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.
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.