Op-Ed: Is Ballet "Brown Bagging" It?
Janet Collins, Raven Wilkinson, Debra Austin, Nora Kimball, Misty Copeland, Francesca Hayward. All of these successful black ballet dancers have something in common: they skew toward the fairer end of the sepia spectrum.
Onstage, the duskiness of their complexions can be all but washed out, bleached by the lights. From the audience, they could present as a white girl back from a beachside vacation, or be perceived as Latina.
This observation is in no way meant to challenge these women's "blackness," or their talent. It's to highlight a long-overlooked fact that, historically, artistic directors have shown a predilection towards black ballerinas with lighter skin tones.
Misty Copeland in Swan Lake. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy ABT
This reality is not only the case in "white" ballet companies, as the same could be said of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Even for a company that is an oasis for dancers of color, beauty politics have always been in play. In its heyday, most of the women who were pushed and promoted—like Lydia Abarca, Stephanie Dabney, Virginia Johnson, Judy Tyrus, Christina Johnson, Tai Jimenez, Kellye Gordon-Saunders and Alicia Graf—shared the trait.
So the question is:
Is ballet "brown bagging" it?
The brown paper bag test was a type of racial discrimination used to determine whether someone could have certain privileges. Only those whose skin color was the same shade or lighter than a brown paper bag were allowed into certain schools, churches and nightclubs.
Those who were light enough could pass for white and collect all the privileges that went with it. For instance, Raven Wilkinson's complexion allowed her blackness to go "undetected," which enabled her to dance with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
Internationally, the conversation about ballet's lack of black dancers is cresting. Artistic heads are just beginning to engage, and realizing how complicated the issue is. But the subtle nuances have yet to be broached. And the silent color barrier is one of them is.
To white people, one brown body might seem the same as the next, and idea of bandying about "shade" seems trivial. However, within communities of color, it is a running issue as melanin levels have systematically been used to categorize and divide us.
Light-skinned privilege is a historical throwback to the days of slavery where skin tone could determine your quality of life. Color was used in the assignation of labor and privileges for slaves (lighter in the house, darker in the field). It could dictate levels of access, acceptance and treatment.
Sadly, as is often the case with the oppressed, as a community African Americans have adopted this mentality. We've created our own internal caste system where more value is placed upon those who are lighter. We still live out our scars. "The Color Line" like the melanin that produces it runs deep...
Even today, black people are accustomed to our "public representatives" in entertainment, business and broadcasting looking less than toasty, especially the women. Seldom would we comment upon it publicly or in mixed company, for fear of being accused of tearing another down or being labeled a "hater."
But privately amongst ourselves, upon hearing about black person rising to a position, it is common practice to ask on the sly, "Well, is she black black?" It's almost never about the actual person, but about the system that holds us all under its thumb.
Because we know that just like white skin, light skin has its privileges. (The "you have to be twice as good to get half as much" mantra handed down to most black children hits doubly hard for the melanin strong.)
That is not to say that there aren't darker-skinned women who are highly successful. It feels like a communal high five ripples like a wave at a baseball game when a darker-skinned woman ascends in any field; we celebrate "and she's chocolate."
However, you have to wonder, how many more were denied access because they were too dark? We will never know, just as we might never know the talented ballerinas thwarted and redirected towards the modern or commercial dance.
This is a difficult reality to write down in black and white. As I do, I fear that I am outing a very private, intimate vulnerability in my community. But if it is my hope to transform these conversations, then I myself must take the risk. If we are authentically working to create sustainable change, to move towards real integration, then we must talk about the really hard really real stuff. (Breath….)
The English National Ballet corps. Photo by Alastair Muir, courtesy ENB
There has been much ado about the concept of "breaking the line" of the corps de ballet with brown bodies, which are argued to distract from the uniformity of the corps in works like Swan Lake and Giselle. Often, for such ballets, white dancers are asked to "whiten" themselves even further. Hence, the browner the body, the bigger the break. It stands to reason that light-brown ballerinas would be aesthetically preferable.
The function of the classical corps de ballet explains why black men do not fall prey to the color barrier: Men never stand in lines as swans, wilis or sylphs, so the depth of their brownness is never an issue in regards to the aesthetic of "classicism."
In fact, where males are concerned, it seems the blacker the berry the sweeter the pas de deux. It is an ironic twist that the opposite color code exists for the men: Top male dancers like Arthur Mitchell, Mel Tomlinson, Ronald Perry, Carld Jonassaint, Carlos Acosta, Eric Underwood and Brooklyn Mack have been unmistakably black.
In 1957, Balanchine's Agon shocked people when he cast a black man (Arthur Mitchell) in a pas de deux with a white woman (Diana Adams). The general public was outraged at the black and white bodies intertwining in the sexually suggestive choreography.
