Does Classicism Have a Color?
It's been 50 years since Arthur Mitchell joined the New York City ballet and became the first African American to rise to prominence in an American ballet company.
Mitchell, who founded Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, may be the most famous dancer to push open doors in the ballet world. But there were others, including Janet Collins, the first black prima ballerina of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet; Raven Wilkinson, the first black ballerina of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo; and a generation of dancers like Billy Wilson and Sylvester Campbell who made their careers abroad with companies like the Dutch National Ballet.
The question is: Did they push the doors wide open, or just a crack? Are there more opportunities now than before? The answer seems to be: Things are better, but only to a point.
“Yes, you have one or two black dancers in a lot of companies—mostly men,” says Joselli Audain Deans, PhD, a former DTH dancer who teaches at Eastern University in Pennsylvania. “That’s better than it was for dancers from the 1930s through the ’60s who couldn’t even study in some schools,” Deans says. “But if a company does take African Americans, we’re almost always in the corps. Is that progress?”
Andrea Long, a principal dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem, says the fact that DTH (currently on hiatus) is still the single major avenue for African American ballerinas to be principals illustrates how far the classical world still has to go. “Very few mainstream companies are going to say, ‘Hey, let’s give this black girl a chance; let’s make her a ballerina,’ ” says Long, who was in the New York City Ballet corps for nine years before joining DTH. “I made my decision [to leave NYCB] because I didn’t dream of being in the fifth line of the corps in the back. I wanted more, so I joined Dance Theatre of Harlem.”
Some dancers say they are optimistic about current opportunities. “I think it can go either way,” says Michael Smith, who dances with the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. “Your ethnicity can play in your favor. I personally have not come across any problems yet. I feel like here everyone is so different and each of us is able to bring our own thing to the table.” (The Joffrey’s embrace of dancers of color dates back to the 1970s, when Gary Chryst and Christian Holder became popular lead dancers.)
Cleopatra Williams, a corps de ballet member of Houston Ballet, says that her generation is reaping the benefits of battles fought before. “A lot of communities have been reaching out to put ballet into the lives of young minorities. That is how I began dancing,” she says. It also helps, she adds, to have Lauren Anderson, who is the only black female principal in a predominently white company, in Houston as a trailblazer. “She’s my role model,” says Williams. “I’ve been blessed to have her in close proximity.”
But Williams has encountered her share of prejudice, including one instance she remembers when another child refused to hold her hand during a classroom exercise and called her the “n” word. She eventually learned to be unphased by such incidents. “You can’t focus on that,” she says. “You just have to keep going.”
For many artistic directors, the question of opportunities for black dancers, given the multitude of situations they face daily, is not a priority. “It’s not something I spend a lot of time thinking about,” says Pennsylvania Ballet artistic director Roy Kaiser. “I have about 40 dancers in the company and about 4 dancers of color, and they’re there because they’re good dancers. It’s that simple.”
Edward Villella, artistic director of Miami City Ballet, says, “My responsibility is to hire talent. We probably have 14 or 15 different nationalities here. For me, the most important thing is not to discriminate in any matter, shape, or fashion. What I do is hire human beings, no matter what their ethnicity, based on certain abilities that suit our repertoire.”
But Oakland Ballet artistic director Karen Brown, who danced with DTH for 22 years, says artistic directors could make a conscious decision to have an ethnically diverse company. “[Black dancers] are being marginalized,” says Brown, who is the only African American woman heading an American ballet company. “The only people who have the power to make the changes that need to be made are the artistic directors. You have to decide you’re going to have a dancer of color. It doesn’t just happen.”
Gerard Charles, artistic director of BalletMet Columbus, says he made it happen with the help of former colleagues like Keith Saunders, ballet master for DTH. “I enjoy the interaction of all the different body types, racial types, skin tones,” says Charles, who now counts three black dancers in his company. “To me, it’s a stimulating atmosphere. I think it’s also important to reflect our audience.”
Whether or not opportunities for black dancers is a paramount issue for artistic directors, it is the proverbial elephant in the room for black classical dancers. Certainly, their primary focus is on dancing. But when you’re the only black person in the dressing room, or there are only one or two others in company class, at some point the issue comes up.
Aesha Ash says the constant pressure of being the only African American woman in the New York City Ballet was part of what pushed her to leave the company. After seven years in the corps, she joined the Béjart Ballet Lausanne in Switzerland in hopes of finding better roles. “I actually stuck around [for so long] just because I was the only black female. I would see a handful of little black girls [who were studying at School of American Ballet] and tell myself I had to keep going for them. There were people who would stop me on the street and say, ‘You’re the sistah up there doing her thing. Alright.’ I felt like I was on a mission,” Ash says. “But I got tired of feeling different. I wanted to be looked at just for my art. I felt everything about me was so different—my body type, my curves, my hair, my skin color.”
