Olivia Goldhill and Sarah Marsh of the Guardian recently posed the question “where are the black dancers?” in reference to classical ballet companies. I immediately thought “well there is Carlos Acosta….and Misty Copeland…..Junor Souza…….Eric Underwood”, and my list quickly fizzled out. The black dancers are out there, they just aren’t given the roles and are thus not visible.

When Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams created the iconic pas de deux in Balanchine’s Agon in 1957, the visual impact was heightened immensely by the fact that he was black and she was caucasian. 50 or so years on, the pairing of Eric Underwood and Sarah Lamb in Wayne McGregor’s Infra seemed to hold the same allure. Why? Because we’re just not used to seeing it.

Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell in Agon

Some parties still argue that ballet developed in Europe in the latter half of the last millenium and everyone involved was white, and through the centuries we’ve become conditioned to expect a certain look, and when we’re confronted with something else we somehow, automatically, think it’s “wrong”.

In the sporting world no one raises an eyebrow when the entire field in the mens 100m sprint is of Afro-Caribbean descent – that’s because these gentlemen are simply faster than runners from a different ethnic background. This cannot be said for dance, where your place in the corps de ballet might depend on the colour of your skin and not your talent.

As I have mentioned above, some black dancers have made their mark in the classical ballet world, but the fact that companies have existed and continue to exist, like Ballet Black in London and Dance Theatre of Harlem, to employ dancers from ethnic minorities (in a dance-sense), speaks volumes.

I’m not just trying to fly the flag for racial equality here – the present situation poses problems for future generations of both dancers and audiences. Ballet already suffers from the curse of being seen as elitist. Until dancers of all backgrounds are working at a visible level in high-profile companies, ballet will remain in its Ivory Tower. That the “look” of a work might suffer because of the lack of ethnic uniformity in the corps de ballet is rubbish – and the longer ballet companies maintain this stance, the less relevant they will become. An artform can only be relevant if it is reflecting the times in which it exists – so the sooner we see more different shades of skin on stage, the sooner ballet can start it’s uphill struggle towards being a contemporary artform again.

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2 thoughts on “Colour

  1. Richard says:

    I believe classical companies would love to employ more black dancers, cultural diversity is always a PR plus!!! I think the problem starts at the bottom, the talent is not feeding in because, perhaps, in black communities ballet is not seen as a socially or culturally accessible activity. I love watching companies like Ballet Black and Alvin Ailey, perhaps if these dancers were working for mainstream companies (without a doubt the dancers are all talented enough) then we would see a greater diversity across the art form!! Could it be that the existence of such companies is in fact holding black dancers back in the art form?? Controversial!! Not saying I agree with this, just raising the question!!

    Anyway, yet another thought provoking and insightful post from Dance Dialogue!!!
    Thank you.

  2. Carla Escoda says:

    Agree the problem starts at the bottom, through lack of exposure to the performing arts – which is mainly an economic issue. Going to see the ballet, and training in ballet are enormously expensive propositions, just like certain sports that are traditionally viewed as elitist (skiing, sailing, etc.) Outreach programs by ballet companies are one of the best ways to find young talent and engage underserved communities, but the costs are daunting esp. in these difficult economic times when companies can barely afford to pay their own dancers, and philanthropic giving is shrinking.

    “Non-traditional”, “non-white” companies like Alvin Ailey, DTH, Ballet Black, and in Asia a small number of top-notch companies like Ballet Philippines, and of course Cuba, are essential incubators for Western companies. Their alumni have fed increasingly into the principal and soloist ranks of companies like the Royal, ABT, NDT, Miami City Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, which today reflect a striking ethnic mix – not just black, but all shades of brown and olive. These dancers are important role models for aspiring professionals.

    But the bigger problem remains in the corps de ballet where uniformity is most obvious, as Dance Dialogue forcefully points out. Ballet companies are not run by committee – Artistic Directors reign supreme in companies large and small, and their personal tastes and decisions are reflected in the “look” of their companies: diversity in the corps is solely in their hands.

    Back in the late 1980’s, ABT’s production of Swan Lake featured long romantic tutus for the swan corps. A handful of these tutus were all-black, and the black-clad swans were sprinkled seemingly randomly onstage. The impact of this design was stunning – far more so than the traditional, uniformly white swan corps – and a powerful metaphor for why ethnically mixed ballet companies are fundamentally more exciting to watch.

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