While breaking a cardinal taboo (and possibly a few laws in some states) it shattered a barrier. Though people were not pleased, once presented, that bell could not been un-rung, the images could not be unseen. Agon opened the door for the black male body to inhabit the ballet space.
However, another reason why the black male body is more acceptable is rooted in very function of the male ballet dancer itself. His role has always been in service to his ballerina. Since the white eye is accustomed to seeing the black male body in that station, it fits the stereotype of the black subservient laborer (he hauls, lifts, supports, fawns). While being in service, this role simultaneously evokes the Mandingo trope of the hypersexual black male, placing him in dangerous proximity of the unattainable white woman he undoubtably desires. This intimacy creates fear, anger and titillation in white eyes allowing them to be both outraged and turned on. Granted, these statements were more overtly obvious in 1957 when Balanchine was creating Agon and Jim Crow was still in full swing (two years before 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered for allegedly "flirting" with a white woman). However, even in 2017, we still maintain the residual film of these stereotypes.
Meanwhile, the black female ballerina is saddled with her own stereotypes. The "ballerina" represents the unattainable ideal of woman: the chaste, fragile beauty, the ethereal object of desire. In short, she is the antithesis of blackness.
Where the white female body has always been presented as the epitome of beauty, the black female body is burdened with the trope of the hypersexual Jezebel slut, the work mule, the caretaker servant to her Mistress and the bossy, overbearing castrator to her Mister. She is sweaty, tired, angry and inelegant. Imagine Nina Simone's Aunt Sarah—skin black, arms long, hair wooly, back strong enough to take the pain inflicted again and again—in a tutu, or the characters of an Ernie Barnes painting as a corps de ballet.
If a ballerina must be black, best that she doesn't look it. Lighten her up to the point where her blackness barely registers, or at best she can…pass.
I do not believe that artistic directors are fully cognizant of these antebellum leanings. I doubt that this generation of directors even knows what the brown bag test is. This tendency is a product of societal programing that we are all participating in by default. It is how our eyes have been trained to see, because our concepts of beauty are not always our own (remember that Meryl Streep monologue about Cerulean blue from the Devil Wears Prada?).
The rise of Lauren Anderson to the rank of principal dancer at Houston Ballet in 1990 marked her as not only the first black female to be promoted through the ranks of a major (white) ballet company, but the first who was undeniably black. Artistic director Ben Stevenson received hateful letters daily for his decision to exhibit her talent.
Lauren Anderson with Carlos Acosta in Houston Ballet's Don Quixote
While Anderson was making her mark, Andrea Long-Naidu and Robyn Gardenhire were literally the "black swans" in the corps at NYCB and ABT, respectively. Through the 80s and 90s, DTH was producing generations of "brown" and "dark" principals and soloists: Yvonne Hall, Karen Brown, Cassandra Phifer, Charmaine Hunter, Lisa Attles, Bethania Gomes and Paunika Jones. For these women, their journeys were been long and arduous, working twice as hard to get just enough.
The good news is that there might be a shift on the horizon. Presently, there are young chocolate ballerinas climbing the ballet tiers around the world: soloist Michaela DePrince at Dutch National Ballet, Precious Adams with English National Ballet, Ashley Murphy with The Washington Ballet and Jenelle Figgins with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet would all fail the brown bag test.
Michaela DePrince in rehearsal. Photo by Altin Kaftira, courtesy DNB
With higher visibility, their images will not only inspire browner-skinned students to pursue ballet, but also encourage dance educators to not be so quick to eschew them into a modern track because they fear there is not a place for them in the ballet world.
With ballet organizations getting more serious about training dancers of color, we should see more shades coming through what is referred to as the "pipeline." But will there be as strong of a commitment to hiring them into professional companies? It's all a waiting game.
This is not to shame the light-skinned dancers or even directors who up until now might not have been aware that this secondary color line existed. But as we work to create equity, we must confront and question our recessive biases, then ask ourselves, "Do they have a place here?"
In the phantasmagorical world of ballet where swans come to life, and dead women dance en mass, these characters are neither human nor real. They can look like anything, be any color the imagination can conjure. So then why not a darker shade of brown?
We've been saying for years that dance training has benefits that reach far beyond preparation for a professional dance career: The discipline and attention to detail fostered in technique class, the critical thinking skills acquired in composition, and the awareness and rapid reaction times required for improvisation can all carry over into other fields.
But what if a choreographic tool kit could have a more direct application outside the studio? Say, to city planning?
"What if you could learn from the world's best dance teachers in your living room?" This is the question that Dancio poses on their website. Dancio is a new startup that offers full length videos of ballet classes taught by master teachers. As founder Caitlin Trainor puts it, "these superstar teachers can be available to students everywhere for the cost of a cup of coffee."
