Does Classicism Have a Color?

June 20, 2007


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.