Beyond Tokenism in Swan Lake

April 6, 2015

In the ballet world it’s rare to see an African American amidst the swan corps, and wayyyy more rare to see an African American as the Swan Queen. I believe this has not happened since Lauren Anderson danced the role at Houston Ballet in the mid-’90s. But this week The Washington Ballet will present a cast of Swan Lake with an African-American playing the famously difficult role AND her Siegfried will also be African-American. [AMENDMENT as of April 10: I just learn that an African American and an Afro-Cuban danced the roles together: Lauren Anderson and Carlos Acosta with Houston Ballet in 2001. And from what I understand, the audience loved seeing their two stars dance these roles.]

Artistic director Septime Webre hit upon a great idea when he asked Misty Copeland to guest in Swan Lake, partnered by TWB’s lead dancer Brooklyn Mack. They are very different dancers, but they both have technique to burn and plenty of onstage charisma. (Mack is an illustrious alum of Youth America Grand Prix.) It’s safe to say that this is the first time in the U.S. that a ballet company has cast black dancers as both Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried.

As Sarah Kaufman wrote in the Washington Post, “The two will effectively shatter the all-white stereotype of Swan Lake, the most traditional of ballets.”

Misty is aware of this. As she says in our “10 Minutes With”: “I never imagined myself as Odette/Odile…I thought even if I became a principal, this part might not be given to me because no one like me had done it before.”

You can see Misty’s beautiful lines in this brief video of Misty and Brooklyn rehearsing that Webre shared on his facebook page.

I am imagining that for most of the audience, it will take only about 10 seconds for the eye to adjust to the change of skin tone and then they can relax and get caught up in Copeland’s and Mack’s artistry. I am imagining that this cast will attract a more diverse audience than is usual at the ballet. And I am imagining that many little African-American girls and boys will leave the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center with a desire to become a ballet dancer.

The cast of Copeland and Mack takes the stage this coming Thursday and Sunday. For more info click here.