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Race, Culture and Ballet

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I am always struck by how few non Caucasian dancers there are in ballet. My first reaction is that ballet is so Euro-centric that is holds little appeal to non Europeans or those who upbringing was not Euro-centric culturally based.

However, in cities like NYC, San Francisco, Washington, Boston, London, LA and so on we have large black, Asian and Hispanic populations all living in more or less the same "cultural milieu". Admittedly there are entrenched ethnic communities which strive to celebrate their culture of "origin" etc.

So what are the reasons there are proportionately so few non Caucasians on stage and in the audience? On a typical performance at the ABT, if there are 20 black faces in the audience it seems like a lot.

Could this also be attributed to the cost of a ballet education and years of training involved? How about the fact that the Dance Theatre of Harlem is filled with blacks and many of them talented dancers?

Would it be odd if more ballet dancers were black and Asian? Is ballet very much a Euro-centric art form that simply doesn't work with people of other ethnic groups? ... a black Juliette? Clearly blacks and Asians are very athletic and make some great dancers... and Michelle Kwan is a prime example of one.

What say you?

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DefJef, I don't know how thoroughly you've read old posts, but this topic has been addressed from a variety of perspectives on this board.

I don't know how ballet can escape the problems of the larger environment. In fact, there seems to be a lag between the gains minorities have made in American society and the gains they've made in American ballet. And again, some minorities seem to have made greater strides than others.

I question your estimate of "20 black faces" in ABT's audience. That demographic suffers from huge underrepresentation in the seats as on stage, granted, but I think your estimate is quite, quite low.

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Thanks for the links.. I'll read them!

Well as far as the number of blacks in the audience at a typical ABT or Met Opera performace, I stand by my estimate and if I was off by a factor or 2 that would be 50 out of 3,500 seats! There is still something going on.

Since you attend ABT performances, what would be your estimate of black faces in the audience?

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In D.C., the racial polarization is acutely noticable. The only time there's a significant percentage of African-Americans in the audience is at Dance Theatre of Harlem or Alvin Ailey (or other predominantly black companies) performances. This is regardless of what is being danced. DTH's "Giselle" had the same demographics as a evening with "Dougla."

The reasons? Targeted advertising? If a German company is in town, one hears a lot of German spoken at intermissions -- does the embassy contact German citizens? Do people go because they want a taste of home, or to support the home team? It's a very complicated question, and an interesting one. Problem is, the only people who know are the people who aren't going :thanks:

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The reason that ballet is lilly white is racism. But this expression of racism is to be found in many places. It does not rest solely with the ADs or the owner's and sponsor's of major companies, but sure they too are guilty of racism.

It is also found in our educational system, it is found in our economic system which treats blacks in such a manner that proportionately very few can afford to do ballet even if it were "accessible".

It is found in the peer pressure of the black culture which discourages their people from "embracing" white culture. This was a tragic failure of the promise of the 60s where we thought we could all embrace all cultures. This did not come to pass.

The racism is found in the body of work which is largely about European "themes" (princes and princesses) though not entirely.

But the question is SHOULD ballet be more inclusive? Have we been denied some great dancers who never were trained? Perhaps, ballet is never going to be embraced by the black community, promoted to their young and so hardly any dancers will appear on the stage of the main companies.

There are sports where few blacks participate. Surfing and Wind surfing come to mind... sailing is another. In many of these "cultures' it is not a policy of racism which excludes blacks, but something is at work which prevents them from participating in larger numbers. What would you call it if not racism?

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Jef, "never" is a very long time, and historians have learned to avoid it. And simply to cite "racism" is to avoid its opposite pole, anti-racism. There are a good many people in the world today who are openly, honestly anti-racist, and make their beliefs real in hiring practices, social connections and more.

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Admittedly the world is full of many many talented wonderful non racists people. We read their books, watch their movies, see them dance and so on .

But, in my opinion, these "evolved" people are few and far between and vastly outnumbered by what I would characterized as "unevolved" people.

Racism is one example of the expression of power and control which seems to be so much a part of the human condition. For whatever reasons we worship power and its various forms of expression, money property, weapons whatever.

As I noted above the expression of racism in ballet is woven throughout the entire genre. I don't think that all people in the field or even most.. are racist. Arts people tend to be color blind because beauty and truth are.

But it appears to me that Ballet is a Euro-centric experience which by definition is racist. This may be unavoidable since cultures develop separately and seem to set themselves up on a pedestal. Today we call it multi-culturalism which I suppose is meant to give equal "value" to all cultures. But the fact remains that many within any one of these cultures within the multi cultures DO believe in their superiority and "purity" and seek to perpetuate the purity.

