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Dark skin as an aesthetic issue in classical ballet

194 posts in this topic

Is the difference due to "race" or color, or the cultural background in which the Kingston (as opposed to the Kansas) dancers developed?

I think it comes to pretty much the same thing: roots.

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.

I think when it comes to the arts, leaders should be encouraged to broaden their tastes, not judged and labeled for those tastes.

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.

Sorry, I don't follow this. I don't see how being attracted to one kind of body more than another compares to justifying cruel and oppressive systems. Again, I compare an AD being excited about a dancer in a role with a lover being more attracted to his beloved than any others. If the latter is not racist, why is the former? Even if you want to say that, given the country's ugly racial history, ADs and school directors have a responsibility to promote dancers of color, their taste alone is not by definition racist.

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.

I have agreed they should, but primarily for the sake of the art. For me it's not that the trials of African-American dancers don't amount to a hill of beans. It's not that they're little people. It's that "racist" is the ugliest label in the English language, and for good reason, but one label doesn't fit all, and black dancers don't need to further emotional burden of seeing their troubles as evidence of a great evil. They don't need to draw a line between a white AD and Bull Connor, and while no one is saying they should, I think that's the logic of the phrase.

My apologies for the unusual formatting. I'm having big formatting problems and I'm not sure if the problem is in my browsers or my computer.

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Agree for the most part that "racism" should be reserved for major issues, even though I haven't heard too many people comparing any ballet master to Bull Connor. Not recently, anyway. :wink:

Ordinarily I refuse to use "racism" at all, because discussion can focus on "is this racism or not?" instead of "is this right or not?" Anything that's ever been said about this problem can be discussed just as powerfully without the label, which does distract. (Off topic: I come from a neighborhood where people who consider the rules about when and how to put out the garbage are often labelled "nazi." This is invariably said with no sense of irony and with considerable passion, especially when someone has gotten a warning or a fine. So I know what hyperbole can be.)

"Race-thinking" is often quite small scale and subtle nowadays. Often petty, but also painful and pervasive. I read, see or overhear examples of this almost daily, most frequently related to disputes over education, social services, unemployment, and our current President. And I'm not even looking for it. This is the American South. Perhaps it's not the same elsewhere.

Re: my point about "eros." Sex permeates most human interactions in one way or another, and I would not have raised this point on my own. My response referred to slavery and segregation as an example of the negative connection between "eros" and "race," relevant because it involves subservient women (and I assume men as well) sexually exploited by masters of a different color. This is a huge part of American history. I did not intend suggesting that what goes on in ballet class or on the stage is comparable to those events.

As to being attracted to one type of body over another. I understand that this plays a role, as it did for Balanchine at different stages of his career. I'm conflicted about this one. On the whole, I suspect that this can become -- not always -- a short-hand or code justifying a variety of kinds of discrimination. This is especially true when someone sees color and makes the leap, often erroneous, to body characteristics that would disqualify someone from a ballet career. To quote Helene's review of the documentary First Position: " 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. "

black dancers don't need to further emotional burden of seeing their troubles as evidence of a great evil.
True. However, I wonder how many actually ARE all that troubled by this aspect of the situation. Surely, based on the dancers' own statements, what troubles them and causes pain has been the discrimination and the stereotyping.

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To use euphonisms for racism is really a form of retrospective racism. Rufus Wainwright talks about battles with low level or subclinical homophobia and you might say a kind of low level racism persists in ballet, which is very conservative and not terribly creative these days (and depends on infusions of talent from South America to keep going on – as it did from Russia in the sixties).

The ADs have dropped the ball by not jumping ahead of the audience – as Balanchine jumped ahead, giving them some sweet things and then some choreographical spinach.

One night here last year the San Francisco Ballet did a ballet called "Haffner," which is a sort of restatement of "Divertimento No 15," and during the slow movement where there are three men and one woman doing odd classical pairings and combinations, I realized halfway through that two of the men were dark skinned. It was not a statement, but the AD did not hold back on the casting.

