"Ballet," said George Balanchine, "is woman." Throughout his long choreographic career, he placed the ballerina at the center of the action, and all eyes were on her. There are numerous examples, from Mozartiana to Theme and Variations, Square Dance and Chaconne.
In this sense, Balanchine was carrying on the tradition of Marius Petipa and other 19th-century choreographers whose story ballets, such as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Giselle, featured vibrant ballerinas at the heart of their tales.
Two questions I'm often asked as an advocate for diversity in ballet are, "Do you think ballet organizations are genuine?" and, "Do you think it's changing?"
Quite honestly, there are times when I am not so certain. Then there are days when I get texts and Facebook messages alerting me to a story that reinforces my belief that ballet might just be shifting.
One such moment was in late November when Andrea Long-Naidu texted me the image of Pacific Northwest Ballet's Clara, Samrawit Saleem. There she was, seated on the floor in her party dress, gazing down lovingly at her Nutcracker with an elegant use of épaulement. Andrea called me, "Theresa, she's gorgeous, she's brown and look at her hair!!" She was referring to Saleem's double strand twists that were styled half-up half-down. My mouth was agape.
New York City Ballet has an image problem. Despite having the moniker of one of the most diverse cities on the planet, the company regularly comes under fire for its lack of diversity. A perception of overbearing whiteness has plagued the institution, often acting as a cultural barrier for prospective students and audiences.
Over the last three years, the company's School of American Ballet and its diversity team have been working to change this. Since NYCB preserves its Balanchine legacy by keeping everything in house—dancers are hired almost exclusively from SAB, where they are trained by former members of the company—the school is a logical place to start transforming its image. And it's working. Presently, the children's division and intermediate/advanced division boasts 44% and 29% students of color, respectively.
When we first announced in December that the International Association of Blacks in Dance was hosting its inaugural ballet audition for women of color, the reactions were mixed. Readers took to social media and beyond to dialogue with the dance community. Some praised IABD's initiative. Others concluded that, unfortunately, auditions of this kind were necessary to provide opportunities for black dancers. Yet others asked if an audition for women of color was racist or overly exclusive. Regardless, all were curious. What would an audition like this look like, and what would be the outcomes?
The video below takes you inside IABD's January 24 audition, which was attended by 87 women. Although the skill and age of the dancers varies greatly, seeing that many black ballet dancers in one place is a rare and powerful sight. Several dancers of mixed race did participate, and based on this video's interviews with some of the auditionees, the spirit of inclusion was a large theme of the day. Artistic staff from more than a dozen ballet schools and companies evaluated the dancers, and they ultimately offered 25 scholarships and invited four dancers to attend their own company's auditions.
ADI's research indicated a need for more role models to help solve ballet's diversity problem. Here, Ashley-Hannah Davis teaches students at Ballet Memphis' school. Photo by Louis Tucker, Courtesy Ballet Memphis.
Diversity is a hot-button topic in today's dance world. It's often linked to conversations about the rise of Misty Copeland, and there have been many notable outreach efforts, such as Charlotte Ballet's partnership with Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre's Project Plié, The Washington Ballet's recently launched program called Let's Dance Together and the work done by the International Association of Blacks in Dance. Now, the American Dance Institute has launched its Future Artists Initiative, a scholarship program to fund training for racially diverse dancers. In a press release from ADI, the organization's executive director Adrienne Willis said, "We feel ADI's Future Artists Initiative will make a great impact on the future of the art form, ensuring the stages of tomorrow reflect the rich diversity of American talent."
After conducting extensive research with the help of Dance/USA and IABD, the organizations selected 40 pre-professional schools that may nominate up 10 students for financial assistance. In order to be eligible for funding this fall, schools have until April 15 to nominate their students, whose parent/guardian must complete an application by May 15. Perhaps what's most unique about this program is its ongoing nature: As long as recipients continue their pre-professional training, they will continue to receive up to $5,000 annually until they turn 18. The money is intended not only to supplement dance training, but also assist with other associated costs (transportation, housing, shoes, clothing, etc.).
On the surface, this may sound like an attempt to use money to solve a problem, but the Future Artists Initiative seems to be digging deeper. Early in the process, they reached out to over 600 dance schools across the country to determine why talented students aren't always able to continue their training. Over 60 schools reported the high costs of tuition, supplies and transportation as the most prohibitive factors in keeping low-income families from quality dance education.
ADI's research also linked ballet's lack of diversity to an absence of role models that students can identify with. In "Diversity Is the New Black" in our January issue, writer Theresa Ruth Howard pointed to the very same issue, along with other changes that need to happen to eradicate ballet's diversity problem.
For more information about the Future Artists Initiative, including ADI's research, click here.