Helene

Beyond Ballet: A Town Hall on the State of Ballet and Diversity (Seattle)

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I just received the press release (emphasis mine):

 

PACIFIC NORTHWEST BALLET

presents

BEYOND BALLET

A Town Hall on the State of Ballet and Diversity

 

7:00 pm, Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Phelps Center

301 Mercer Street at Seattle Center

Seattle, WA 98109

 

SEATTLE, WA – On Wednesday, May 3, 2017, Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) will host BEYOND BALLET, a Town Hall-style conversation which will investigate aesthetics, diversity, equity, and the efforts to redesign arts institutions. PNB, Spectrum Dance Theater, and Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet (MOBB) invite attendees to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences in a Town Hall format. Ballet—its aesthetics, lack of diversity and equity—is the springboard from which we begin to examine these issues in the theater and arts at large. This forum will be an open study group for organizations participating in the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture Racial Equity Learning Cohorts, part of the Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI), the City’s commitment to eliminate racial disparities and achieve racial equity in Seattle.

 

BEYOND BALLET will take place at 7:00 pm on Wednesday, May 3, 2017 at PNB’s Phelps Center, 301 Mercer Street at Seattle Center. This is a free event, however space is limited and registration is required at PNB.org/BeyondBallet.

 

Panelists for BEYOND BALLET include Peter Boal, Artistic Director of PNB; Donald Byrd, Artistic Director of Spectrum Dance Theater; Erica Edwards, Director of Community Engagement at The Joffrey Ballet; Kiyon Gaines, former PNB soloist and PNB School faculty member; and Andrea Long-Naidu, ballet instructor for Dance Theatre of Harlem and CityDance Conservatory. The evening will be moderated by Theresa Ruth Howard, founder and curator of MOBB.

 

While the format of the program will allow for diverging conversations, perspectives and stories from the field, planned topics for the evening include:

·         The History of Blacks in Ballet: A Legacy as Long as America

·         The Aesthetics of Ballet: What do Classicism and Tradition “Look” Like?

·         Teachers and Administrators of Color: Why They Are an Essential Component of Diversification

                     

BEYOND BALLET is an important part of PNB’s ongoing work in the area of racial equity and inclusion. This community event is made possible with generous support from Bank of America.

 

TICKET INFORMATION

This is a free event, however seating is limited and subject to availability: Advance registration is required at PNB.org/BeyondBallet.

 

ABOUT THE PANELISTS

(For complete bios, visit PNB.org/BeyondBallet.)

 

Theresa Ruth Howard (moderator) began her professional dance career with the Philadelphia Civic Ballet Company at the age of twelve. Later she joined the Dance Theatre of Harlem where she had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout the United States, Europe and Africa. In 2004 she became a founding member of Armitage Gone! Dance, and was a guest artist with Complexions Contemporary Ballet’s 10th Anniversary season. Ms. Howard has been a member of the faculty at the Ailey School for over 18 years. As a writer, she has contributed to Pointe andDance magazines, among others. Her articles about body image prompted her to create mybodymyimage.com, which endeavors to help build positive body image through respect, acceptance, and appreciation. Ms. Howard launched MoBBallet.org, the digital archive for Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet. One of MOBB’s first projects was to help organize and facilitate the first-ever audition for Black Female Ballet dancers for major ballet organizations at the 2015 International Association of Blacks in Dance conference.

                     

Peter Boal was raised in Bedford, New York. At the age of nine, he began studying ballet at the School of American Ballet, the official school of New York City Ballet. Mr. Boal became a member of NYCB’s corps de ballet in 1983 and became a principal dancer in 1989. In 2005, he retired from NYCB after a 22-year career with the company. Mr. Boal was also a full-time faculty member at the School of American Ballet from 1997 to 2005. In 2003, he founded Peter Boal and Company, a critically-acclaimed chamber ensemble. In 1996 Mr. Boal received the Dance Magazine Award, and in 2000 he received a New York Dance and Performance Award (Bessie) for his performance in Molissa Fenley’s State of Darkness. In 2005, upon his retirement from NYCB, Mr. Boal became Artistic Director of Pacific Northwest Ballet and Director of PNB School.

