Arthur Mitchell Talks Race and Balanchine
Misty Copeland in Swan Lake. Photo by Darren Thomas/QPAC
Misty Copeland's rise to principal status and stardom this year has thankfully prompted conversations about race and ballet. It's also prompted excitement around the idea of "firsts," though often mistakenly. Misty is the first African American female principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, and this is huge and important. She is not the first African American principal at ABT (Desmond Richardson came before her), though I've heard many say that, nor is she the first African American principal at a major American company (some, though not enough, have come before her). Misty is clear about recognizing those who came before her when she discusses her accomplishments, but others sometimes aren't.
One of the most important black dancers in the history of American ballet is Arthur Mitchell (a 1975 Dance Magazine Award winner), who danced for New York City Ballet beginning in 1955, and later co-founded Dance Theatre of Harlem. On Monday, I attended a panel at Barnard College commemorating Mitchell and his archives, which have recently found a home at Barnard and Columbia University. Mitchell reminded me of what (and who) is missing from conversations about race and ballet.
Arthur Mitchell and George Balanchine. Photo by Martha Swope, courtesy NYPL for the Performing Arts.
Though Mitchell joked about how people have forgotten about him in all the Misty hubbub, even he was careful to point out the black dancers who came before him. He lauded Balanchine for having progressive ideas about race, and for dreaming of one day having a half-black company. Mitchell talked about one of Balanchine's earliest muses, Betty Nichols, a black dancer who with Tanaquil Le Clercq traveled with the choreographer before he founded New York City Ballet.
Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams rehearse Agon. Photo Martha Swope, courtesy NYPL for the Performing Arts
What stuck with me the most were Mitchell's words about Agon. Balanchine made the steamy pas de deux for his famous 1957 ballet on Mitchell and white ballerina Diana Adams. Having a black man and a white woman dance together was a statement, and with the added element of sensuality, Agon was revolutionary. Mitchell insisted that the contrast between the color of his skin and the color of the ballerina's skin is part of the choreography, and that casting white men makes for a different ballet. These days, Amar Ramasar often dances this role, but many white men have danced it, too.
Here's another early version of Agon with Mitchell, this time partnering Allegra Kent:
I hope that NYCB continues to honor Agon's history by casting dancers of color in this role. (Who knows, maybe it'll be Taylor Stanley's next big break!) And I hope we can ground our conversations about race and dance in history by remembering the work of pioneers like Mitchell.
It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.
According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:
When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.
But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
Efficient movement is easy to recognize—we all know when we see a dancer whose every action seems essential and unmannered. Understanding how to create this effect, however, is far more elusive. From a practical perspective, dancing with efficiency helps you to conserve your energy and minimize wear and tear on the body; from an artistic point of view, it allows you to make big impressions out of little moments, and lasting memories for those watching.
So much struggle and determination goes into your training that it can be difficult for early-career dancers to recalibrate their priorities toward simplicity and ease, says Laurel Jenkins, freelance performer and Trisha Brown Dance Company staging artist. "Your aesthetic might shift, and you might have to find new things beautiful." Mastering the art of effortless movement requires a new perspective and a smart strategy—on- and offstage.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT
Whatever your feelings about Wayne McGregor's heady, hyper-physical choreography, we can all probably agree on one thing: We'd really, really love to pick his brain. And tomorrow, Dance Umbrella, a UK-based dance festival, is giving everyone the chance to do exactly that.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.