Simon has suggested by letting everyone be who they are – he gave an example of not putting inappropriate wigs and making fools of some of the dancers – and opening up the choreography a bit, you can reinfuse the moribund form of ballet with some real life.

I always cite Michael Clark's 1980's work as example, when he was working with Leigh Bowery and The Fall, and with dancers of various body types, as the way to the future no one took. It was very open and heterogeneous, a bit nasty but all embracing. It's done on a very small scale but, in counterpoint and small groups of action, he's much closer to Balanchine than Wheeldon and Ratmansky are. And in use of costumes and bits of sets, the successor to the Ballets Russes of the mid twenties.

*

This has been a very depressing thread for me – not that I was ever a great activist, but it seems to want to go against the gains of the late sixties. Incidentally, the folk revival which was mentioned above was very white, well intentioned, but sometimes a bit much; and coy and humorless. Its focus was on groups like Holy Modal Rounders, not Robert Johnson who recorded in the thirties. The black audience at the time was listening to Smoky Robinson and the Four Tops or John Coltrance and Johnny Griffin.

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I'm sure it _can_ be, and Helene's example does sound like one clear instance.

Ordinarily I refuse to use "racism" at all, because discussion can focus on "is this racism or not?" instead of "is this right or not?" Anything that's ever been said about this problem can be discussed just as powerfully without the label, which does distract.

That's half my argument. Better to point out the problem and potential solutions than to ascribe motives.

(Off topic: I come from a neighborhood where people who consider the rules about when and how to put out the garbage are often labelled "nazi." This is invariably said with no sense of irony and with considerable passion, especially when someone has gotten a warning or a fine. So I know what hyperbole can be.)

LOL. Hyperbole is the new norm! Or maybe it always was.

Quiggin wrote:

To use euphonisms for racism is really a form of retrospective racism.
This has been a very depressing thread for me – not that I was ever a great activist, but it seems to want to go against the gains of the late sixties.

With respect, that insistence on judgment is what I find discouraging. Without taking a partisan political stand, which is outside this board's scope, if I could use a political example: Conservatives constantly ascribe liberal leanings to character flaws, and liberals ascribe conservatism to other character flaws. Neither are entirely wrong, as everyone has character flaws and character can influence political thinking. But it is terribly unfair and a failure of empathy (the root also of racism) to say that most liberals just want someone to take care of them and most conservatives are just hard-hearted. There are other obvious and I think respectable reasons for both leanings. Likewise, while racism seems to play some role in keeping ballet largely white . . . but I think I've explained my thinking probably more than enough. As in all of life, the ideal is for both sides need to work towards the other, not to presume the worst about each other.

Incidentally, the folk revival which was mentioned above was very white, well intentioned, but sometimes a bit much; and coy and humorless. Its focus was on groups like Holy Modal Rounders, not Robert Johnson who recorded in the thirties. The black audience at the time was listening to Smoky Robinson and the Four Tops or John Coltrance and Johnny Griffin.

I agree it was coy and humorless sometimes, although probably not too many people were both! However I have a 3-CD set of blues recorded at the Newport Folk Festival, 1959-1968. Acoustic blues is only one kind of folk music and didn't make up the bulk of the folk revival, but that's beside the point, as is the fact that younger blacks weren't listening to them. My point was that if race didn't keep these young whites from identifying with and idolizing and emulating the musicians, and race shouldn't keep whites from identifying with black dancers, it needn't keep blacks from identifying with white ones. It is then not true that "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." And if isn't racist for those audiences not to care about ballet because it's mostly white, which of course it isn't, then . . .

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To use euphonisms for racism is really a form of retrospective racism. Rufus Wainwright talks about battles with low level or subclinical homophobia and you might say a kind of low level racism persists in ballet, which is very conservative and not terribly creative these days (and depends on infusions of talent from South America to keep going on – as it did from Russia in the sixties).

The ADs have dropped the ball by not jumping ahead of the audience – as Balanchine jumped ahead, giving them some sweet things and then some choreographical spinach.

