Op-Ed: Why We Need To Confront Bias in Dance Criticism
Points should be given to the dance world for beginning to address the issue of diversity. But have we ever taken into consideration who critiques dance—and the lack of diversity in that area of our community? Or how critics' subconscious biases create barriers to the elevation of non-white artists?
Recently, Charmian Wells wrote a scathing critical analysis of New York Times dance critic Gia Kourlas' review of DanceAfrica. Entitled "Strong and Wrong: On Ignorance and Modes of White Spectatorship in Dance Criticism" it took Kourlas to task for critiquing from a place of cultural and technical ignorance.
Forces of Nature Dance Theatre, which performed at DanceAfrica. Photo via Facebook.
Reviews are part of the life blood of artistic sustainability—funders, agents, bookers and audience members use them as guides. Dance critics have a responsibility to the community to do, and be better, or at least have the courage to let the reader know what they don't understand.
How can you truly comment on what you are seeing when you have no technical knowledge of a specific genre like African or hip hop? Critics who stand on the outside of a culture cannot write about what they do not know. Artists of color endure reviews that are often reductive or dismissive, especially when the work is "foreign" to the critic. Critiques without in-depth analysis—but with comments about how energetic, colorful or dynamic dancers are—reduces the sophistication and mastery that might be present to a learned eye. Instead, what's read between those lines is "happy Negroes dancing."
The black body on stage is never neutral, and the effects of its inherent politicization as it relates to the subconscious cultural ignorance and biases held by critics is seldom addressed.
The most common microaggressive critique of black artists is the hyperawareness of their bodies. There are critics who wax poetic about rippling, sinewy musculature, or raw sensuality while overlooking the actual dancing. These trope-laden reviews can read as though the writer was critiquing a dancing slave auction. You can barely read a review of the Ailey company without the mention of their over all "buffness," especially that of the men. During the meteoric rise of Misty Copeland, there was little talk of her technique; instead there was great focus her "athleticism," aka muscularity.
Copeland's Under Armour campaign
Even choreographers fall victim to this focus. Take William Forsythe and Alonzo King: Both have extrapolated the ballet vernacular, one from an anatomic/intellectual place, the other from a organic/spiritual one. Early in their careers, Forsythe was heralded for his innovation and daring while King's work was reduced to the beauty of his dancers, never addressing the systematic methodology behind creating his aesthetic.
Donald Byrd is another example of a black choreographer whose early work critics rarely acknowledged for its choreographic intricacies. They consistently used adjectives such as "aggressive," and focused on the "violent" nature of his movement. Byrd was the "angry, black man" choreographer.
Los Angeles Times critic Lewis Segal wrote a particularly scathing review of Byrd's 1998 production of Life Situations: Daydreams on Giselle, stating, "Byrd has never come to terms with his fixation on ballet." The fixation of which he speaks is the same one that Twyla Tharp's 1973 Deuce Coupe was lauded for. Segal was unrelenting: "Obviously, there are plenty of distinguished choreographers who explore ballet technique without requiring toe shoes—Jirí Kylián for starters. But nobody seems as unrelenting as Byrd in his fixation on tests of balance: the heart of pointe choreography." Why should Byrd be required to "relent" when his white counterparts are free to create?
Black artists are often hemmed into addressing culturally-specific topics, knowing that in order to succeed, white critics must be able to properly "place" them. There is an odd power struggle when black artists' voices are dictated to them through the critique of what writers "would have liked" to see or what they "should" do instead of the critics confronting what they are actually watching.
Choreographers are trapped between the rock of being culturally-specific, and the hard place of creating abstract work—or any work not necessarily associated with blackness. 2013 MacArthur fellow Kyle Abraham seems to be damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. For his latest work for Alvin Ailey, Absent Matter, his inspiration is clearly taken in part from his life in a black male body. Yet The New York Times decided "Mr. Abraham is not fully formed enough as a choreographer to tackle it," implying that he is (artistically) incapable of telling his own story. Meanwhile, for his new work on his own company, Dearest Home, which instead of confronting politics, confronts human emotion, NYT deemed it, "too many tears, not enough art."
Camille A. Brown tried to get ahead of this problem with her BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play. This work is dense with the sentiment of growing up as a black girl, and the physical vocabulary is like an encyclopedia spanning from the shores of Africa to the dancehalls of Jamaica and the streets and clubs of America. Cognizant of the overall illiteracy of the audience (because this is information not taught), Brown placed a study guide in the program, and built in a post-show talkback where much of the cultural and historical information was unpacked. Still, writers gave the production a scratch-and-sniff once over, reducing the rhythms derived from Juba to "sneaker tapping" and using trite adjectives to describe the movement: "A sassy, fierce and at times playfully snarky step dance number opened the evening."
