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


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#16 Tapfan

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Posted 18 September 2011 - 06:55 PM

Michaela DePrince is no more muscular than say, Sara Mearns. Michaela is a size zero.

#17 Helene

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Posted 18 September 2011 - 11:06 PM


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



So you think that this particular aesthetic taste is racist?

I'm a bit confused by this conclusion, since there haven't been many muscular woman of any race who've risen through the ballet ranks, at least of what are considered the world-leading companies. I wonder if Karin von Aroldingen would have gone anywhere under Peter Martins or any other AD apart from Balanchine, who adored her. I watched any number of big, lush movers at NYCB top out at senior corps, or, if they were very lucky, soloist. They'd get a stab at Hippolyta, and they be great in the role, but that was pretty much it.

NYCB had any number of Lifetime Achievement Promotions to Principal, but Arlene Croce suggested in a "New Yorker" review that Nichol Hlinka, who was hardly big and muscular, got her promotion because she lost those last extra pounds. To my eyes, it meant her muscles became more elongated, because she didn't look like she had any place else from which to lose the weight.

Watching both the Kirov and Mariinsky corps over the last couple of years, I was astounded at how uniformly thin the calves of the corps women were at the Kirov, and at the Bolshoi, the exceptions seemed to be the tallest dancers in the corps, who also looked older than the wispy women.

The only things I've seen of Michaela DePrince are on YouTube, and she looks like two different dancers in the clips, both posted in 2009:
YAGP Modern Piece
Gamzatti Variation, rock for dance education

If all I saw her in was the modern piece, and that video was indicative of her body type -- as thin as the women at the Russian companies and POB -- I wouldn't look twice: she does little but 180 extensions to the side and over 180 extensions in her jumps, with her back leg bent. I assume from the description that her physique is closer to the video where she did in the classical variation, where she had a softer sense of style and phrasing, although she overdid it with the extensions there as well, in my opinion. That was a very different kettle of fish.

Mel Tomlinson may have made it to Principal, but when you look at his roles, they were the Arthur Mitchell roles, Death, Dark Angel, Pluto. Not the romantic roles or the few Princes.

#18 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 18 September 2011 - 11:14 PM

[BNC] was the most integrated I've seen, before or since. At least half the corps, both men and women, had very dark skin.


Perhaps among the Corps. Soloists situation has been quite different...historically.

http://balletalert.i...__1#entry253917

#19 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 01:06 AM

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.



#20 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 01:28 AM

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

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

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


Not that this is a great number, but at Ballet Theatre I recall one black corps member (Anne Benna-Sims), two female soloists (Misty Copeland and Nora Kimball) and one male soloist (Keith Lee) in the past. And for some reason I keep thinking Sara Yarborough danced with them briefly. Anyone remember?

#21 Mel Johnson

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 01:57 AM

I don't think that Sara danced with ABT, but she sure danced with Joffrey! Also, Rachel Ganteaume was a Joffrey dancer.

#22 Simon G

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 02:29 AM

Michaela DePrince is no more muscular than say, Sara Mearns. Michaela is a size zero.



With all due respect both to you and DePrince, DePrince is no Sara Mearns. I agree with Helen that she has some very bad habits and is stuck at the moment in that adolescent phase of thinking ballet is all about sky high extensions, often at the expense of everything else. She's a very young dancer who needs to develop her technique especially the use of her upper body and arms.

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

DePrince isn't the slightest bit overweight, but she has extremely muscular arms, shoulders far more muscular than Mearns and again comparison is invidious they are totally different girls/women, dancers. She also has breasts, an arse her body is developing along the lines of many an African American athlete - if you look at images of her next to her white colleagues she has a very very different musculature. Instead of insisting there is no difference as if difference is somehow a bad thing, it's best to stop ignoring the elephant in the room and actively discuss the difference in black and caucasian musculatures.

It's like a "benovlent" form of racism in insisting there's no difference, instead of embracing the difference as being equally worthy and beautiful and a valid aesthetic which deserves to be acknowledged on its own terms.

The issue here is about whether or not ballet as it is right now is ready to embrace admission of a diverse range of body types which would allow a black female musculature to be included en masse within the corps de ballet, which is an entity about conformity and not standing out.

This weeding out of disparate body types takes place throughout dance schools at every level especially in girls approaching their final growth spurt. I knew one girl at Royal Ballet School who at 16 it seemed overnight developed a massive bust, which given how thin she was made her look very Betty Page, she was thrown out of the school.

I also don't think you can use New York City Ballet as guide line or example for this argument as the ethos, repertory and history of that company is absolutely unique and Balanchine did indeed seem to embrace non conformity - if you look at Gloria Govrin in her heyday, that woman was "big".

Also when I say institutionalised racism I'm not implying a concerted, malicious conspiracy fuelled by hate - I'm talking about looking at the facts as is represented by the make up of these institutions. Many black people are turned off of ballet simply because they see it and there's nothing there they feel is relevant or represents them onstage.

I don't think there's a concerted malicious conspiracy, that's not what I'm saying, however as banal as that argument would be, it's equally banal to surmise that the reason no black dance artist has risen to the top of ballet is because no black child ever presented itself for audition at a school with the potential or talent to go all the way.

I also don't agree with the blame game of "it's the school's fault" "it's the ADs fault" "it's the audiences fault" etc Rather I think the issue here is to just look at it pragmatically as the fact of what it is, and not just ask should it change, but does it want to change and do hundreds of black kids really want to put themselves through the rigours of training for an art which doesn't appear to really want to employ them. It'll take generations to make any kind of concerted difference.

