure. I have heard of Clapton and Dylan.

I don't see your point.

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This thread has covered so many aspects of this question. Thank you, all.

I wanted to post the following quote from a another thread started recently by Helene. (The thread did not show up on my "View New Content" page. I found it only by checking the "New Topics" box. Possibly others missed it as well,)

This post reviews a new documentary, First Position, about a group of 6 (+ 1) young dancers competing at the 2010 YAGP competition. It refers directly to points made in this discussion.

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Race comes up several times in the film, and no one's pulling any punches. [Joan Sebastian] Zamora says that his idol is Carlos Acosta, because he was the first black principal at the Royal Ballet, and that he probably thinks of himself as black because he's from Colombia. His skin is no darker than most of the people with whom I grew up whose ancestry was from Sicily, so I think that says a lot. For the other two times, the subject is Michaela DePrince. The first time we see her mother, an older Jewish woman with a broad NY metro accent, she is dying straps and tutu panties brown and using a marker to darken the flesh-tone center "V" of a tutu, because commercially available "flesh-toned" is for white dancers. DePrince later lists all of the attributes that black dancers are supposed to have -- ex: bad feet, no extension -- and she's living proof that these are ridiculous assertions, because if anything, she has too much extension. When her mother says that people come up to her to tell her why her daughter can't be a ballet dancer, she asks, somewhat rhetorically whether they think their comments affect her less because her daughter is adopted or whether they're really that crass. Kargmann and [editor Kate] Amend let people make the points clearly and move on, the touch of masterful editing, because you don't forget it. I'm interested to see what will be in the bonus material. (Kargmann said if she used all of the footage she'd have a four-hour, rather than a 1.5-hour movie.)

The Link to Helene's complete post is here:

http://balletalert.i...first-position/

And here's a key passage from the material Linked by imspear. Aesha Ash is interviewing dancer Ikolo Griffin: His response relates directly to several of the posts on this thread.

Fundamentally, ballet in America today rarely offers relatable programming for the African-American community, and there is not enough effort to attract new and diverse audiences. People go to the theater to see something of themselves; to see something they can relate to and feel a genuine emotional or cultural connection. You can't blame people for not being interested in something that is not emotionally, culturally, or artistically interesting to them. If ballet is to be a truly American art form, it should reflect all aspects of the American condition and thereby attract more interest and participation from all communities. The only place that I've really seen ballet inspire diverse communities was at Dance Theatre of Harlem, where despite financial setbacks there remains an active focus on building new audiences through educational programs and a repertoire that truly reflects American diversity. Another unique thing about my experience at DTH was seeing people on stage who looked like me, and knowing that young people from many cultures would see someone on stage they could relate to. It was very difficult to be a company member during DTH's struggle for financial support and eventual closing in 2004, but it heartens me to see the potential for a new company growing. Because it's not just about being the one black person in the corps, it's about being given an opportunity to succeed at higher levels and to become a principal dancer. That will truly make a difference in how the African-American community can look at ballet as an art form.

So many of these phrases relate to things we have been talking about here. For example -- "commercially available "flesh-toned" is for white dancers " -- "all of the attributes that black dancers are supposed to have -- ex: bad feet, no extension " -- "people come up to her to tell her why her daughter can't be a ballet dancer" -- "it's not just about being the one black person in the corps, it's about being given an opportunity to succeed at higher levels and to become a principal dancer."-- "the desire to see "people on stage who looked like me."

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The ballet.co magazine has recently published an interview with Cassa Pancho, the founder of the London-based company Ballet Black, which has an obvious relevance to this topic.

"When I ask parents why they come from so far away to bring their children to our school in Shepherd’s Bush, that surely there are schools closer to them, they always say “yes, there are, but we don’t want our daughter to be the only black face in the class”. There are many little black girls who would like to learn ballet, but they don’t because they think they wouldn’t fit in. If you want to leave your precious 3 year-old somewhere, you want be sure they are ok. They are taught by me and by Cira Robinson, a black dancer, so they see from a young age that things are possible."

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[ ... ] so they see from a young age that things are possible."

