Curtain Up

August 7, 2011

Biologically, all human beings are the same species. But tiny genetic variations give us slightly different traits, including a range of skin tones. The whole concept of race is based on various societies’ perceptions of these differences. Race, then, is a social construct, and the dance world has not escaped its impact. So in June 2005, we launched our first “race issue,” which invited dancers of all genres to speak about their experiences of race. Now, five years later, we are revisiting the subject.

The dance community is learning to approach race in ever more sophisticated and sensitive ways. Eduardo Vilaro, the new artistic director of Ballet Hispanico, is very tuned in to how his young dancers connect with each other. In “The Times—Are They A Changin’?” he talks about his expanded idea of the Hispanico part of Ballet Hispanico. Other artistic directors and educators weigh in too, often saying that the younger generation thrives on diversity.

Perhaps the most concrete evidence of changing times is Francesca Harper, whose mother is Denise Jefferson, director of The Ailey School. When Jefferson was young, she was told to not even try to become a ballet dancer. One generation later, lo, her daughter has danced with several ballet companies. Harper, along with seven other very thoughtful dance artists, tells her story in “In Our Words.”

But not everything is rosy in this multicultural world. The always outspoken—and always entertaining—Theresa Ruth Howard offers “And Now a Word From the Darker Side” to remind us that maybe the times have not been a changin’ enough.

Another kind of “dark side” crops up in classical story ballets in the form of ethnic stereotypes that we often overlook. In “Exotic or Offensive?” Joseph Carman unpacks roles like Lankendam in Corsaire, the Chinese in Nutcracker, and the Blackamoor in Petrouchka. Sure, some of those characters are centuries old and maybe we shouldn’t tamper with history. But they can also be overtly racist. Maybe, just maybe, there is something that can be done to diffuse their insidious power.

Concluding our July issue on a poignant note is Francisco Graciano’s “Why I Dance.” There’s nothing like a family tragedy to lend perspective on your life’s dreams. Francisco, with tenderness and courage, recounts how he found his way back into dance after losing his father.