 

Donald Byrd‘s career has been long and complex and his choreographic and theatrical interests are broad. The New York Times describes him as “a choreographer with multiple personalities…an unabashed eclectic.” Mr. Byrd, a Tony Award-nominated (The Color Purple) and Bessie Award-winning (The Minstrel Show) choreographer, became Artistic Director of Spectrum Dance Theater in 2002. From 1978 to 2002, he was Artistic Director of Donald Byrd/The Group, a critically-acclaimed contemporary dance company - founded in Los Angeles and later based in New York - that toured extensively, both nationally and internationally. He has created over 100 dance works for his own groups as well as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadelphia Dance Company (Philadanco), PNB, The Joffrey Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Oregon Ballet Theatre, and many others. His non-dance company work has been with some of the most prestigious theater and opera companies in the US, including New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, San Francisco Opera, New York City Opera, and more.

 

Erica Lynette Edwards joined The Joffrey Ballet after being one of the first dancers in the Arpino Apprentice program in 2000. She trained at the Salt Creek Ballet School where she performed major roles in their pre-professional ballet company. Ms. Edwards believes that it is important to share the experience of dance with others, and she does this by teaching at various community, school, and outreach programs throughout Chicagoland. In 2001, the Chicago Sun-Timesspotlighted her as a “Black History Maker,” and in 2002 she was The Joffrey’s nominee for the Princess Grace Foundation Award. In 2003, Ebony magazine featured Ms. Edwards as a Young Leader of the Future in the Arts. She retired in 2014 after a 15-year career as a ballerina and is now The Joffrey’s Director of Community Engagement: She is responsible for managing all Joffrey arts education programs through Chicago Public Schools and the community to increase access, awareness, and appreciation for the art of dance.

 

Kiyon Gaines is from Baltimore, Maryland. He trained at Baltimore School of the Arts, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, the School of American Ballet, and Pacific Northwest Ballet School. He joined PNB as a member of the corps de ballet in 2001 and was promoted to soloist in 2012. He retired in 2015 and currently teaches on the faculty of PNB School, works with PNB’s DanceChance program to bring classical dance training to the students of Seattle Public Schools, and has been program manager of PNB’s annual NEXT STEP choreographers’ showcase since 2012. Mr. Gaines is also an established choreographer: Since creating his first work in 2001, he has made ballets for PNB, PNB School, New York Choreographic Institute, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, Cornish College of the Arts, and Spectrum Dance Theater. Mr. Gaines has been resident choreographer at Ballet Arkansas since 2015.

 

Andrea Long-Naidu was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, trained with Pennsylvania Ballet School, the American Ballet Theatre School, and School of American Ballet, and began her career dancing with New York City Ballet where she remained for over eight years before joining Dance Theater of Harlem. She has received critical acclaim dancing the works of George Balanchine, Robert Garland, Dwight Rhoden, Jerome Robbins, and others. Internationally renowned following thirteen years as a principal dancer at DTH, she continues to inspire in an arduous profession. She has danced as a guest artist with many regional ballet companies, and is considered an exemplary and demanding ballet instructor. Ms. Long-Naidu sees a growing respect for the art of ballet in popular culture and joins in encouraging such groups as Aesha Ash’s The Swan Dreams Project, with a goal to increase minority participation in ballet. She is married to Laveen Naidu, former Executive Director of DTH, and now Artistic Director of BalletNova. The couple continue to support the development of Dance Theatre of Harlem.

 

For complete bios, visit PNB.org/BeyondBallet.

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William Robin wrote an article in "The New Yorker" last week about the significance of Du Yun's Pulitzer (for her opera "Angel's Bone") for women in classical music.  Robin wrote, 

 

Quote

The belief that women lack compositional ability—perpetuated across the centuries, despite the substantial contributions made by composers from Hildegard von Bingen and Barbara Strozzi to Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel—was most pointedly summed up by the conductor Thomas Beecham, who said, in the early nineteen-forties, “There are no women composers, never have been and possibly never will be.”

 

and later, 

Quote

Such patrician speculations—what the musicologist Erin K. Maher recently described, in a tweet, as the “ ‘I’d support women composers if only they existed and were good’ card”—have not disappeared today, even if they are seldom uttered in public.

 

These sentiments are frighteningly and depressingly familiar in the discussions of diversity in ballet.

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On 4/18/2017 at 6:26 PM, Helene said:

These sentiments are frighteningly and depressingly familiar in the discussions of diversity in ballet.

 

Yup.

 

I'll be at the panel, and am hoping for a good discussion of the topic, but don't expect miracles.