One night here last year the San Francisco Ballet did a ballet called "Haffner," which is a sort of restatement of "Divertimento No 15," and during the slow movement where there are three men and one woman doing odd classical pairings and combinations, I realized halfway through that two of the men were dark skinned. It was not a statement, but the AD did not hold back on the casting.

Simon has suggested by letting everyone be who they are – he gave an example of not putting inappropriate wigs and making fools of some of the dancers – and opening up the choreography a bit, you can reinfuse the moribund form of ballet with some real life.

I always cite Michael Clark's 1980's work as example, when he was working with Leigh Bowery and The Fall, and with dancers of various body types, as the way to the future no one took. It was very open and heterogeneous, a bit nasty but all embracing. It's done on a very small scale but, in counterpoint and small groups of action, he's much closer to Balanchine than Wheeldon and Ratmansky are. And in use of costumes and bits of sets, the successor to the Ballets Russes of the mid twenties.

This has been a very depressing thread for me – not that I was ever a great activist, but it seems to want to go against the gains of the late sixties. Incidentally, the folk revival which was mentioned above was very white, well intentioned, but sometimes a bit much; and coy and humorless. Its focus was on groups like Holy Modal Rounders, not Robert Johnson who recorded in the thirties. The black audience at the time was listening to Smoky Robinson and the Four Tops or John Coltrance and Johnny Griffin.

Yes, indeed.

I agree it was coy and humorless sometimes, although probably not too many people were both!

It's not necessarily a contradiction. It's all too possible to be both.

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To use euphonisms for racism is really a form of retrospective racism.
Yes. And no.

When I'm talking with people with people who are progressive, and who understand that the term has a long and complex history, I will use "racism" freely, as a shorthand signifier.

Obviously, racism has been and remains one of the most striking and pervasive aspects of American society. However, with most people, it seems to me using the label can be counterproductive -- in many, not all, situations. It distracts an awful lot of Americans from the problem itself (which should be the point) and allows people to focus instead on matters of etymology (what is and what is not "racism").

I find that circumlocutions seem to be less offensive to social conservatives and to people who are defensive on this issue. Many people will end up agreeing with you that something is bad and should be changed if you don't use a contentious label to describe it.

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Euphemisms are useful within certain contexts when it is helpful to all concerned to fog an issue, not necessarily a positive thing. There's no reason for recourse to them here and calling a thing by its proper name may be divisive but it can also be a necessary spur. As was discussed at length earlier in this long thread, racism takes a variety of forms, institutional as well as individual, and personal animus is not always involved. It is still racism.

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dirac, I do see your point. But that phrase "its proper name." Isn't that what the disagreement is often about? For example: is blowing oneself up (along with others) an act of "martyrdom" or an act of "terrorism"? Is the person who does this a hero, a villain, or someone mentally deranged. One could give many similar examples.

I'm just saying that people on all sides need to be careful of the possible consequences of the labels they use.

Before posting this I checked out the Wikipedia article on "racism" and was struck by the following.

The UN does not define "racism", however it does define "racial discrimination":

Similary, Federal civil rights legislation in the U.S. prohibits acts of racial discrimination rather than the underlying feelings and ideologies that produce such discrimination.

On this thread people posted plenty of anecdotal evidence that discrimatory actions and policies in the ballet world are definitely hurtful, sometimes hypocritical, and most likely counterproductive and avoidable. That opens the door to taking action. If I were an aspiring young black ballet dancer, or a parent of such a dancer, it's action that I would most like to see.

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I might not like it, but people can be as racist, sexist, and any other -ist that they like. It when those "ists" turn into actions, or discrimination, that matter, which is why I think the UN makes that distinction. It's not about what people think, believe, or feel, but how they act upon those thoughts, beliefs, and feelings.

As Leigh pointed out, there are measures for discrimination in the legal system.

