CriticalDance Forum

Color and Racial Issues in Dance and the Theatre
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Author:  Dean Speer [ Wed Nov 21, 2007 1:22 pm ]
Post subject:  Color and Racial Issues in Dance and the Theatre

Similar but distinct from the topic of “African American Dancers in Ballet.”

The first version of my recent review of PNB’s “Contemporary Classics” program generated some heat. I brought up the topic of color in casting and of racial stereotypes.

While I don’t have the answers, I would like to bring up these questions for discussion:

Should or does color play a part in casting? And if, yes, when is it appropriate?

How should we react when racial stereotypes are played out on stage? [In my review, I reported that one of the PNB dancers – who is black – did a soft shoe during Tharp’s “In the Upper Room” – and how offended I was personally.]

Does the reason for the origin of Dance Theatre of Harlem still exist? [Other than employing dancers.]

Do we need dance companies “of color?”

Not that many years ago, color issues in casting created quite the stir for Broadway’s “Miss Saigon.” Have we evolved past this?

I titled one section of my review, “Color Me Black” which was a reference to the very controversial book of the ‘60s – “Black Like Me” where a white author suffered injections to change his pigmentation to see for himself whether prejudice exists. [It did, and he graphically and truthfully reported his story.] Part of the controversy arose because people could no longer claim indifference – he was “white” yet had the same experiences as persons of color.

Which brings up the question: Have these issues gone away? Are they still with us? Have we progressed as a nation and society to where we can be truly colorblind? Or have we become reactionary as some perhaps fear?

My own *personal* view on one topic is that dance companies are still way too white. There has been much good progress but we can do better. One of the exhibits at the IBC 2006 in Jackson was on blacks in ballet. One of – if not the only – black dancer in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo of the ‘50s, experienced some of these problems [mostly from presenters] and eventually left the company.

Let’s get some good, thoughtful discussion going – even if it’s not in writing.

Author:  Dean Speer [ Wed Nov 21, 2007 3:33 pm ]
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Anther piece is what should directors and/or those responsible for casting do when confronted by this? Not allow a *perceived* racial stereotype to go forward, or to say, "Well, this is the best person for this part, regardless of skin."

I have to ask myself, what would I do if I had to cast something, where the choreography was not going to change yet I might be uncomfortable with the choice(s) I might have to make?

On a slightly different but, again, related front: What about those that are "differently-abled?" Those whose learning or physical abilities or build and appearance might alter from the norm.

I had to solve this on the spot about 10 years ago when I was creating some dances for the Mrs. America Pagaent [believe it or not]. Literally, as I was getting out of my car after a very long drive to the rehearsal site, out of the truck next door popped a midget. My first thought was, "Oh, no!" Not, oh no, I cannot or don't want to work with this person, or even "What we're they thinking!?" But rather, how can I best show off this person -- so it doesn't look either like we're trying to hide them or that we're playing into stereotypes. Or to hurt anyone's feelings. As I walked the few feet to the studio, I really listened hard for the right solution and the answer, in this case, was to pair her with the tallest woman, featuring them -- and also integrating both into the whole group. I was so happy this worked brilliantly and was relieved that everyone was pleased.

I'm convinced that some answers are out there, it just may be that the right answer may vary from situation to situation.

Author:  KANTER [ Thu Nov 22, 2007 11:39 am ]
Post subject:  Fowl Illusion, or Foul Delusion?

There are nearly 7 billion people on the planet now, and only a tiny fraction of that, would qualify as "white".

Either we clean up our act and abolish Apartheid - which means that we stop niggling over trivia such as differences in muscle-shape and so forth - or classical dance will not survive as an art form.

Classical dancing is theatre - it involves the creating of illusion, designed to transport the public into the realm of the imagination.

In that realm, skin colour is as much an illusion as anything else.

Like being a swan.

However, if any reader is, personally, a Swan, or a Barnyard Hen from "Fille", please advise.

Otherwise, if not an Fowl illusion, it may just be a foul delusion.

Author:  ksneds [ Fri Nov 23, 2007 6:54 pm ]
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I did not see the original review, and am not familiar with the ballet in question, but would not associate 'soft shoe' as having any racial connotations. In fact, when I searched for info, the only reference I can find indicates that it's one of several early dance styles that blended into modern tap dancing. And tap dancing has evolved from many cultures - both European and African.

I think it's important not to read too much into any casting decision. With few exceptions, I think race plays very little role in casting - body type, height, talent, injury status, scheduling and partnering considerations are much more important. I think that a role should be considered independent of the colour of dancers' skin - i.e. if a role or choreography is offensive, it should be offensive irrelevant of the dancer performing it.

I was lucky enough to see Jonathan Pryce in "Miss Saigon", and the whole to-do' about race was, frankly, ridiculous. The character in question was actually half Vietnamese-half French, so casting a Vietnamese (or Asian) in the role would have been no less correct than casting a Caucasian. To be honest, I think the race issue was a smokescreen - the AEA didn't want a foreign performer taking the role, but since Pryce had an impressive resume by that point, they knew they would have a hard time refusing him based on the 'not well known enough' bit.

The AEA, while certainly worthy, has made some pretty big goofs regarding the allowing/rejecting of foreign performers before. Some years ago they put up a lot of resistance about letting a West End revival of Oklahoma transfer to Broadway with the existing lead cast. By the time they relented, the dancer/singer/actor in the male lead had gotten a movie role and thus wasn't available for the Broadway run. Less than a half decade later that actor - none other than Hugh Jackman - has both won a Tony for another role and hosted the Tony Awards (two or three time now).