That, I think, is what we owe all children. "To see what is possible."

Alas, that is just the beginning. Beyond that, it's up to adults, and especially adults who have the authority to turn the belief possibility into something real. This means those who run schools and companies, and those who fund them.

How do you make the "possible" really possible? For a start: color-blind recruitment and training; constant work to educate audiences; and color-blind hiring and casting beyond what Tradition tells us is sensible.

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I'm not sure we can blame ADs for mostly casting dancers who look like them and have stereotypical ballet dancers looks if we agree that it's only when potential audience members feel they "see something of themselves," "something they can relate to and feel a genuine emotional [ . . . ] connection" to, that they'll buy tickets. My feeling is that both are natural, both should be resisted, and neither rise to the level of pernicious racism. Always casting black dancers for the "exotic" and bad guy roles . . . that's another matter.

When I go to the theater, I want to see good dancing, not "a truly American art form." It would warm all of our hearts to read that Alicia Graf had been given a principal's contract with ABT, but as an audience member I'm sorry I'll probably never see her as Terpsichore not because she's black, but because she's a beautiful dancer. I think black dancers should be encouraged in the schools and given plum roles onstage, but that's because it's clear they can dance. But if ballet companies shouldn't be casting dancers because they're white, they shouldn't be casting them because they're black either. That isn't the way to produce great art.

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But if ballet companies shouldn't be casting dancers because they're white, they shouldn't be casting them because they're black either. That isn't the way to produce great art.
Agree entirely. If anyone is proposing that, I haven't heard it on this thread.
I'm not sure we can blame ADs for mostly casting dancers who look like them and have stereotypical ballet dancers looks if we agree that it's only when potential audience members feel they "see something of themselves," "something they can relate to and feel a genuine emotional [ . . . ] connection" to, that they'll buy tickets
I have to disagree with the implication that there is some sort of one-to-one logical or ethical equivalency between the positions of conservative audiences and directors, on the one hand, and those who express criticism of an art form that systematically marginalizes them, on the other. Power brings lots of rewards. It should also bring a greater sense of responsibility for the consequences.

My approach to ethics tends to be situational. Leaders and audiences who have long benefited from an advantaged, even privileged, position have a responsibility to take seriously the criticisms of those who disagree with them, to examine their own motives, and to look more closely at the consequences (social, personal, artistic). Otherwise, why not just say ... "This is a non-issue. We are quite happy, thank you, with the status quo."

My feeling is that both are natural, both should be resisted [ ... ]
[Agree with "both should be resisted," but have some problems with "both are natural." As one who has read a great deal of conservative literature defending of slavery and segregation in the 19th and 20th century, I am wary of that concept: "natural." After all, there was a time when the "natural" condition of Africans was considered to be slavery, in the American South at least.

The history of so-called natural law is fascinating because experts in it have often been so wrong over the centuries, especially in matters having to do with race, gender, sexual orientation, medicine, crime and punishment, etc. Almost anything can feel "natural" (to some) if it goes on long enough and if rewards us in some way or other.

[ ... ]and neither rise to the level of pernicious racism.
Agree on the whole. But I have a problem with the way the term "racism" is used in our world. It's a common form of labeling. But how useful is it? "Racism" has had quite a number of quite different meanings over time since the term became fashionable 100-plus years ago.

Here's one of many possible examples. The Dictionary of Races or Peoples, issued by the U.S. Immigration Commission, was hugely influential on American thinking about racial determinism in the first decades of of the 20th century. A product of the nativist and anti-immigrant movement of the late 19th century , it argued in that "races" were absolutely and without exception determined by biology (the pseudo-science of the day) -- that there were well over 100 distinct races -- and, most strikingly, that races could be ranked as to quality.

A hundred years ago, not that long really in the history of humans, respectable people were proud to call themselves "racist" in this sense. We should not be surprised that the the Anglo-Saxon and Nordic "races" ranked at the very top of the pyramid. The various Italian "races" ranked way down as compared to other Europeans, but even here Northern Italians ranked significantly higher than the much-despised Sicilians, who were actually considered to be more "African" than anything else.