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It's good to see ballet people other than Virginia Johnson being asked to speak about lack of diversity in the art form. While Johnson is certainly knowledgeable, she's hardly the only person of color with worthwhile opinions on the matter. 

 

Besides, the fact that she's practically the only black woman in classical dance that anyone knows about other than the heavily marketed  Misty Copeland, means Virginia's comments are frequently used not only as proof of the bias against black classical dancers, but also as an excuse for the frequently whiter than white status quo.

 

After all,  she once remarked that some of the students showing up at DTH schools hadn't received the training they deserved. That's been taken by some to mean that NO black dancers ANYWHERE - especially females - are properly trained.   Therefore,  their near non-existent numbers at companies across the country is justified. After all, Virginia Johnson had said she'd encountered insufficiently trained dancers.  Therefore, it must be true that no black female dancers are up to snuff because surely, Virginia knows them all. 

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On 4/24/2017 at 1:04 AM, Tapfan said:

 After all,  she once remarked that some of the students showing up at DTH schools hadn't received the training they deserved. That's been taken by some to mean that NO black dancers ANYWHERE - especially females - are properly trained.   Therefore,  their near non-existent numbers at companies across the country is justified. After all, Virginia Johnson had said she'd encountered insufficiently trained dancers.  Therefore, it must be true that no black female dancers are up to snuff because surely, Virginia knows them all. 

 

If some people were willing to twist Johnson's words and misinterpret them, regardless of their motivations, why would some people not twist and misinterpret a half dozen people's words?

 

The phenomenon of having a single, renowned go-to person to speak as the expert on a complex issue isn't new.  It has the advantage of discipline and authority, but it also causes dissatisfaction and resentment among people who disagree, but are expected to stay on message and not show public dissension, and it's less work for those asking.

 

I remember Terri Gross' interview with Larry Wilmore after he hosted Obama's last White House Correspondents Dinner, which he closed by calling Obama his "nigga."  Al Sharpton was among those who criticized him for it.  Gross asked him, "But what about the elders?" as if there was some committee of Elders, and no one else could speak if it would upset them.  He rightly told her that they could have their opinions and that he could speak his truth (paraphrase).

 

There's nothing wrong with what Johnson has said, and, if anything, misinterpreting her words shows how threatening they were to a narrative, but that doesn't mean there aren't other voices, some of whom may disagree.

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2 hours ago, Helene said:

There's nothing wrong with what Johnson has said, and, if anything, misinterpreting her words shows how threatening they were to a narrative, but that doesn't mean there aren't other voices, some of whom may disagree.

 

And this was part of the point of Howard's project, to illuminate how many African Americans have already been involved in the art form.  I've liked what I've seen of Copeland's performing so far, and admire her personal story, but she is far from the first black woman to work in the field.  I'm thrilled that she made principal, but I'm wondering how many others there might have been before her if we'd been a smarter people.

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I just got an email invite to the panel on a blind mailing list from PNB, and although the registration form still has "Organization" listed as a mandatory registration field -- I wrote "Audience" -- it looks like it's not limited to members of the organizations referenced in the press release.

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I think the registration form was created by the city, and so conforms to their standard systems.  Everyone is affiliated somewhere. Except when they're not...

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I've been thinking about a lot of things that were discussed by the panel on Wednesday night.

 

When some of the panelists talked about how by being the only black or brown face as students and young corps members, they had no one to show them how to do their makeup, for example.  I get the impression, and it might not be a fair one, that there's an insularity in ballet, in which if something isn't passed down, it's not important or relevant.

 

If ballet was like the best figure skating, in which being behind means your students get passed by and lose, a teacher recognizing what he or she didn't know would be as important as what he or she did know, which is why in skating, and maybe competition dance?, you see the best coaches working with teams of experts and/or sending their kids to other coaches who have expertise in what they don't.  That vigilance in looking for what the students need because it's outside the teachers' and peers' expertise and experience and finding people who do, until there are enough peers and teachers of color.  And by enough peers, I mean enough peers for those who want to and can be mentors to do so, chosen by the same personal interests and simpatico that dancers who are in the majority take as a given.

 

 

Edited to Add:. I don't mean to discount the teachers who do go to incredible lengths to help their students to make it, investing their (unpaid) time, paying for shoes, entry fees, costumes, travel, extra coaching, and everything else that goes into enabling their student, making introductions and using their Network to get outside coaching, and/or housing them.  Anecdotally, this story is told more in smaller studios.