For Trainor, a choreographer and the artistic director of Trainor Dance, the idea for Dancio came from a sense of frustration relatable to many dancers; feeling like they need to warm up properly before rehearsals, but not always having the time, energy or funds to get to dance class. One day while searching the internet for a quick online class, Trainor was shocked to not be able to find anything that, as she puts it, "hit the mark in terms of relevance and quality. I thought to myself, how does this not exist?" she says. "We have the Daily Burn for Fitness, YogaGlo for yogis, Netflix for entertainment and nothing for dancers! But then I thought, I can make this!" And thus, Dancio (the name is a combination of dance and video), was born.
There's a surprising twist to Regina Willoughby's last season with Columbia City Ballet: It's also her 18-year-old daughter Melina's first season with the company. Regina, 40, will retire from the stage in March, just as her daughter starts her own career as a trainee. But for this one season, they're sharing the stage together.
Last night, the New York City Ballet board of directors approved ballet master in chief Peter Martins' request for a temporary leave of absence amidst an ongoing investigation into sexual harassment.
The investigation came to light on Monday, when the New York Times reported that NYCB and the School of American Ballet had hired a law firm to investigate their leader after receiving an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment.
You dance like a knockout—but can you take a punch? Intense stage combat is a crucial element in many shows, from the sword fighting in Romeo & Juliet to the left hooks of the Broadway musical Rocky. But performing it well requires careful body awareness, trust and a full commitment to safety. Whether you're dancing a pivotal battle in a story ballet or intense partnering in a contemporary piece, these expert tips can help you make your fight scenes convincing, compelling and safe.
1. Master the Basics
When Luke Ingham was cast as Tybalt in San Francisco Ballet's Romeo & Juliet, he spent a full month practicing the basic body positions, footwork and momentum of fencing. "You need to be really grounded, you need to know where your feet are," Ingham says.
Brooklyn-based burlesque troupe Company XIV isn't afraid to take risks. Nutcracker Rouge, their take on the holiday classic, features a cast of jack-of-all-trades dancers who double as greeters, ushers, singers, actors and aerialists, while baring a good amount of skin but even more confidence. (Disclaimer: The show is for mature audiences only.) What's most impressive about these artists is how captivating they are. Regardless of what style of dance you do, if you want to become a better performer, consider taking a page out of their playbook.
You've got to be "on" the moment the audience walks in the front door.
Former New York City Ballet dancer Wilhelmina Frankfurt first spoke out about sexual misconduct at NYCB in Psychology Tomorrow in 2012. Since October, she's been working with The Washington Post reporter Sarah Kaufman for a story about Peter Martins, and when the School of American Ballet began investigating Martins for an anonymous accusation, she was called in to discuss her experiences. But Frankfurt feels there's more to the larger picture, and shares that here with Dance Magazine, as edited by Maggie Levin.
In 1994, I began to write a book of essays about my life in dance—mostly as an exercise. When the #MeToo movement began this year, I knew it was time to brush the dust off and take another look. Although incomplete, these essays addressed the roots that have long run between sexual abuse, alcoholism and ballet. They involve George Balanchine, Peter Martins and numerous stars of the New York City Ballet. It's painfully clear that my story is the same story that has occurred thousands of times, all over the world.
I'm heartbroken that I might have to drop out of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. My back has been spasming since I did an extra-high kick to the back. My X-ray and MRI are normal, but my doctor thinks I hurt my sacroiliac joint. Physical therapy hasn't helped yet. How can I know for sure that this is the real problem?
—Injured Rockette, New York, NY
Freddie Kimmel's musical theater career was just taking off when he woke up one morning with a pain in his groin. A trip to the doctor assured him it was nothing of concern, even though the sensation returned a few months later. As a dancer, Kimmel was used to pushing through discomfort, so he kept going to dance class to "work it out."
But the pain persisted. During a run of The Full Monty at Westchester Broadway Theatre, Kimmel was diagnosed with advanced metastasized cancer. Ten tumors had infiltrated his body.
Japanese-born, New York–based choreographer Kota Yamazaki returns to his roots as a butoh dancer in Darkness Odyssey Part 2: I or Hallucination. He explores butoh founder Tatsumi Hijikata's idea of the extreme fragility of the body. Yamazaki is joined by contemporary luminaries Julian Barnett, Raja Feather Kelly, Joanna Kotze and Mina Nishimura, each of whom engages in drastically eccentric pathways, making the body appear to disintegrate before your eyes. Music is by Kenta Nagai and visual environment by lighting wizard Thomas Dunn. Dec. 13–15, Baryshnikov Arts Center. bacnyc.org.