I would like to see more black faces in the ballet and in the audience because I believe that ballet is beautiful and there is no reason that blacks cannot engage in THIS form of beauty. I fear that the unstated "racist" barriers are preventing this from taking place and this will continue into the foreseeable future. It is sad, but true.

Actually to sound a really depressing note, I see very little hope for humanity, which has proved that it can and has spoiled the planet, and still resorts to violence at conflict resolution. We may be experiencing the end stage of the human experiment, our misbehavior is having a globally catastrophic effect.

Didn't Nero fiddle whilst Rome went up in flames? Take a look around the world... what do you see?

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But it appears to me that Ballet is a Euro-centric experience which by definition is racist.

It doesn't have to be. Choreographers, take note! :thanks: (Actually, Adrienne Dellas-Thornton already has created a ballet for Universal Ballet based on a Korean folk tale.) I actually predict that things are going to start looking up for multiculturalism in ballet. For better and worse, ballet is very slow to change, but it is changing.

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I suppose that as new ballets are created the librettos and stories can have more universal appeal than romance between princes and princesses and then more "ethnic" groups will "fit" in. But this means that the classic and romantic ballet will be like a relic from the past... and increasingly smaller part of the dance repertoire.

Does the vocabulary of ballet DOES end itself to a more universal storyline than those we see in the traditional repertoire?

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Realizing that my opinions are colored by my humanist bent, which to my horror, I found was similar to the Erasmian variety, rather than the popularly-denounced "secular" sort, and encouraging a healthy skepticism without becoming mired in pessimism, I still champion the idea that people are, on the whole, capable of improvement. Racism is indeed a scourge on the world, and even underlying that is, for me, a worse fault of bigotry, no matter who practices it, or who is the object. I know that here, I am preaching to the choir, but I do believe, taking a very long view, that the human condition in this respect is getting better, but still has a way to go. We can all help by encouraging non- or anti-racism in ourselves and others, and the anti-bigotry that underlies all. Blessings.

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But it appears to me that Ballet is a Euro-centric experience which by definition is racist.

DefJef, it seems to me that if it's racist for Europeans and descendents of Europeans to have Eurocentric taste, then Alvin Ailey must have been racist to focus on his own heritage. Sometimes people just love what they love without hating or looking down on what other people love.

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The reason that ballet is lilly white is racism.
But it appears to me that Ballet is a Euro-centric experience which by definition is racist.

Actually to sound a really depressing note, I see very little hope for humanity

Sorry to be negative, but I think this is a rather depressing topic. How do you know all these things for sure?

I'm fairly sure that every single ballet and art dance company would welcome any and every technically capable black dancer in its ranks. Often they turn out to be audience favorites, that's why.

In terms of heritage the Royal Ballet is arguably the liliest whitest company in the world. I'm sure you have heard of Carlos Acosta, the Cuban dancer. He's the Royal's single most popular male dancer.

So where is the racism?

And this is just one example.

PS I could choose to be offended by your "Eurocentric = racist," but I think I won't, thank you.

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DefJef, another mistake you are making is assuming that racism is purely a black/white thing. I've done some research on the ballet companies during the Soviet Union, and at the Vaganova Academy, children from "adjoining" areas were not allowed to stay in the same dorm as people originally from Russia. Dancers like Nureyev were ridiculed for their "Tartar" background, and Maya Plisetskaya faced anti-Semitism. Vladimir Malakhov says one reason Grigorivich didn't invite him to join the Bolshoi was his Ukrainian background. (By the way, this is totally off-topic, but is Diana Vishneva Jewish? Someone who is Russian said that Vishneva is a "Jewish" last name.)

The other thing you are assuming is that there is something inherently racist about ballet. There is not. The Cuban Ballet is very highly regarded, and that company is extremely "mixed race." Racism is something that's unfortunately prevalent in so many facets of life. For instance, take football (soccer). I watched a horrific documentary that showed neo-Nazis taunting dark-skinned players as "monkeys" and throwing them bananas. One victim of these awful chants was Thierry Henry, that French player you might have heard about because he happens to be one of the best in the world. In American football, there was a time when blacks were considered "unfit" to be quarterbacks because they were "too dumb" to call plays. I am not kidding. There is nothing inherently racist about football (both forms). But racism is there, because, well, there's always going to be a part of the population that is bigoted, ignorant, ugly, sadistic, and so insecure that they have to denigrate others to feel better about themselves.