 

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Film director Darren Aronofsky  of "Black Swan" infamy, said that during the research and pre-production phases  for that film, he found the people in the ballet establishment to be very insular.  Of course, we should take what he says with grain of salt. He may have simply been disappointed that he and his Hollywood gang wasn't met with what he felt was a suitable amount of enthusiasm for the fact that he was spotlighting their "fringe" art form.

 

But then, too many gatekeepers for the classical performing arts  are  pretentious and off-putting towards laymen when extolling the virtues of their art forms. We plebs get it.  We know  know that opera, Shakespeare, classical music and ballet are difficult arts to master and perform at the highest level.  Just be careful not to put people off with snobbery before they've had a chance to sample your art. 

 

The culture at too many ballet companies, just doesn't seem to value what color and gender diversity in dancing, choreography and administrative talent might bring to their organizations. People in positions of power keep saying that they don't want to live in museums while being reluctant to change anything.

 

And those statements by the powers that be about being willing to hire more  non-white female dancers and women choreographers if only they were out there,  is the equivalence of saying "Some of my best friends are black."

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Sincere thanks for this link. It's so great to hear from someone from the black ballet community other than Arthur Mitchell or Virginia Johnson. God bless those two. They're great people and very knowledgeable.   But just as Misty isn't the only or even best black female dancer of note, Arthur and Virginia aren't the only knowledgeable and important black former dancers.

 

Ms. Howard really hit the nail on the head with her anecdote about people from San Francisco Ballet being surprised to see well-trained black students at Sandra Fortune-Green's dance school. As Theresa said, there have ALWAYS been well-trained black dancers out there. Even during the days of unabashed segregation when it was darned near impossible to find a school that would take black youngsters, some kids still defied the odds and managed to become good ballet dancers.  

 

But too many people in positions of power truly believe that good black ballet dancers are more rare than unicorns and that the few that are good, are always male. And since Virginia has said that she has encountered SOME black dancers who didn't get the training they deserved, well, that just fortifies the prejudices of people who believe that NO black female dancers ANYWHERE are good enough. 

 

Yet as Atlanta-based ballet teacher and choreographer Angela Harris says, when she choreographs  a piece, she never seems to have problem finding excellent dancers of all races to cast. And yes, the word on the street is that her standards are quite high.

 

I think the myth of the excellent, black, classical ballerina being non-existent, became the conventional wisdom. It's understandable. AD's have so much on their plates that racial diversity just wasn't a priority.  But whatever you think of her ability - and she HAS suffered through major injuries that required a rod in her leg that robbed her of much of her jumping and turning ability   -  Misty has proved that black audiences are thirsty for representation on the stage. To those people who are so annoyed that Misty is better known than their own favorite dancers who they feel are more deserving, well, Misty's not the first person in the classical arts who learned how to use the press to reach stardom. There may be more deserving dancers, heck there are probably other BLACK women ballerinas who are more deserving, but I don't see anyone crying about the injustice to them, probably  because nobody has ever heard of them. 

 

And if she does nothing else, Misty can stay on message as well as Bernie Sanders does when he's talking about the 1%.  Misty is tireless about promoting diversity. Unfortunately, the need to do so remains. . 

 

One more thing. I'm impressed as hell and amused by the black female students from SAB that Ms. Howard interviewed. Not only are they talented, but based on previous quotes from some of them in print interviews, they are really shrewd. They have learned all too well the importance of code-switching, a type of behavior  that middle and upper class black folks learn in order to succeed in predominately white environments. It boils down to "Don't make white people uncomfortable." 

 

When speaking about their instructors at SAB in a NY Times article, some of the young ladies went out of their way to say to the reporter how color blind their teachers are,  how they don't feel bias in the least and how they saw no barriers to how far they could climb through hard work and perseverance. Wow, how wonderful, a ballet school that is an egalitarian utopia!   Yet in an all black girl setting, they felt free to talk about the slights both small (snotty parents wondering what they are doing at a ballet school) and large(no black teachers) that they constantly experience in a setting where black women have always been rare.   

 

That's why role models like Andrea Long are important. Come on SAB. Prove those folks wrong who bad-mouth you about your insularity. Hire a black ballet teacher. 