This kind of thinking was a dominant -- probably THE dominant -- popular and allegedly scientific position on "race" in America a hundred years ago, with many prominent clergy and business leaders among its advocates. The restrictive and discriminatory quota system for immigration, introduced in the late 1920s and still in effect through the 1950s, was a direct result of this kind of traditional thinking about what is "natural."

Here's a link to the book:

http://www.archive.o...age/n4/mode/2up

I'm NOT saying that there have been no changes since them. There have been huge changes in the way we think about -- and avoid thinking about -- what we still call race. But like self-protecting viruses, race-thinking has the ability to mutate. The idea that "biological race determines behavior" is no longer defended by serious people. But subtler versions remain, usually replacing the old biological determinism with a vague kind of cultural or way-of-life determinism, or one based on ethnicity. (In segments of the ballet world, however, there does appear to be a hold-over belief in racially-determined body types, if reports on this thread are accurate.)

The old "them" versus "us" world view -- with "us" on top or yearning to be there -- is alive and well on a good deal of the planet today. Indeed, the internet has revived this form of race-based thinking in an alarming way.

When I go to the theater, I want to see good dancing, not "a truly American art form."
Agreed. "Good dancing," something which transcends "race" I think, is non-negotiable. I confess I haven't a clue as to what "a truly American art form" might involve. Rodeo? :wink:

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bart, I too haven't read anyone here saying that ballet companies cast dancers because they're black, but that seems to be the implication of Aesha Ash's comments that ballet "should reflect all aspects of the American condition and thereby attract more interest and participation from all communities." I don't know where she gets that "should" from.

In regards to ADs and the status quo, would agree if I thought that ADs intended to marginalize dancers of color. What I expect they're doing instead is simply failing to broaden their artistic visions, to everyone's loss. I don't see anything racist or unethical in ADs who have always seen white bodies in certain roles envisioning other white bodies when they cast those roles, not anymore than in my preference for a reggae band from Kingston over one from Kansas because the one looks native to the art form and the other doesn't.

In regards to racial stereotypes, I'm talking about initial impulses, initial taste, not behavioral choices. Of course we most easily relate to people who are most like us, males to males and females to females, white Americans with European cultural roots to white Americans with European cultural roots and African-Americans with African cultural roots to African-Americans with African cultural roots. (Obviously the latter are nowhere near discrete camps). We begin from there and develop outward, and it's sexist and racist and pathetic not to develop outward, but when it comes to artistic taste I'm as hesitant to call someone who hasn't developed so far as to not prefer one ethnicity over another in an art form with particular ethnic roots racist as to call someone who only falls in love with people of their own race and cultural subset sexist. This is especially the case in ballet, because when it comes to bodies, eros is always a factor.

And because ballet has so few jobs in the first place, and there are no legal barriers for dancers of color, I hesitate to see casting as a social justice issue.

When I go to the theater, I want to see good dancing, not "a truly American art form."
Agreed. I'll go further and bet that almost everyone who has posted on Ballet Alert, or Ballet Talk before that, would also agree, and I'm glad of that.

Yes, but here again I'm responding to Ash's wish.

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I'm not sure we can blame ADs for mostly casting dancers who look like them and have stereotypical ballet dancers looks if we agree that it's only when potential audience members feel they "see something of themselves," "something they can relate to and feel a genuine emotional [ . . . ] connection" to, that they'll buy tickets. My feeling is that both are natural, both should be resisted, and neither rise to the level of pernicious racism. Always casting black dancers for the "exotic" and bad guy roles . . . that's another matter.

When I go to the theater, I want to see good dancing, not "a truly American art form."

bart, I too haven't read anyone here saying that ballet companies cast dancers because they're black, but that seems to be the implication of Aesha Ash's comments that ballet "should reflect all aspects of the American condition and thereby attract more interest and participation from all communities." I don't know where she gets that "should" from.