The way to fight racism is to look it straight in the eye, not to say, "humans are bad, nothing can change, we will always be racist."

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I suppose that as new ballets are created the librettos and stories can have more universal appeal than romance between princes and princesses and then more "ethnic" groups will "fit" in. But this means that the classic and romantic ballet will be like a relic from the past... and increasingly smaller part of the dance repertoire.

Scenario A: A guy from the elite slums it and seduces a girl from the other side of the tracks. His rich girlfriend shows up, and he's exposed.

Scenario B: A guy is reminded of his obligation, but he's not ready to settle into an arranged marriage, and feels that there's something else out there.

Scenario C: A guy is about to marry the girl next door, but drops everything for the unusual newcomer. The girl next store is practical and marries the boy down the street.

Scenario D: A little girl has a dream of a fairy tale (and sometimes nightmare) after a holiday celebration, perhaps triggered by an unusual member of the family.

Scenario E: The step-child who is ignored in her new blended family, gets recognition for a physical attribute that her snobby relatives don't have.

Scenario F: A good girl and a bad girl fight over the boy.

Scenario G: A good girl tries to decide between a caricature of a good boy and a caricature of a bad boy, who solve the problem for her by fighting it out between them and not asking her opinion.

Scenario H: A husband hunts down the man who has rejected his mistress and who seems fascinated with his wife.

Scenario I: A girl decides not to choose between a bad boy and a good boy.

Scenario J: A boy and girl from rival families have a tragic romance.

Scenario K: A girl who denouces love turns out to be a softie in the end.

These are the general plots of most surviving classical (and Romantic) ballets. It doesn't really matter whether the characters are dressed up in fancy clothes and are called Prince, Duke, Countess, Apollo, etc. There is good and evil, elites and the downtrodden, marriages that are pushed by families for social and economic reasons and marriages that are forbidden for the same. The stories and relationships are universal. They appear in various guises in traditional folk stories across ethnicity, language, and religion; many dance rituals are religious in nature and involve storytelling.

One of the most successful versions of Giselle I've ever seen was set in Creole Louisiana, and the story could have been set and filmed by Spike Lee. Romeo and Juet to West Side Story has no friction, despite being set among completely different social classes. Arranged marriages are still commonplace among my co-workers from and in India and among the Hassidim I know.

The exception is Sleeping Beauty, which addresses the responsibilities of ruling and the renewal of a hierarchical society.

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First, let me dispel the notion that I believe that racism is a white expression of superiority over blacks. It is far more pervasive than that. And yes Alvin Ailey would be practicing racism by excluding whites from his company, were he to do it.

Call it bigotry, tribalism chauvinism.. it exists in many flavors and nuances. Some is very overt and ugly... some is less obvious but insidious. For whatever reason humans define themselves in terms of membership is some group... some of those groups are genetically determined and others you can chose.. and acquire membership in, or earn it by some metric standard of achievement. All of these groups practice on some level a sort of me first you second (or not at all) exclusionary "racism".

"Membership has its privileges." was even an American Express marketing slogan some years back.

Tribalism in the past may have served as a survival strategy. We still very much embrace the notion of the family as being the ultimate place of refuge and support. Blood is thicker than water as the saying goes.

Tribalism and all that goes with it - "racism" is a vestige which we need to deal with. The great Dr King told us that it is the content of your character, and not the color of your skin which matters. And with this simple phrase he was telling us that we can come from different tribes, different cultures and so forth, but it is how we conduct ourselves that that matters, that we are to be judged by our actions, ideas and achievements, not our ancestors and so on.

Many institutions are being dragged into the 21st century despite Dr. Kings plea coming almost 50 years ago. In some area we have made advancement, in others we have not and perhaps regressed. Americans, in particular if not in the top economic segment are "losing" ground at we advance into the 21st century. Our democratic freedoms are being taken away from us at an alarming rate. Racism is not disappearing.

To bring this back to ballet and away from the larger political discussion, how can ballet be MORE inclusive or rather LESS exclusionary or Africans, Asians, and other no Europeans? What is ballet as a mega institution doing to fight this type of racism? What are the various communities doing to fight racism?

If you look to the middle east you can see how we fight bigotry in the 21st century. We try to destroy our adversary... In ballet do they largely ignore them?

Cuba is an example of a non Euro centric country which HAS ballet and HAS produced many wonderful dancers who have gone on to bigger stages and to appear on the world's stage. And I suppose these geniuses are embraced and thrust out in to the spotlight for their talent as well as to prove that there is no racism at work.