Another "slight" issue I have is saying why should a black dancer settle for modern or contemporary ballet if she has the "chops" for classical ballet. Modern & contemporary forms of ballet are as intense, valid and worthy art forms as a three act classical work. Are art forms in their own right and deserve to be treated and appreciated for their own merits as what they are without being compared as poor cousins of dance for dancers who couldn't cut it in classical ballet.

Also given the larger numbers of black men and women in conteporary, modern and jazz surely this can be seen as a positive thing that they've embraced a dance culture and dance form which is relevant to them, and speaks to them culturally and intellctually.

#23 kfw

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 04:03 AM

It's like a "benovlent" form of racism in insisting there's no difference, instead of embracing the difference as being equally worthy and beautiful and a valid aesthetic which deserves to be acknowledged on its own terms.


I think that's a bit like saying that it's a benevolent form of racism for white people to be chiefly attracted to whites, and black people chiefly to be attracted to blacks. Taste and aesthetics play a factor there as well. But p
reference isn't even a "benign" form of prejudice unless it's accompanied by actual dislike of what's not preferred. African-American bodies are as beautiful as any other bodies, but ballet has evolved to a point where most companies (Arthur Mitchell's unfortunately dormant company is the obvious exception) have an aesthetic that prefers small and medium busts and bums to large ones. We can lament this or not. But I think it deserves another word than "racism," which inevitably has an ugly tinge.

Also when I say institutionalised racism I'm not implying a concerted, malicious conspiracy fuelled by hate - I'm talking about looking at the facts as is represented by the make up of these institutions.


I understand that. I understand that you're not calling particular people malicious and hateful. But there can be no institutional racism without racist people in them, and intentionally or unintentionally, the word "racist" trades on very ugly and vicious stereotypes. "Benign" racism never really sounds benign - in my opinion. :)

#24 Simon G

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 04:50 AM

I think that's a bit like saying that it's a benevolent form of racism for white people to be chiefly attracted to whites, and black people chiefly to be attracted to blacks. Taste and aesthetics play a factor there as well. But p[/font][font="Times New Roman"]reference isn't even a "benign" form of prejudice unless it's accompanied by actual dislike of what's not preferred. [/font][font="Times New Roman"]African-American bodies are as beautiful as any other bodies, but ballet has evolved to a point where most companies (Arthur Mitchell's unfortunately dormant company is the obvious exception) [/font][font="Times New Roman"]have an aesthetic that prefers small and medium busts and bums to large ones. [/font][font="Times New Roman"]We can lament this or not. But I think it deserves another word than "[/font][font="Times New Roman"]racism," which inevitably has an ugly tinge. [/font] [font="Times New Roman"]

[font="Times New Roman"]I understand that. I understand that you're not calling particular people malicious and hateful. [/font][font="Times New Roman"]But there can be no institutional racism without racist people in them, and intentionally or unintentionally, the word "racist" trades on very ugly and vicious stereotypes. "Benign" racism never really sounds benign - in my opinion. :)[/font]



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

If we're talking about the "great" companies, who between them have a history of some 2000 years plus, with tens of thousands of dancers passing through their institutions over the years, to only be able to count the number of black dancers who've danced for those companies on two hands at best, whether by accident, design the ethos presented is one of institutionalised racism.

Add to that with the notale exception of Arthur Mitchell none of those dancers appeared in the rosters till the last 15 years of the 20th century. The thing about Kimbell too is that even though she danced soloist roles I believe she wasn't officially a soloist, it wasn't until 2007 that a black woman was officially recognised with status above corps in any of those companies.

The issue of body size & shape isn't racist but of course the unique qualities and shape of black female bodies becomes an issue as it is the antithesis of the enduring vogue for female ballet dancers today. But then judged by the criteria the vast majority of the greatest ballerinas of all time wouldn't even get past the selection process of most companies and schools. One reason why I love Misty Copeland is that she hasn't had a breast reduction operation - she is wonderfully, unapologetically herself.

And also it's not just ballet, it's a two way street. Were I the parent of a talented black budding ballerina I would be extremely wary of allowing her to pursue her goals given the anecdotal and seemingly empirical evidence that there's no place for her or her talents. She or he could be president, secretary of State, Minister for Defence, a media mogul, a movie star, a doctor, a lawyer any of those professions where African Americans have smashed those barriers and glass ceiling - who in their right mind would choose for their child a profession which either intentionally or not, has no place for them?

#25 bart

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 05:10 AM


[BNC] was the most integrated I've seen, before or since. At least half the corps, both men and women, had very dark skin.


Perhaps among the Corps. Soloists situation has been quite different...historically.

http://balletalert.i...__1#entry253917

Thanks for that correction, Cristian.

#26 kfw

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 05:43 AM

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


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

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


then where is the institutionalized racism?

#27 Simon G

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 06:05 AM

then where is the institutionalized racism?




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#28 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 06:08 AM

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

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

#29 bart

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 06:16 AM

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

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

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

#30 kfw

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 06:37 AM

Take it from the point of view of a black woman. You're told, the very fact of what you are makes you unemployable within our institution.
Whether or not there's transparency is immaterial. And we're not talking "fat" "big boned" or any of those criteria which are used against white women, we're talking athletic, with breasts, a bottom that is quite plainly there. A whole ethnic group is excluded because of a "current" aesthetic which they are told will not change - but it can change, that's the issue.


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

The issue of body size & shape isn't racist


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

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

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

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


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