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dirac, I do see your point. But that phrase "its proper name." Isn't that what the disagreement is often about? For example: is blowing oneself up (along with others) an act of "martyrdom" or an act of "terrorism"? Is the person who does this a hero, a villain, or someone mentally deranged. One could give many similar examples.

It's perfectly true that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. But those are politically motivated distinctions and often specious, made so that the focus is on the terror- and not the -ism. It's also true that the word racist gets thrown around a lot. That is still no reason to bar it from the discussion. In any case change in these matters doesn't necessarily occur through everyone making nice but by someone getting sued up the wazoo.

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It's also true that the word racist gets thrown around a lot. That is still no reason to bar it from the discussion.
Agreed. If I gave the impression of wishing to "bar" any form of speech, I apologize. My point has to do with questioning the usefulness of certain terms in certain kinds of discussion, not whether those terms should be disallowed.

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I didn't mean to swing the discussion so much in one direction, only wanted to point out that the softening of terms usually works to the advantage of the person who originally did not play fairly – and that splitting everything 50-50 after a 95-05 split works to the advantage of the person who benefited the most in the past. And as far as moving towards the middle, being kind and a moderate about things is concerned, look how much success Obama has had with Congress in trying to do just that.

My larger point was that ADs have to jump past the audience and lead them to new combinations of music & choreography ... no more Martins/McCartney/Stroman. No more dry as dust athletic neo-modernism. There were lots of interesting experiments in dance at Judson in the fifties based on interesting venacular "found" movements. These and early Merce & odd Balanchines & twenties Ballet Russes like Socrates (actually MMorris is just doing this) & Parade that could be build upon, and could easily accomodate a mix of body types, and still be based on classical principles, variation form, etc. Don Quixote could surely be opened up and refurbished, much as the Mozart operas have been.

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In regards to euphemisms and circumlocutions, we can acknowledge the moral seriousness of racism, but that variety of forms dirac refers to might make us question whether we're really seeing the same thing in different guises in each case, or sometimes something else. I find, after periodically discussing this issue on a number of forums over the last 10 years, and being considered liberal on conservative forums and conservative on liberal ones, that a lot of people on both left and right are dogmatic on the issue, and that the further to the either side someone is on issue, the more firmly they are, naturally, to dismiss the other person's assertions out of hand, and the less likely their assertions are to be accompanied by the sort of point by point rebuttals and serious engagement with the other's reasoning which, happily, some of us have taken time for here, and which actually shed light on each other's thinking.

Of course there is a time to for blunt talk, but cautious,softer language, even when it's euphemistic or circumlocutious, has the virtue of not coming across as moralizing, as talking down to people, which only tends to harden them in their thinking, shutting down communication. Precisely because racially based thinking need not be intended and accompanied by personal animus, using the same term in each case, as if one-size-fits all, trading as it does on the evil of actual racial animus, gives the user an unmerited rhetorical power, a shaming device, that is both logically lazy and and obfuscating. And counter-productive. Simply put, people who feel talked down to don't listen, and don't have a change of heart. Is the intention to shine a light on hurtful behavior in order to eliminate it, or to claim the moral high ground?

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On the other hand, euphemistic and circumlocutious language can be interpreted as condescending, insulting, dishonest, and/or offensive as direct language. It depends on the audience.

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Here's something we can all agree is good, something bound to lead to more professional, too-good-to-be-denied dancers of color:

Dance Institute, Centered in Harlem

By FELICIA R. LEE

For 35 years the National Dance Institute has been a gypsy, in the words of its founder, Jacques d'Amboise, the former New York City Ballet principal dancer. The institute rented and borrowed space here and there as it brought dance, performance and arts education to thousands of New York City public school students.

But its itinerant days are over, as exuberantly demonstrated on a recent fall afternoon by a group of children dancing inside a sleek, modern studio on 147th Street, between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass Boulevards. The studio is part of the institute's first permanent home, 18,000 square feet of clean lines and blond wood inside what was once Public School 90, one of the many buildings in central Harlem shuttered in the 1970s as economic decline battered the city.

