Is Classical Ballet Ready to Embrace Flesh-Tone Tights?
Recently, English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams announced that she will no longer be wearing pink tights. With the support of her artistic director Tamara Rojo, she will instead wear chocolate brown tights (and shoes) that match her flesh tone.
It may seem like a simple change, but this could be a watershed moment—one where the aesthetics of ballet begin to expand to include the presence of people of color.
With all the work being done worldwide to increase the number of black dancers in ballet, it was only a matter of time before we got here. Bare legs and flesh tone shoes are commonplace in contemporary ballet but in classical and neoclassical ballet, pink tights and shoes remain a linchpin.
Today, all DTH dancers—including students—wear flesh-colored tights. Photo by Joseph Rodman, courtesy DTH
Dance Theatre of Harlem first debuted flesh-tone tights and shoes in 1974 on the back leg of a European tour. Dancer Llanchie Stevenson was the catalyst: From her first days in the company, she consistently implored Arthur Mitchell to allow them to wear tights and shoes that matched their skin color. Stevenson explains, "One day I noticed that my arms were a different color than my legs, I thought that I looked so disjointed. I started wearing brown tights over my pink tights." Mitchell liked it so much he decided that all dancers had to wear tights to match their skin. The decision was a declaration of ownership of the art form, and a redefinition of classism.
Where did the tradition of pink tights come from anyway? In the 1790s, Austrian ballet dancer Maria Viganó shocked Parisian audiences when she and her brother Salvatore performed in sheer white muslin tunics, her legs covered by flesh pink hosiery that gave the appearance of nakedness. At the time, the Paris Opéra banned "nude pink" due to social concerns, but by the end of the 19th century, pink tights were the norm. The intent was to have both the hosiery and shoes disappear, and back then, pink was as tastefully close to nude as they could get without having the theaters burned down in scandal.
Since then, little thought has been given to this tradition, but it is safe to say that the sole reason ballet tights and shoes are pink is because at the time the tradition started, all of the dancers were white. As racial uniformity decreases, should we not reevaluate the relevance of pink tights and shoes? Could it not be argued that the actual "tradition" is that the tights and shoes should match the dancer's complexion?
Most of the arguments against flesh-tone tights center around the preservation of the classical aesthetic of uniformity. It could be said that brown tights work for DTH because they are a group of dancers of color, therefore the brown tights are in a sense uniform. But when there are only one or two dancers in the corps wearing brown tights, some believe that it "breaks the line."
This begs the question: How much difference is there between a brown arm and head and a brown leg in a line? Not much. But there are directors who still see discernible brownness in the corps to be problematic.
In the mid-1980s when Houston Ballet's Ben Stevenson (not related to Llanchie) cast an up-and-coming Lauren Anderson in his ballet Peer Gynt, it was the first time her skin tone was artistically discussed. "The costume was a unitard that went from (white) flesh tone to green, when I put it on it didn't look right, so they dyed the legs to match my skin, and that was the first time that it was done," says Anderson. Stevenson was also open to her wearing her natural hair in the role so long as it was thematically tied-in.
Later, during a Nutcracker tech rehearsal, Stevenson found that Anderson's legs in pink tights as Sugarplum appeared grey under the lights. They decided to test a few shades of brown but none looked right. "Finally, Ben said, 'Call Dance Theatre of Harlem and find out what they use.' That was music to my ears," Anderson recalls.
Once she had done Sugarplum with brown tights and shoes, she says, "It didn't make sense for me to go back." As she rose through the ranks to principal, Anderson wore a variety of shades depending on the role: pink if she was in the corps or in a Balanchine work, tan for classical ballets or a richer brown—more her real complexion—in her principal roles.
Tights are just the beginning when companies are seeking to truly honor diversity. The myriad technical considerations for dancers of color extends to costuming, hair, make-up and lighting. "You light the set and costumes perfectly, you have to light the dancers as well," says Anderson. "All of my partners had to contend with an extra spot on them when they danced with me."
If companies want to be inclusive, artistic teams can no longer be on auto-pilot. It requires seeing productions with fresh eyes, possibly reconsidering the blonde wigs, certain hair hairstyles, and even scenery (when Anderson danced Cinderella, Houston Ballet created new portrait of a black mother). "As part of my artistic vision, I wanted to find a natural look for all my dancers. Pink tights are traditional, but it was important to me that we found something that was natural for Lauren," says Ben Stevenson.
Pacific Northwest's artistic director Peter Boal learned the impact of having an open dialogue with dancers of color when he asked student Samrawit Saleem how she wanted to wear her natural hair for the role of Clara. The Nutcracker photo of her double strand twist went viral.
Samrawit Saleem, photo by Angela Sterling, via PNB
A by-product of inviting others in is that you have to engage with them and take their feelings and experiences into consideration. You must ask people what would make them feel included, not assume you know. It requires that you authentically, with empathy and compassion, examine the conditions that you have been operating out of and be willing to let go of some and redesign others.
When you are seeking change, you can't expect things to stay the same. When ballet organizations started their journey toward diversity, most were solely focused on increasing the number of brown bodies on stage. However, it is becoming clear that the issues run far deeper. Inclusion requires integration. Ballet is learning that you can't just add brown bodies, you have to change the culture. But we can start can start to rebuild from the ground up with shoes and tights.
Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.
Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.
I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.
—Scared, San Francisco, CA
From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
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Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,
"Clement Crisp of the Financial Times, 14 years ago, described your dancing as vulgar."
"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "
They were discussing Guillem's signature stroke—her 180-degree leg extension à la seconde. Ballet legs had often flashed about in the higher zones between 135 and 160 degrees before. But it wasn't until the virtuoso French ballerina regularly
extended her leg beside her ear with immaculate poise in the 1980s that leg extensions for ballet dancers in classical roles reached their zenith. Traditionalists like Clement Crisp were not taken with it.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.
Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?
Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.
Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.