This is hardly a new idea: according to Duberman's bio, Lincoln Kirstein was pitching American-themed libretti and scenarios to Balanchine long after the choreograper had showed disinterest. However, in Kirstein's non-Balanchine-centric ventures, there were plenty of these ballets. Also American Ballet Theatre's early rep included works like "Rodeo", "Billy the Kid", and "Fall River Legend", which were, for years, their classics. I've seen works by Dance Theatre of Harlem that speak more to black experience, at least in setting, that were, by no means masterworks, but weren't any worse than the aerobics that often is presented as ballet.

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This is hardly a new idea: according to Duberman's bio, Lincoln Kirstein was pitching American-themed libretti and scenarios to Balanchine long after the choreograper had showed disinterest. However, in Kirstein's non-Balanchine-centric ventures, there were plenty of these ballets. Also American Ballet Theatre's early rep included works like "Rodeo", "Billy the Kid", and "Fall River Legend", which were, for years, their classics.

That was Kirstein's artistic vision, and I'm glad of it. But if he saw it as an ethical imperative, I'm not aware of that.

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I don't see anything racist or unethical in ADs who have always seen white bodies in certain roles envisioning other white bodies when they cast those roles, not anymore than in my preference for a reggae band from Kingston over one from Kansas because the one looks native to the art form and the other doesn't.
Is the difference due to "race" or color, or the cultural background in which the Kingston (as opposed to the Kansas) dancers developed?
In regards to racial stereotypes, I'm talking about initial impulses, initial taste, not behavioral choices.
Can these be separated? We are living in what is increasingly an age of "what I feel/ what I believe." Many people are making an immediate leap from the "impulse" or the "taste" to action. At least when it comes to highly emotional issues -- those with contentious histories. You have to intervene somewhere.
This is especially the case in ballet, because when it comes to bodies, eros is always a factor.
True. Same with slavery and segregation. Same with many things which have been addressed anyway.
And because ballet has so few jobs in the first place, and there are no legal barriers for dancers of color, I hesitate to see casting as a social justice issue.
As things go, probably not a major issue, anyway. I think of Bogie in Casablanca: "It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." But ballet is a world, however tiny. For those who live in that world, especially young dancers with aspirations, ballet can become very big on a day-by-day basis. Should the Supreme Court become involved? Probably not. Should school principals and company directors take a more active hand? I would say, Yes.

[A]ccording to Duberman's bio, Lincoln Kirstein was pitching American-themed libretti and scenarios to Balanchine long after the choreograper had showed disinterest. However, in Kirstein's non-Balanchine-centric ventures, there were plenty of these ballets. Also American Ballet Theatre's early rep included works like "Rodeo", "Billy the Kid", and "Fall River Legend", which were, for years, their classics. I've seen works by Dance Theatre of Harlem that speak more to black experience, at least in setting, that were, by no means masterworks, but weren't any worse than the aerobics that often is presented as ballet.

Thanks for reminding us of this side of American ballet. I recall works by DTH and by Ailey as well which were used material from the black experience. But more than that I remember works that used the "black" experience in a way that was immediately accessible to larager audiences and capable of moving them deeply. Dance Theater of Harlem and Ailey were, after NYCB and the Joffrey, my favorite NYC companies for just that reason. And I'm a white guy. (Maybe it helps that my family on both sides came from pretty far down the quality scale proposed by the Dictionary of Races.)

Ballet is an art form that uses the one thing we all have in common -- our bodies. This opens the door to direct and immediate appeal to all sorts of people, if its done with that goal in mind. Cuban ballet is a striking example of this. The issue is not white tutu versus sexy leotard, or European princess versus exploited slave. Or it doesn't have to be.

It's a tribute to the deeply human, I would even say spiritual, appeal of ballet that some kids from untypical backgrounds ignore outside pressures and strive to become ballet dancers. The best of these would of course rather dance Odette/Odile than third swan from the left. If the wish exists and if the student has the ability, there should be no barriers. But their are barriers. Of all sorts. This can of course be rationalized, but -- speaking for myself only -- I find it unreasonable, not to mention hurtful.

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That was Kirstein's artistic vision, and I'm glad of it. But if he saw it as an ethical imperative, I'm not aware of that.

Given the way he lived his life and used his money, I don't think he made the distinction.

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