On Tuesday evening there will be a ribbon cutting to celebrate the official opening of the National Dance Institute Center for Learning & the Arts,

NY Times

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There is no particular reason to believe that the people in the middle of the road are seekers of the true way while those on either side are blinded by dogma. But I agree with Quiggin that we're headed far off the reservation here.

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

why are we setting these up as opposites? Balanchine valued good dancing, for sure, but he also seems to have set out to create an American form of ballet. That's how you get Rubies and Western and Symphony in Three Movements, and Maria Tallchief and Arthur Mitchell. All great, all something beyond Caucasian/European ballet.

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Thanks, kfw, for that material on the new building for the National Dance Institute. I was thinking of this thread when I read it this morning.

I realize that this story is only tangentially connected to ballet training per se. But I have the impression that most students taking ballet are not counting on ballet careers and will choose other forms of dance if they take it up professionally.

However, once they are there all should be considered as potential ballet professionals until they (a) disqualify themselves by lack of interest or (b) are encouraged to move into other forms of dance as well as ballet. Decisions of who should or not "be a ballet dancer" should be based on objective and fair evaluation of the student's gifts and interests. In my book, this means that race," ethnicity, and color should be left out..

Personally I hope this is a step along the way to what Quiggan talks about ...

My larger point was that ADs have to jump past the audience and lead them to new combinations of music & choreography ... no more Martins/McCartney/Stroman. No more dry as dust athletic neo-modernism. There were lots of interesting experiments in dance at Judson in the fifties based on interesting venacular "found" movements. These and early Merce & odd Balanchines & twenties Ballet Russes like Socrates (actually MMorris is just doing this) & Parade that could be build upon, and could easily accomodate a mix of body types, and still be based on classical principles, variation form, etc. Don Quixote could surely be opened up and refurbished, much as the Mozart operas have been.

Here is the NY Times link to the full Dance Institute story, with photos:

http://www.nytimes.c...l?_r=1&ref=arts

CONGRATULATIONS, Jacques d'Amboise, students, and staff.

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

why are we setting these up as opposites? Balanchine valued good dancing, for sure, but he also seems to have set out to create an American form of ballet. That's how you get Rubies and Western and Symphony in Three Movements, and Maria Tallchief and Arthur Mitchell. All great, all something beyond Caucasian/European ballet.

I love those ballets and I wish I'd seen those dancers live, but Balanchine and Kirstein had an artistic and, presumably, a marketing agenda, not a political one. If a choreographer or AD today has that goal, more power to them, and lucky us. But it shouldn't be prescribed for them.

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However, once they are there all should be considered as potential ballet professionals until they (a) disqualify themselves by lack of interest or (b) are encouraged to move into other forms of dance as well as ballet. Decisions of who should or not "be a ballet dancer" should be based on objective and fair evaluation of the student's gifts and interests. In my book, this means that race," ethnicity, and color should be left out.

I think that's well put.

CONGRATULATIONS, Jacques d'Amboise, students, and staff.

Yes!

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

why are we setting these up as opposites? Balanchine valued good dancing, for sure, but he also seems to have set out to create an American form of ballet. That's how you get Rubies and Western and Symphony in Three Movements, and Maria Tallchief and Arthur Mitchell. All great, all something beyond Caucasian/European ballet.

I love those ballets and I wish I'd seen those dancers live, but Balanchine and Kirstein had an artistic and, presumably, a marketing agenda, not a political one. If a choreographer or AD today has that goal, more power to them, and lucky us. But it shouldn't be prescribed for them.

When I was in high school back in the mid-70s it was relatively easy to get friends who were not interested in dance to sample a performance of the Joffrey at City Center if Deuce Coupe or Trinity was part of the program. These friends then got to see the Ashton or Ballet Russes revival and some other Arpino work and often enjoyed these works to their surprise. The company also had Bette Midler doing radio ads which may have also helped to build interest. Ballet never became the first choice for an entertainment activity for these friends, but it became an acceptable option if plans were open to discussion. Robert Joffrey and whoever designed the marketing campaigns were brilliant.