I personally don't think we need 'companies of colour', but don't see anything wrong with DTH or Alvin Ailey. They simply celebrate one facet of American culture and provide opportunities for some fantastic dancers in pretty impressive choreography. Though, I think the dissolution of DTH has pretty much proved that it's probably not needed, given that almost all the former DTH dancers seem to have successfully found jobs around the globe - everywhere from Scotland to England to California to New York. I think the Alicia Graf issue was overblown - she's wonderfully talented, but very tall. And tall male dancers are not a common commodity in the US. I don't think it would have been fair for a company to hire her, only to have her 'on the bench' for most of the season because there weren't enough tall partners.

Yes, companies in the US tend to be white (different issue often in Europe and Australia because of passport based hiring limitations), but I think the real issue is not hiring practices at company level, but lack of diversity in young dancers. I don't think ballet is perceived as cool by kids these days, much less in African-American communities. Ballet is perceived as white and elite - if we can get rid of those misconceptions, we'll make some headway. Perhaps then, Arthur Mitchell would be better in running a school and doing community projects rather than trying to resurrect DTH. If the DTH school can make ballet culturally and financially possible for young African Americans and have results in the form of dancers in major companies, then ballet will seem more acceptable to youngsters.

There are also financial barriers - classes cost money and take away time from after school jobs. Additionally, I think body type does play a role - girls of African-American heritage generally begin puberty at an earlier age. Hips and a bust don't usually go with ballet - and dressing in a form-fitting leotard & tights an be awkward & potentially embarrassing when you are going through pubertal changes. Which might be why - it seems to me - that there are many more African American men in ballet companies than women.


Author:  salzberg [ Sat Nov 24, 2007 5:20 pm ]
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I'm currently lighting a show (it's late November -- almost December. Guess which ballet) for a "pre-professional" company.

There's only one cast member of color and he's a guest artist. Not one stdent is Black or Hispanic.

Author:  ksneds [ Sat Nov 24, 2007 8:23 pm ]
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What is the 'catchment' area for the school like - you're hardly going to have a diverse Nutcracker if all the kids living in the area are white.

But I do think that ballet has a 'white and elite' association, so it's not considered 'cool' for dancers of colour. They're more likely to go with modern/contemporary, hip hop, jazz, tap, salsa, African dance etc. than ballet. And let's be frank - outside of the top companies, ballet is not a job that pays well. So if you're coming from a not so well off household, and might need to support a sibling or parent, ballet is not the career of choice.

As I said, I think we need to work at getting African-Americans into ballet - making it affordable, cool and providing the needed encouragement to keep the girls going beyond puberty. Once there are more African-Americans in the 'graduating' classes, they'll be hired into the companies. ADs in this country do tend to go for the skinnier body types, but have certainly been willing to take talented dancers, irrelevant of body type - think Lauren Anderson, Monique Meunier, Alexandra Ansanelli (poor turnout and severe scoliosis) etc. And all the short dancers.

There is no shortage of dancers of hispanic heritage in the ballet world - think of all the Spaniards, Colombians, Cubans, Argentinians and Brazilians. So if there are fewer young dancers of hispanic origin from the US, I suspect it's more to do with finances. I would note that in recent years, there are more hispanic sounding surnames in SAB classes.

Author:  salzberg [ Sat Nov 24, 2007 8:31 pm ]
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What is the 'catchment' area for the school like

55% Black, 12% Hispanic, 32% White.

Author:  LMCtech [ Mon Nov 26, 2007 5:45 pm ]
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I've said this before and I'll say it again. The ballet body type excludes a lot of non-white ballet dancers from continuing beyond an intermediate level. A higher percentage of Asian girl have short legs. A higher percentage of African-American girls have inappropriately low arches. Many more Latino girls are curvier than is deemed acceptable. These are all "deal-breakers" once you get into the "pre-pro" levels at the major ballet schools. Those girls, who have imbeccable training and are usually just as good if not better dancers than their classmates, are encouraged to explore other dance forms (modern, jazz, hip-hop, musical theater) and are usually extremely successful in them. Until the ideal ballet body type is broadened we will not see a broadening of the skin colors.

Author:  Francis Timlin [ Tue Nov 27, 2007 2:48 pm ]
Post subject: 

Alastair Macaulay touches upon several related issues in his New York Times piece on the 50th Anniversary of "Agon."

NY Times

Author:  LMCtech [ Wed Nov 28, 2007 12:13 pm ]
Post subject: 

An interesting article. Thanks for posting!

Author:  luvschicago [ Fri Nov 30, 2007 4:07 pm ]
Post subject: 

Thanks for posting Francis!

Author:  luvschicago [ Sat Nov 29, 2008 2:08 pm ]
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I wonder now that Misty Copeland is the 1st Black female soloist at ABT, most AD's view of the ballerina will change?
If she becomes a sensation at the company and the public loves her, that's problaby when NYCB will follow suit--I'm hoping that they'll ask Aesha Ash to return.

Author:  salzberg [ Fri Dec 19, 2008 3:38 pm ]
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The ballet body type excludes a lot of non-white ballet dancers from continuing beyond an intermediate level.

Then we need to change our image of the ideal ballet body type.

If an artistic director were to say that, "The ideal ballet body requires pale skin," we wouldn't accept that, so why should we accept other criteria that exclude racial minorities?

Author:  LMCtech [ Mon Dec 22, 2008 11:50 am ]
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I think there are two non-negotiables in ballet: highly arched feet and long legs. If dancers of any ethnic background (including white) lack those two things, they will not progress. Misty Copeland has both.

Author:  Francis Timlin [ Sat Sep 25, 2010 12:10 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Color and Racial Issues in Dance and the Theatre

In an article for Dance/USA, Dance Theatre of Harlem Artistic Director Virginia Johnson discusses the challenges of building diversity in ballet companies.


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