Ballet Companies: Stop Tokenizing Dancers of Color in Your Marketing Materials
Fans of the sublime English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams were probably excited to see her image splashed across the company's website in a promotional image for an upcoming production of Swan Lake.
But those who took a closer look were met with a disappointing reality: Adams, who is the only black woman in the company, is not listed on the principal casting sheet for the production.
Luke Jennings, dance critic at The Observer, first pointed out the issue on Twitter, and the company responded:
Yes, Adams is only a first artist, so it would have been unusual—though not unheard of—to see her perform Odette/Odile. And the company argues that the photo depicts her as Lead Swan, a respectable but not particularly significant role. But wouldn't anyone looking at the photo assume that Adams would be playing Odette?
It's a misleading choice at best; a manipulative one at worst. But ENB isn't the only company to use dancers of color in their marketing more than they feature them onstage. New York City Ballet prominently features black dancers Olivia Boisson and Christopher Grant in their marketing, but rarely casts them in proportionate roles. (They feature some of their other dancers of color—like Rachel Hutsell and Preston Chamblee—rather frequently, too, but at least these dancers get the roles to match.)
This is not an argument for whitewashed marketing. But companies can't slot dancers of color into their photoshoots and marketing videos to make themselves appear "diverse"—a term that has come to be a commodity for institutions vying for funding and audiences—and then not give them casting opportunities (or promotions, for that matter). This amounts to tokenism, and taking advantage of dancers who deserve better.
So please, use images of your dancers of color. (We know how powerful representation is for aspiring dancers, after all.) But also cast them. Invest in their success. Promote them. Acknowledge the emotional labor that it takes to be an artist of color in such a white art form. Because otherwise, the image of "diversity" you're hoping to portray is just a sham.
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.