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


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#121 kfw

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Posted 09 October 2011 - 09:03 AM

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

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

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

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

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

Agreed. I'll go further and bet that almost everyone who has posted on Ballet Alert, or Ballet Talk before that, would also agree, and I'm glad of that.

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

#122 Helene

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Posted 09 October 2011 - 09:23 AM

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

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



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


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

#123 kfw

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Posted 09 October 2011 - 09:52 AM

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

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

#124 bart

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Posted 09 October 2011 - 10:03 AM

I don't see anything racist or unethical in ADs who have always seen white bodies in certain roles envisioning other white bodies when they cast those roles, not anymore than in my preference for a reggae band from Kingston over one from Kansas because the one looks native to the art form and the other doesn't.

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

In regards to racial stereotypes, I'm talking about initial impulses, initial taste, not behavioral choices.

Can these be separated? We are living in what is increasingly an age of "what I feel/ what I believe." Many people are making an immediate leap from the "impulse" or the "taste" to action. At least when it comes to highly emotional issues -- those with contentious histories. You have to intervene somewhere.

This is especially the case in ballet, because when it comes to bodies, eros is always a factor.

True. Same with slavery and segregation. Same with many things which have been addressed anyway.

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

As things go, probably not a major issue, anyway. I think of Bogie in Casablanca: "It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." But ballet is a world, however tiny. For those who live in that world, especially young dancers with aspirations, ballet can become very big on a day-by-day basis. Should the Supreme Court become involved? Probably not. Should school principals and company directors take a more active hand? I would say, Yes.

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

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

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

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

#125 Helene

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Posted 09 October 2011 - 10:27 AM

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

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

#126 kfw

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Posted 09 October 2011 - 10:39 AM

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.

#127 bart

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Posted 09 October 2011 - 11:17 AM

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.

#128 Quiggin

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Posted 09 October 2011 - 11:46 AM

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.

#129 kfw

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Posted 09 October 2011 - 05:47 PM

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 . . .




#130 dirac

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Posted 09 October 2011 - 08:44 PM

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.

#131 bart

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Posted 10 October 2011 - 07:00 AM

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.

#132 dirac

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Posted 10 October 2011 - 11:35 AM

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.

#133 bart

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Posted 10 October 2011 - 12:11 PM

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.

#134 Helene

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Posted 10 October 2011 - 12:38 PM

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.

#135 dirac

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Posted 10 October 2011 - 03:19 PM

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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