But I ask why must so many, perhaps most of these talented black and Hispanic dancers come from outside our borders? Why are they not coming from within our own cities?

That is the question and the place were I suspect you can see the racism in the institution of ballet. This may be due to the racism of society at large more so than within ballet itself... but I am curious as to what and how the grand ballet companies are facing this issue? Are they seeking a pass on racism by taking on the Cubans, for example?

I am not a dancer and don't know what the make up of the ABT or Joffrey school is, for example, but I suspect it is quite white. Why IS that?

I never said that things cannot change... I am only saying that from my perspective we may not be making much progress.

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I am well aware, as most are, thate West Side Story is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliette. Same story different vernacular. I recall being told once that there are only 7 plots themes in all of litereature.

I don't care about the period of the story or the location, Verona or the South Bronx.. then and now...

Perhaps, the question is:

Is the vernacular of ballet a historical relic that we hold onto because it is part of our (europeans') past? Or is it and can it be a living art form where the color of the skin of the dancers matters not?

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We have a strict policy about political discussions, and that is that they must be specific to ballet. While racism in society may be related to racism that might exist in ballet, general discussion of politics or political philosophy is off limits on Ballet Talk. We state this clearly in Rules and Policies.

There are excellent forums across the Internet where discussion of general politics and philosophy are not only appropriate topics, but they are the raison d'etre for these sites. Ballet Talk has a different mission.


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I wouldn't assume things about the JKO (ABT) school right yet, as it is so new that a deme has yet to emerge. And there are reasons why the Joffrey school fed a company which was noted for its inclusion, viewed from a racial perspective.

Ballet is not hermetic. It doesn't remain isolated from the society that surrounds it. Cuba has historically been an integrated society, if a bit off the beaten track. The first production of Giselle there "featured" a corps of Wilis who sat down on the scenery when they got tired, and lit up cigars! That seems like a "hayseed" joke, but it happened, much to the astonishment of the European principals. If bigotry is abroad in the world, it will show up in the arts. Art reflects life, and I don't think that there's anything that any one person can do about it except to give focus, as did the revered Dr. King. It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes the whole world to change the whole world. May we continue in productive directions.

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May we continue in productive directions.

An excellent idea. Thansk, Mel. :thanks:

I would love to hear some of our members' ideas about what can be done in positive, practical ways to achieve what I am sure are the goals of all of us on BT:

(a) make ballet (both practicing and watching) accessible to all kinds of people, while

(b) retaining the artistic goals and practices that makes ballet the kind of performing art it is.

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Mel Johnson really is an oracle.

I've been following this thread with interest, although I admit to quick reading....If I may pose a thought, with apologies if this is out there already, or if this is too personal.

Exclusion isn't just built on 'negatives' - exclusion in its many forms, also often has to do with 'positives'. Just think of enclaves. Yes, there's a sense of exclusion felt by *both* those who live in enclaves and those who don't. But also, within, a sense of community, commonness, etc....

Art - and I'd reckon, especially music and dance - are often tied to these communities. Yeah, so I'm one of the few South Asian dancers I know. This doesn't mean that my friends aren't interested in dance. They're much better folk dancers, Indian classical dancers, Bollywood dancers... some of them are fabulous Hindi/Sanksrit singers, play the tabla/sitar....

And this is all in the U.S. Similar questions about audience membership, artists/participants, could be asked here. In terms of participation, in some ways it can be compared to some of our talented dancers on BT4D, who come to a point where they are choosing between ballet and music, soccer... something. There's also a sense of 'connection' that many feel through their specific artistic expressions of their roots... Ballet will always be my first love, but there's something different that comes out of me when I'm folk dancing or a great bhangra song comes on at a party. That 'something extra' is beyond words.

I guess part of what I'm saying, is that while there may be structural modes at play, that serve to exclude, there are also positive networks that foster participation elsewhere, and thus a lessened desire to participate.

In terms of audience watching, the same thing could be said perhaps? Interests vary. The question could be a larger one of how to attract new audiences.

The audience members at Dance Theatre of Harlem performances at the Sadlers Wells are much different than the standard Royal Ballet audience, the audience at the Wells for the Royal Danish Ballet, which are all also quite different than the audiences for the Bolshoi and the Kirov, also at Covent Garden.

I think it'd be hard to get a fully mixed audience for every run of Swan Lake, or for that matter, Dougla. But, perhaps, over the course of a season.

