Beyond Tokenism: When Racial Diversity is Part of the Art

Many companies—ballet, modern, or jazz—show diversity by adding one or two dancers of a different ethnicity than the dominant one of the group.
However, a growing number of artistic directors are going beyond tokenism to a point where racial diversity is absolutely essential to their mission. They have carefully assembled a racially and culturally diverse group. Dance Magazine talked to a few of these leaders to find out how they connect their casting choices to their artistic vision. Among this group are Desmond Richardson and Dwight Rhoden, Karole Armitage, Bill T. Jones, Elisa Monte, Liz Lerman, William Starrett, Gina Angelique, and Alonzo King.

Karole Armitage, who until recently made her base in Europe, says, “I think diversity is beautiful. I love seeing a rainbow of people in my dances. The stage should reflect humanity.” She continues, “It follows from my interest in different kinds of beauty and what I want to communicate about the world.”

Bill T. Jones, whose work sometimes delves into racial issues, depends on a racially mixed group to hold his meanings. “Since its inception modern dance has pushed against the norms,” says Jones, “with people like Duncan, St. Denis, Graham, and Limón, a Mexican American, always trying to be international and a part of the world. It seems to me things have become more and more Balkanized. Artists are supposed to be on the front lines. When I started out in avant garde dance, I was among the few blacks and I was very lonely. To survive, I had to make my own world, the world I want to live in, to fight for sanity. Out of that my activism developed. I think we all need a reality check. Is it essential to you to live and work in a diverse workplace? It’s an American legacy to transcend differences, not to keep boundaries in place.”

Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson established Complexions Dance Company in 1994 for the reasons Jones outlines. “Our mission is diversity,” says Richardson, who recently starred in Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out on Broadway. “We wanted a mélange of folks. It doesn’t affect the choreography, or only in so far that every individual brings different things to dance—that’s not dependent on color but on character. When we are on tour in Europe, people always remark on—and get excited about—the fact that we have all kinds of dancers. They love it. But should we be an exception?”

Elisa Monte traveled widely as a Graham dancer and continues to find inspiration in other cultures for her choreography for Elisa Monte Dance. “There’s a great pool of dancers in New York,” she says. “There shouldn’t be any difficulty in finding a variety. I think some choreographers get into a cookie-cutter mentality and have to identify with every dancer in their troupe. I have never wanted to duplicate myself five times on stage. My dancers have to be strong and agile, but I want them all to be different.”

When William Starrett, artistic director of the Columbia City Ballet in South Carolina, decided to choreograph a full-evening work last winter, he spread the word that he wanted to audition as many blacks as whites. Since becoming director in 1985 he had worked at making the troupe diverse, but had only managed to have four blacks in his 32-member company. Because this new work would bring to life paintings of the Gullah people (who have, in their dialect and customs, retained their African roots), he tried even harder, spreading the word nationally. He called ballet masters at Dance Theatre of Harlem, talked to people in the local community, and contacted small ballet schools. “When black dancers hear ballet and South Carolina,” Starrett says, “they don’t think they’ll have a chance with us. I had to prove they did. We now have 14 black dancers. We’re in the South and I want everyone who lives in the community to feel they can relate to what I put onstage. They wouldn’t be able to do that if I only had white dancers.”

Choreographer Gina Angelique, who trained with Donald McKayle at the University of California, Irvine, also goes out of her way to find diverse dancers for her San Diego-based Eveoke Dance Theatre. Since establishing her company in 1994, she has produced 20 full-length works dealing with subjects as disparate as Nazi victim Anne Frank and single parenthood. At the moment she has a Japanese Butoh dancer, two Hispanic, one white, and one black hip hop dancer. Interested in many dance idioms, she also goes after dancers of a wide range of ages and from tough economic backgrounds.

“I prefer people who have had difficult times,” Angelique says, “because their bodies tell much richer stories. I had an extremely physically eloquent young man who had lost all his family at 3 years old and had grown up in foster homes. These men and women bring their life experiences to the stage. They are usually heartfelt and mindful, and far better equipped to express the depth of their souls than dancers who have always been comfortable.”

Angelique also teaches dance to local school children and the disadvantaged. “I create dance for aesthetic reasons but also as a social discourse,” she says. “How could I live in a community as diverse as this and not take it into account? We’re just a few miles from the Mexican border. How could that not figure into my art? How we handle our diversity is so important. I envy Pina Bausch, who has worked with a thousand different kinds of people. No wonder her choreography has such resonance.”

Liz Lerman of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in Takoma Park, Maryland, makes the effort to keep her company racially diverse. The daughter of civil rights activists, Lerman became known for breaking the age barrier when she hired performers in their ’60s and ’70s. “I also wanted gay, straight, single, married, and divorced dancers,” she says. “Diversity is what has given the human race strength. As soon as you find purity being made a higher value, you known there are problems. It will not always be easy to find all kinds of dancers, but I will never stop trying.”

While artistic directors do whatever it takes to diversify their troupes, concert dance is still, arguably, a white middle class preserve. Alonzo King, artistic director of his San Francisco-based LINES Ballet, believes that the current situation points to failures at a deep level and calls upon everyone in the field to reexamine their values.

“As fascinating as diversity is in nature and humanity,” says King, “it is a trick, an illusion. It is all the same substance ingeniously manipulated to appear different. The artist is interested in the essence of things, not their appearance. As artists, our obsession, like scientists looking for the X factor, is to crumble the veils of delusion—to make the invisible apparent, to dive beyond appearance. To that end we have to reveal the gargantuan commonality that outweighs difference, the spirit that animates these borrowed temporary forms.”

To show that common spirit, we have to first accept the differences. Whether a truly diverse group is easy to assemble, as with Monte, or quite a reach, as for Starrett, these companies boldly represent what our society now looks like. And, as Angelique suggested, a mix of skin and cultural hues creates a resonance for the audience—only natural when people recognize themselves from the other side of the footlights.

Valerie Gladstone, co-author of Balanchine’s Mozartiana: The Making of a Masterpiece, writes about the arts for The New York Times and the Washington Post.

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021