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


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#31 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 06:46 AM

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

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

But haven't we been on this train already?

#32 Simon G

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 06:50 AM

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


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


The issue of body size & shape isn't racist
I agree that discriminating in regards to body shape and size is not by definition racist.


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

#33 California

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 06:51 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.


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

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

#34 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 06:53 AM

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

#35 kfw

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 07:08 AM

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

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

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

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

#36 Simon G

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 07:25 AM

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


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

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

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


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

#37 Helene

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 08:12 AM

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

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

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

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

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


But haven't we been on this train already?

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

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

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

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

#38 puppytreats

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 11:30 AM

.

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


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


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

#39 puppytreats

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 11:33 AM

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


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

#40 puppytreats

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 11:41 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.


Does this have anything to do with representations of opposition?

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

#41 dirac

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 11:42 AM

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


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

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


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

#42 Helene

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 01:02 PM

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

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

#43 vipa

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 05:16 PM

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

#44 lmspear

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Posted 19 September 2011 - 07:37 PM

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

#45 Simon G

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Posted 20 September 2011 - 01:55 AM

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



Hi Vipa

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

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

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

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

http://www.columbia....y/webrhone.html

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

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cccWTzNXvUI


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