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Decisions of who should or not "be a ballet dancer" should be based on objective and fair evaluation of the student's gifts and interests. In my book, this means that race," ethnicity, and color should be left out..

I know of no one who would dispute this (although "objective" and "fair" are tricky concepts in a process that is by definition highly subjective, with fallible human beings making individual judgments all along the line. Until that happy color-blind day, however, we are left to deal with the world as it is.

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I know of no one who would dispute this (although "objective" and "fair" are tricky concepts in a process that is by definition highly subjective, with fallible human beings making individual judgments all along the line. Until that happy color-blind day, however, we are left to deal with the world as it is.

Agreed. "Objectivity" and "fairness" are difficult to acquire in the best of circumstances and can never be achieved perfectly. However, one is more likely to do better in these areas if one makes an effort to detach oneself from one's own parochial perspective -- and from "the way its always done" -- and take an honest look at what can be done differently. That IS, I think, a fairly useful way to "deal with the world as it is."

When I was in high school back in the mid-70s it was relatively easy to get friends who were not interested in dance to sample a performance of the Joffrey at City Center if Deuce Coupe or Trinity was part of the program. These friends then got to see the Ashton or Ballet Russes revival and some other Arpino work and often enjoyed these works to their surprise.

I really identify with this, impsear. It's one of the things that made the Joffrey so exciting to attend, especially for young people.

I was more likely to reverse your friends' process: buying a ticket to see Ballets Russes works like Petrushka, or Les Patineurs, or The Green Table, but sticking around to learn something new from Deuce Coupe, my first Tharp, or Trinity, plus a number of other Arpino works I don't recall but which i enjoyed at the time. Either way, it was a rich experience. The word "serendipity" comes to mind.

I agree with kfw that this kind of programming was probably not motivated by a political agenda, except in the sense that many of us believed in those days (as I still do) that "everything is political." On the other hand, come to think of it, the star of Trinity was Geoffrey Holder, a black man. I suspect that he is a big reason I remember in great detail the look and feel of this piece (and the huge audience reaction) despite not having seen it for 30 or 40 years. :smilie_mondieu:

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

why are we setting these up as opposites? Balanchine valued good dancing, for sure, but he also seems to have set out to create an American form of ballet. That's how you get Rubies and Western and Symphony in Three Movements, and Maria Tallchief and Arthur Mitchell. All great, all something beyond Caucasian/European ballet.

I love those ballets and I wish I'd seen those dancers live, but Balanchine and Kirstein had an artistic and, presumably, a marketing agenda, not a political one. If a choreographer or AD today has that goal, more power to them, and lucky us. But it shouldn't be prescribed for them.

Why not? Unless you assume that making ballet more open/diverse automatically makes it worse, or demeans artistic integrity, why not say to AD's, and audience members, and Directors of schools, that they should think about looking outside the box? That they should consider that the art form has been and is shaped by history and white privilege (and other privileges as well but less relevant to this discussion) and that they should think about how to address that? Personally I think that looking at and addressing these issues would lead to aesthetic and marketing/audience development improvements too.

I cite Balanchine’s work, and dancers, above in part to say that ballet can move away form its European roots and be great. And he’s not the only example of this.

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I agree with kfw that this kind of programming was probably not motivated by a political agenda, except in the sense that many of us believed in those days (as I still do) that "everything is political." On the other hand, come to think of it, the star of Trinity was Geoffrey Holder, a black man. I suspect that he is a big reason I remember in great detail the look and feel of this piece (and the huge audience reaction) despite not having seen it for 30 or 40 years. :smilie_mondieu:

I remember him - Christian Holder, actually :-), the actor Geoffrey's nephew apparently. A big guy, wasn't he/isn't he? Marvelous stomping around the stage as Death in the Green Table on the first ballet program I ever saw. Going Off Topic for just a moment, here's an essay he wrote for Dance Magazine in 2006, Remembering Joffrey.

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