Beyond Tokenism: When Racial Diversity is Part of the Art

June 20, 2007

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.