 

 

 

 

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Posted (edited)

Here's link to an interesting interview with the sublime Debra Austin, former principle dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet. She has really lived the issue of diversity in ballet. I'm also taken with the remarks from Sherry Holmes who remarks that change as far as diversity is concerned, seems to be coming about because audiences are demanding it.

 

http://wunc.org/post/black-ballerina

Edited by Tapfan

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7 minutes ago, Tapfan said:

Here's link to an interesting interview with the sublime Debra Austin, former principle dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet. She has really lived the issue of diversity in ballet. I'm also taken with the remarks from Sherry Holmes who remarks that change as far as diversity is concerned, seems to be coming about because audiences are demanding it.

 

http://wunc.org/post/black-ballerina

Thanks for posting.  Debra Austin was one of my favorite dancers in NY and Philly-we all loved her performances.  Another great dancer I just posted about was Judy Tyrus.

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Oh, I loved her the one time I saw her dance, when PA Ballet brought "La Sylphide" and "Bolero" to Brooklyn.

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2 hours ago, maps said:

... Another great dancer I just posted about was Judy Tyrus.

 

Such a wonderful presence on stage!

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22 hours ago, Tapfan said:

Judy Tyrus in Creole Giselle.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3kFFzdhV5A

 

 

 

The Northwest African American Museum hosted an exhibit about DTH last year, including a tape loop of this production -- I hadn't seen it in several years, and it was such a pleasure to revisit it!

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Posted (edited)

I've got to give credit where credit is due. I've been highly critical of NYCB in the past, but they seem to be  trying hard to become a more diverse organization. Good on them. As Delores Brown says in the documentary film Black Ballerina, it's about time that American ballet companies started to look like America, especially in a city as cosmopolitan as New York. Even if the numbers of black female students at City Ballet remains low for the foreseeable future, seeing all those adorable little Asian American girls trying out for the children's division does my heart good. 

 

Has NYCB's diversity initiative surpassed ABT's Project Plie'?  We aren't hearing much from PP lately. Promoting Misty to principle and having five other black dancers in the corps de ballet doesn't give ABT an excuse to stop trying to be more inclusive. What have they done for communities of color lately?

 

As for voices from the black ballet community, Theresa Ruth Howard is my hero. Thank you Theresa for not being polite and well-behaved. 

 

http://www.dancemagazine.com/school-of-american-ballet-diversity-2441800858.html

Edited by Tapfan

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They're a couple of decades behind PNB, which launched DanceChance in 1994 for elementary school kids.  While the numbers of local dancers who went through the school from the beginning and were asked to join the Professional Division and then the company is still very small, that two DanceChance graduates joined PNB is pretty strong, since only a handful of other local, "from scratch" kids -- I can think of Jessika Anspach and Sean Rollofson, both from the Eastside school -- have made it into the Company. Amanda Morgan might be from the Francia Russell Center, too.  A few other DanceChance graduates have been accepted into the Professional Division and have danced professionally elsewhere.

 

Like most professional companies, the local kids are eclipsed when the schools select Professional Division students from around the country.  Unlike SAB, though, the PD program is generally two years, with an occasional third, while SAB snags year-round kids early in their teens, if their parents will let them.

 

Of course, the double-edged sword is that a local dancer of color might be the child of a doctor and a Microsoft General Manager, but people will assume that he or she came through DanceChance for tired reasons.

 

 

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In recent years,it does at least seem that many of the ballet students of color that you hear about making it to prestigious schools and/or companies  - especially when it comes to black females - are usually the offspring of upper middle class or wealthy parents.  Think Precious Adams, Michaela dePrince, Jasmine Perry or SF ballet student Raquel Smith.

 

 

 

 

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On 6/15/2017 at 2:47 PM, Tapfan said:

As for voices from the black ballet community, Theresa Ruth Howard is my hero. Thank you Theresa for not being polite and well-behaved.

 

Yes!

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On 6/15/2017 at 4:52 PM, Tapfan said:

In recent years,it does at least seem that many of the ballet students of color that you hear about making it to prestigious schools and/or companies  - especially when it comes to black females - are usually the offspring of upper middle class or wealthy parents.  Think Precious Adams, Michaela dePrince, Jasmine Perry or SF ballet student Raquel Smith.

 

 

If we look at most of the young women who pursue a career in ballet (or in dance in general), I think we find that the majority of them come from financially stable families.  There are certainly exceptions to that, but overall, they come from a financially supportive background.

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