In terms of participation/choreography, I'm hopeful, along with Mr. Johnson and Hans. As of this fall, the Royal Ballet will have 3 black dancers - Carlos Acosta, Eric Underwood, and a fabulous young artist from Columbia, trained in Cuba, whose name I keep forgetting unfortunately. Houston Ballet is another excellent example.... and heck, something like 16 years ago, when I was particpating in a local performance of Ballet Idaho's Nutcracker, a beautiful African-American woman was the Sugar Plum Fairy. Talk about a lasting impression on a young kid.

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I guess part of what I'm saying, is that while there may be structural modes at play, that serve to exclude, there are also positive networks that foster participation elsewhere, and thus a lessened desire to participate.

Ami1436, thank you for your entire post -- but especially for the point I've quoted above. You've captured what hits me as a great truth. In a very elegant sentence!

When we focus on the demographics behind ballet participation, we tend to forget the vast range of OTHER cultural opportunities available for people of many cultures to choose. These opportunities are, I think, expanding in most parts of the world, and certainly in the US.

And the idea that one can "choose" is becoming more universal than ever before in history.

As the act of choosing becomes more possible, and more meaningful, an increasing number of individuals may feel freer to take paths that lead them away from the familiar and possibly towards an experimentation with ballet.

As this happens, ballet must be in a position to welcome and receive them. One way to do this is to remain a growing, creative art form, and not just a custodian of tradition (though that is important, too). Another way is to create programs -- publicize dancers -- find ways to reduce ticket prices, as Sadlers Wells does, compared to Covent Garden -- so new audiences can take a risk and come. This does happen. But it's often not followed up on, and most companies drift back into their old way of dealing with audiences -- and to their old concept of "the audience" itself.

Maybe acompanies need to invest in serious, sophisticated 5-year plans to develop new, more diverse audiences rather than putting on one or two programs and hoping that that will do it.

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Defjef I think calling ballet and ballet world [racist ] is a very subjective idea and not fair at all, and I have to say that all the other posters in this thread have been objective and right in my opinion. I really think the way you see ballet can reflect the way you see the world ( I am not meaning politically but generally), and I think that you should get rid of this over-sensitiveness on racial issues and be natural. Just try to see people as individual human-beings rather than putting them in racial categories and enjoy ballet as it is (you will enjoy it much more) . Over-sensitiveness on racial issues and [racism] are two sides of the same coin in my opinion.

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I do tend to see the world in a non racists way, which is easy for me as a white man who has had a good education and so forth. However, my wife is Hispanic and works with underprivileged people in her job and is exposed to the effects of racism has on society on a daily basis. It was actually her comment to me about the lack of black faces at the ABT which inspired me to raise this issue for discussion.

My sense is that ballet itself is not racists but is very much a Euro-centric dance and very much a "relic" or a tradition which dates back a hundred fifty years or so at most (guess). However, is there a place for blacks inside of such a Euro-centric vernacular? When I visit a museum and view renaissance paintings from Italy I do not expect to see Blacks in the paintings. They were not part of Italian renaissance society for the most part.

Ballet as abstract art form... movement, discipline and so on is NOT stuck in a cultural milieu as such. So if you can "see past" the librettos you could cast a black in any role... or as I believe Helene suggested to frame the libretto to a more contemporary setting which skin color would not seem so "discordant".

Again, my sense is that Ballet is NOT making much of an effort to remove race barriers, and neither are other races running to embrace it. We are less of a melting pot (as in alloy) and more of a stew of races all in the same pot!

I certainly would not say that there a direct effort at exclusion, because I simply have no evidence of such. But from the financing of ballet as noted on another thread, the appeal to the extremely wealthy patrons DOES hearken back to even the Renaissance where arts were done for and at the behest of wealthy patrons and nobles. Why our city can give George Steinbrenner hundreds of millions of dollars and public parks (in the poor south Bronx) and give hardly anything to our arts institutions baffles me and I suppose it means that the arts must be supported by wealthy patrons, who I would imagine are 99.9% lilly white.

So I ask YOU omshanti.. Why do we see proportionately fewer blacks on stage, in the ballet schools and in the audience than what we have in the general population in NYC for example?

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My sense is that ballet itself is not racists but is very much a Euro-centric dance and very much a "relic" or a tradition which dates back a hundred fifty years or so at most (guess).

Just to be picky, ballet's roots can actually be traced to the 15th century.

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So I ask YOU omshanti.. Why do we see proportionately fewer blacks on stage, in the ballet schools and in the audience than what we have in the general population in NYC for example?

You don't have to ask omshanti in this ominous fashion.

This has been adressed many times before in the threads that were linked at the top of this thread.

And BTW not every one is on this white guilt trip.

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