Peter Boal in William Forsythe's installation, Choreographic Objects. Photo by Jennifer C. Boal.
My January is always busy. Weekdays are filled with rehearsals in Seattle and weekends are spent traversing the country auditioning students for our summer intensive. I direct Pacific Northwest Ballet School and I see these auditions as essential investments in future talent for both our school and company. I do them myself to let students know their presence means a great deal to me.
January travels also offer the opportunity to visit the country's museums. Museums have been my go-to places since I was a boy. I love the opportunity for quiet reflection.
This year, in ballet studios and art-filled galleries across America, race was on my mind. I'll venture to say ballet would benefit from paying attention to what's happening in the art world today.
IABD's 2019 men's ballet audition. Photo by Eric A. Smith of CREW Productions, Courtesy IABD
Since they were first offered in 2016, the International Association of Blacks in Dance's ballet auditions for dancers of color have sparked much debate within the dance community. Some believe these auditions create valuable opportunities for dancers of color while others disagree, even going so far as calling them slightly racist.
The International Association of Blacks in Dance's annual audition for ballet dancers of color. Photo by E. Mesiyah McGinnis, Courtesy IABD
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."
The brainchild of Joan Myers Brown (founder of both Philadanco and IABD), the women's audition was created to specifically address the lack of black females in ballet. However, the success and attention that audition drew made the men feel left out, so IABD decided to give the men equal time this year.
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.