Ash recalls a particularly disquieting moment: “I remember one time we were working on Swan Lake and the woman who had come in to stage it told us, ‘I don’t want see any tan bodies on the stage.’ Well, what am I supposed to do? I guess I’m the dirty swan. Everyone is putting powder on to get as white as possible. What am I supposed to do? Those little things just got to me more and more.”
But even now with Béjart, Ash remains frustrated with the way she is often cast. “I have a soft side, but I’m always cast in stuff where there’s all this fierce, raw energy. I’m so tired of hearing that this is me. It was like that at City Ballet, and here at Béjart I still get that,” she says. “I’m not always this strong black woman on a mission. I don’t always want to move my hips. OK, we can do that. Next. We can be soft also.”
Roger Cunningham, also with Béjart, says he was told that he would never get promoted out of Boston Ballet’s second company. “I was 16; I had been in the second company for two years,” said Cunningham. “The artistic director at the time said, ‘Roger, you’re a lovely dancer, a handsome boy. But I don’t ever think I’ll take you into this company.’ I told him I was going to prove him wrong. When he finally decided to take me [into the main company], he said, ‘Well, you made a liar out of me.’ ”
“From that point on,” Cunningham continues, “I knew how many walls I was going to have to knock down. I wanted to do the prince roles and the grands pas de deux. And I did it all, from the Cavalier in The Nutcracker to the pas de trois in Swan Lake.”
Cunningham says he drew strength from his teacher Sylvester Campbell at the Baltimore School of the Arts. Campbell, known as the “black Nureyev,” had danced with the Dutch National Ballet and was also a member of the pioneering New York Negro Ballet directed by Ward Flemyng in the 1950s. Says Cunningham, “Sylvester had told me to be ready to prove myself, that I would have to be twice as good to make it. When this situation happened in Boston, I was ready.”
Misty Copeland, the only African American woman in American Ballet Theatre, says, “It’s still very rare to see African American women [in an American ballet company]. I think it’s a little bit easier for men because there’s always a shortage of men dancers.” Copeland was invited to be a soloist with DTH and says she considered it. “But I have so many goals I want to accomplish with ABT,” she says. “They’ve never had an African American female go very far, so I want to stick with it and be that person.”
It’s not only prejudice that holds black dancers back. Other issues include family pressures to opt for high-paying careers, limited access to intensive training, and a lack of role models during training years. The number of African American students on the professional track, although growing, remains low. The result is that not many African Americans show up at professional auditions.
“I would love to have more African Americans,” says Stanton Welch, artistic director of Houston Ballet. “But to to give you an example, I just had an audition with 95 people. Only 6 dancers were black. And that’s more than I usually see.”
For now, DTH continues to be the go-to destination for African American dancers, especially women. During the hiatus, DTH dancers have found temporary work (the men getting bookings more easily than the women). But they look forward to returning to DTH, hopefully soon.
“I’m a firm believer that DTH is going to make it back,” says Long, whose husband, Laveen Naidu, is the company’s new executive director charged with restoring the company’s financial stability. “But it would be really, really sad if this great organization was not to exist.”
Despite, or maybe because of the obstacles, many dancers focus on the positive. Says Cunningham, “For me [the focus is to] block negativity, work hard, and give the most I can give to the people who pay to see me do what it is I love—dance.”
Karyn Collins is dance critic and entertainment writer for the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey.
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."
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:
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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.
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.
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.
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.
Rehearsal is in full swing, and Leta Biasucci, Pacific Northwest Ballet's newest principal dancer, finds herself in unfamiliar territory. Biasucci is always game for a challenge, but choreographer Kyle Davis wants her to lift fellow dancer Clara Ruf Maldonado. Repeatedly. While she's known for her technical prowess, lifting another dancer off the floor is a bit daunting for Biasucci, who stands all of 5' 3". She eyes Maldonado skeptically, then breaks into a grin.
"It's absolutely given me a new appreciation for the partner standing behind me!" Biasucci says with a laugh.
Looking at Biasucci, 29, with her wide smile and eager curiosity, you think you see the quintessential extrovert. In reality, she's anything but. "I was an introverted kid," Biasucci says. "That's part of the reason I fell in love with dance—I didn't have to be talkative."
It's only one of the seeming contradictions in Biasucci's life: She's a short, muscular ballerina in a company known for its fleet of tall, long-legged women; she's also most comfortable with classical ballet, while taking on a growing repertoire of contemporary work.
Sergei Polunin, whose recent homophobic and sexist Instagram posts have sparked international outrage, will not be appearing with the Paris Opéra Ballet as previously announced.
POB artistic director Aurélie Dupont sent an internal email to company staff and dancers on Sunday, explaining that she did not share Polunin's values and that the Russian-based dancer would not be guesting with the company during the upcoming run of Rudolf Nureyev's Swan Lake in February.