A May danceviewtimes review of The Washington Ballet in Lilac Garden unwittingly revealed the exact reasons why there is such a problem with diversity in ballet today.:
"Another issue was racially neutral casting. Ashley Murphy, one of the company's black dancers, was the bride-to-be Caroline. Jonathan Jordan, one of the company's white dancers, was the lover she can not marry. That this became a mixed race pair added a dimension to the story that Tudor hadn't intended in his careful depiction of English society during Edwardian times—a distracting dimension."
I would like to know if writer George Jackson is distracted when white male dancers perform the Moor's role in Othello? Or when white dancers do the Chinese, Arabian, Spanish roles in The Nutcracker? Is he disturbed when humans play swans or when live women are cast as dead ones? Or is his opinion on what he refers to as "neutral casting" reserved for non-white people in traditionally white roles? If that is the case, since traditionally most roles in ballet were cast on white dancers, where would that leave people of color?
Ashley Murphy with her real-life fiancé, Sam Wilson.
His comments on the choreographer's original intent are purely speculative. Ironically, when you watch the ballet, the only nod to culture, class or era is in the costuming and hair (depending on the production); not even the set alludes to a time period. This is what makes the ballet so enduring—it is a universal story of unrequited love. The casting of the interracial couple is somewhat of a Rorschach test, and clearly Jackson did not see a butterfly.
But if Jackson wants to rely on history, then let's do. In the 1940s Tudor worked extensively with African American ballet dancers in Philadelphia. When other white teachers refused to teach them, he welcomed them into his classes. When the likes of Delores Browne and Joan Myers Brown took his partnering class and white male dancers refused to partner them, he was happy to step in. Judith Jamison speaks of her time training with him with great affection. In 1954, he choreographed Offenbach in the Underworld for the Philadelphia Guild with John Jones, Billy Wilson and Delores Browne (the ballet was later done on ABT).
Based on these facts, there is a great likelihood that Tudor would have had little issue with the color of the dancers.
Tudor teaching at Jacob's Pillow. Photo via antonytudor.org.
Black performers, choreographers and directors are never shocked by this; it is what acronyms like SMH were truncated for. But it smarts a bit more when you believe that you are sharing the hallowed, liberal space of the theater where "the suspension of disbelief" is the agreement we enter into when we cross the threshold.
The fact that dance critics are allowed to write their personal proclivities without presenting them as such is a problem. The fact that there are so few dance critics of color working for mainstream outlets is another. The fact that critics are under no obligation to disclose their ignorance, yet are imbued with the authority to write about (or around) the work, or worse, dismiss its validity, is yet another.
Major publications have been printing pieces about diversity in dance, and have yet to look at their writing and editorial staffs. There can be no "marking" in our community if we are truly looking to create equity. It's full out or fail. Starting a conversation about the way work is critiqued should be a part of the reconstruction. And until then we have to call it like we see it. In true New York fashion, "If you see something, say something."
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.
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."
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:
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."
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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.
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
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:
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.
Update: Additional perspectives have been added to this story as more responses have come in.
"Every time I see a little girl in a tutu or with her hair in a bun on her way to ballet class, all I can think is that she should run in the other direction," she said, "because no one will protect her, like no one protected me."
It was quite a statement, and it got us thinking. Of course, it's heartbreaking to imagine the experiences that Waterbury lists in the lawsuit, and it's easy to see why this would be her reaction.
But should aspiring ballet dancers really "run in the other direction"? Were her alleged experiences isolated incidences perpetuated by a tiny percentage of just one company—or are they indicative of major problems in today's ballet culture within and beyond NYCB's walls?
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.
Before spending a summer at Los Angeles Ballet School, Lillian Glasscock had never learned a Balanchine variation. "The stylistic differences, like preparing for a pirouette with a straight back leg, were at first very challenging," says Glasscock, 17. "But it soon got easier."
Los Angeles Ballet company members were in class daily, motivating and inspiring her. Trying out a new style and expanding her repertoire gave Glasscock more strength, and a better understanding of the varied demands of ballet companies today. Months later, the Balanchine variations she learned are now personal favorites.
While the early years of training are typically spent diligently working through the syllabus of a single ballet technique, when you start to prepare for a professional career, versatility is key. There isn't just one correct version of each step. And as ballet companies continue to diversify their repertoires, directors need dancers who can move fluidly between an array of styles.