After Allison DeBona's Facebook post commenting on the recent Kendall Jenner controversy went viral, we invited the Ballet West first soloist to elaborate on the Dance Magazine blog.
Let’s cut to the chase. The recent Vogue Spain video with Kendall Jenner was not the first ballet representation gone wrong, and it will not be the last. So, as professional dancers who spend our lifetimes working on our craft, I call you to arms: conceive, create and educate.
From DeBona's Vogue Italia shoot. PC Emma Summerton for Vogue Italia.
I came across the Jenner video on Facebook because a friend of mine shared it. My first reaction was, “not this again!” This summer I was hired by Vogue Italia and the creative photographic mastermind Emma Summerton to be part of an eight page editorial and video for their August issue. Emma told me she was very dedicated to finding someone able to do extraordinary things with their body. I submitted photos and video to be considered for the job. I was up against models who really wanted the opportunity as well, but Emma found my technique to be important to her and her vision, so I booked it.
When I first saw it, I wanted to make light of the Jenner video because it seemed to me Vogue Spain hired her to pretend to be a dancer in her room—I originally wanted to post my video on my Facebook page and write, “Beautiful video Kendall, but I raise you a pointed toe.” But, I slept on it and the photo of Kendall in pointe shoes surfaced. There was a bigger issue to discuss.
I think it is wonderful that ballet is becoming more mainstream. Dance needs that to survive. I have made that point numerous times since Ballet West signed on for “Breaking Pointe.” But, as artists we can no longer allow pop culture to dictate the content that is being released on our behalf. “Breaking Pointe” was pitched to us as a docu-series to showcase the blood, sweat and tears it takes to be a professional dancer, but in post-production we fell victim to what the masses wanted—cat fights and love triangles. Ballet was lost in translation. How do we keep a mass of companies who are trying to capitalize on our art form, but are highly uneducated in our craft, from shaming us? We stop sharing the trash, create art we believe in and support each other.
Emma Summerton for Vogue Italia
There is a high level of competition in ballet, and it is not often that dancers look to their peers in support. We all can say we do, but do our actions support it? I posted my Vogue video weeks ago, and it did not get half of the shares and comments as it did after the Jenner video surfaced. Everyone partakes in self-promotion, but in order to educate the masses we must come together and support the content we find intelligent, thought provoking, artistic and technically sound. I try to practice what I preach. In 2014 I started “Art with Alli – A Random Thought” to create a forum where I could share other dancers' content and endeavors. I ask dancers to tag #ARTWITHALLI for a chance to be featured. I also direct artÉmotion Summer Intensive along with Ballet West principal Rex Tilton, a program we started to invest in the future of young dancers and artists. We will also be launching a new endeavor where we hope to reach the masses on a more regular basis with dance. Be the change you want to see, collaborate with artists who share your vision and share what moves you. Or else Kendall Jenner will continue to get the one million views you’re hoping to get for your latest project. As a commenter on my Facebook page put it: "I know nothing about ballet, but Spanish Vogue made me think, 'clothes + Kendall = $$,' whereas Allison's video made me wish I'd taken ballet."
DeBona didn't perform professionally until she was 24. Photo by Matthew Karas.
There is one thing you should know about me: I am the only person who can tell me what I can and cannot do. I have not followed the conventional path to becoming a ballerina. I quit dancing between the 8th and 11th grades because I wanted to be “normal.” It was 1997 and I was supposed to go to my first summer intensive, but I told my mom I’d rather be home for when my little sister was born. So I was a cheerleader, on the drill team and went to football games on Friday nights instead of ballet rehearsal. Then after I returned to ballet, I went to college instead of auditioning right out of high school. Yes, I did all of those things that young ballerinas are told not to do. To the shock of many, perhaps, I auditioned for ballet companies at 23, got my job at Ballet West and opened my first professional production the night of my 24th birthday. I am now 31 years old and a first soloist with Ballet West.
That’s not to say it was easy. Ballet technique requires dedication. It pushes our bodies physically and is the force behind starting every day at the barre. Technique is part of what binds us ballet dancers together. After all, it is what makes ballet an elite art form.
But despite my love of this challenge, it is not the reason why I returned to the barre. Rather, it has to do with what I learned at 6 years old: In class, my teacher asked us to pretend to walk across a field, pick a flower, smell it and place it in a basket in our arms. Even at a young age, I understood that this was more than a task. She was asking us to tell a story without words. It was the moment that I fell I love with dance, with being an artist.
I love coming to work knowing that I can help transform the stage into a place of magic and help the audience forget about their worries for a few hours. I am able to tell the stories of my triumphs and heartbreaks without saying a word, and let someone in the audience know that they are not alone. I may have had to work triple time to catch up to my peers technically, but it never held me back from trying. When you are given the gift to communicate through movement, it is meant to be shared. Dance was always much more than pirouettes and extensions, more than steps. I dance because it truly is the only universal language.