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


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#46 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 20 September 2011 - 05:00 AM

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.


As I recall, Nora Kimball was a soloist with ABT, Simon (someone correct me if I'm wrong here), if she was the only other, then Misty Copeland would be the second.

Having checked, yes, and here is a link to a review by Anna Kisselgoff of a performance she gave with ABT in 1985 as Myrtha in Giselle:

http://www.nytimes.c...in-giselle.html

ONE of two major points of interest in maintaining the 19th-century ballet classics in the international repertory is the opportunity for dancers to perform and interpret time-honored roles. On this count, Cynthia Harvey, Ross Stretton, Michael Owen and Nora Kimball, a new soloist in American Ballet Theater, offered some excellent and dramatic moments in ''Giselle'' on Wednesday night at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Miss Kimball was a willowy Queen of the Wilis. Highly noticeable here in the past when she appeared with the Netherlands Dance Theater, she again showed off her natural dramatic and commanding presence. This first view of her in a classical role revealed a brilliant and exciting jump, some need to smooth out transitional steps and an always interesting dancer.



#47 E Johnson

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Posted 20 September 2011 - 08:02 AM

I do not think it is accurate to say that the reason there are so few dark ballerinas is that there aren't enough students/aspiring ballerinas out there. I've been taking my (white) kids to class at the Ailey school for a long time now, and I see plenty of dark-skinned young women in pointe shoes. They donít seem to think that ballet is not "for them" or an unattainable career. Sure, lots of them donít have the body type/talent for a top ballet company, but that is true of a lot of white ballet students as well.

Also, on the body type issue -- Monique Meuniere [sp?], who was Latina but not dark, had a very curvy/ voluptuous body and nevertheless was, for a while, an NYCB principal and also danced with ABT. She admittedly had a lot of body/weight issues while dancing but it didnít stop her from advancing. The one black woman I remember in NYCB - Aesha Ash - was considerably closer to an "ideal" Balanchine body. Itís easy to generalize about black women's bodies, but itís not really helpful. If the issue is darker skinned women, there are dark skinned women of Asian and Latin descent, as well as African descent, who arenít built like the Williams sisters.

#48 dirac

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Posted 20 September 2011 - 10:21 AM

Thanks for the link to the Anderson interview and the article, Simon. Interesting.

#49 Helene

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Posted 20 September 2011 - 10:58 AM

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:

It took until the 14th minute, because in the first minute or so she let Ernie Manouse's two questions about whether she ever thought she couldn't dance ballet and why she chose ballet over other forms of dance drop like the rocks they were. I can't imagine someone starting off an interview with Sarah Mearns and asking her those questions.

Off topic, I loved her comment about competing with a fellow student: it wasn't about being the best in class, but about being better than the last thing they did. "Pas de save" has made my day.

Thank you so much for posting this, Simon. I love listening to people who like to talk, and I'd be in heaven to hear her and Jacques d'Amboise in the same discussion, wherever it went.

#50 bart

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Posted 20 September 2011 - 02:02 PM

For me the turning point came the point in the interview at which she said the key words: "It's the black thing." I was impressed by the way Anderson did NOT take the interviewer up when he opened doors, earlier on, to talking about color. When the time came to talk aobut color (HER choice of time), she was articulate and right on target. She told the story of a woman and dancer, obviously black, but held off for a while taking on the labeling: America's Only Black Principal Female Dancer.

I was also interested in her point about "the way African Americans (women) are perceived - strong, exotic, sexy -- never vulnerable and dainty."

Her most satisfying and successful partnerships: Carlos Acosta (black) and Dominic Walsh (white). It's shared strengths and attitudes, not color, that made the partnerships work.

And the story about Theme and Variations: how she began in the back row of the corps as a young dancer and remained there all season, not being "bumped up" in this ballet while having to watch apprentices being called up to dance in front of her. However ... "next time we did it I was the lead, and I've been the lead in it ever since."

In response to a question about her future plans (Outreach Associate for Houston Ballet, teaching, guesting, working with young people) she says something I've often heard from African American friends who have aimed high: "I've got to be good at it because I CAN'T be mediocre."

I like this woman! She doesn't deny the importance of race, body type, and other people's stereotyping in her life. But she will not allow them to take over. Watching the Lauren Anderson interview (having just having watched the admirable Sarah Mearns in a very different interview format), I found myself thinking: people of character, imagination, and discipline are bigger and much more interesting than the things that conspire to hold them back.

#51 Simon G

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Posted 20 September 2011 - 02:50 PM

I do not think it is accurate to say that the reason there are so few dark ballerinas is that there aren't enough students/aspiring ballerinas out there. I've been taking my (white) kids to class at the Ailey school for a long time now, and I see plenty of dark-skinned young women in pointe shoes. They donít seem to think that ballet is not "for them" or an unattainable career. Sure, lots of them donít have the body type/talent for a top ballet company, but that is true of a lot of white ballet students as well.

Also, on the body type issue -- Monique Meuniere [sp?], who was Latina but not dark, had a very curvy/ voluptuous body and nevertheless was, for a while, an NYCB principal and also danced with ABT. She admittedly had a lot of body/weight issues while dancing but it didnít stop her from advancing. The one black woman I remember in NYCB - Aesha Ash - was considerably closer to an "ideal" Balanchine body. Itís easy to generalize about black women's bodies, but itís not really helpful. If the issue is darker skinned women, there are dark skinned women of Asian and Latin descent, as well as African descent, who arenít built like the Williams sisters.



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

http://theblackswand...s.blogspot.com/

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

http://www.performin...diversity/id=39

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

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

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

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

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

#52 Tapfan

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Posted 20 September 2011 - 03:53 PM

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

http://www.nytimes.c...?pagewanted=all

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


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

#53 bart

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Posted 20 September 2011 - 04:10 PM

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

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

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

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

#54 Helene

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Posted 20 September 2011 - 04:13 PM

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

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


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

Word.

#55 Helene

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Posted 20 September 2011 - 04:56 PM

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

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

http://www.pilatesm....ur-instructors/

#56 vipa

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Posted 20 September 2011 - 06:05 PM

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

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

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

#57 dirac

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Posted 21 September 2011 - 11:47 AM

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


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

#58 Tapfan

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Posted 21 September 2011 - 04:51 PM

I'd never heard of Debra Austin.

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

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

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

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

Shame on me.

#59 momof3darlings

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Posted 21 September 2011 - 04:57 PM

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

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

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

#60 kfw

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Posted 21 September 2011 - 05:41 PM

I'd never heard of Debra Austin.

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

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

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

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

Shame on me.

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


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