At a time of growing diversity in other arts sectors such as musical theatre and contemporary dance, classical ballet seems to have stood still. Stunted by tradition, habit and the expectations of a niche audience, directors of the world’s top classical ballet companies settle with the ‘safe’; employing fair Sugar Plum Fairies and snowy white swans in principal roles.
In 2012 Olivia Goldhill and Sarah Marsh wrote a rousing article for The Guardian titled “Where are the black ballet dancers?”. The piece revealed startling figures on the amount of black female dancers in top classical ballet companies around the world, encouraging and urging change and almost promising it. Yet, three years after the article was published the question still remains: why is the industry so whitewashed?
The English National Ballet and Bolshoi Ballet in Russia each boast no black female principal dancers in the company. Closer to home, Leeds’ very own Northern Ballet does not have a single black female dancer among its ranks. The reasons why are unclear with dancers arguing of an inherent racism within the industry while directors suggest that there are a lack of black dancers to choose from in auditions.
A lack of black dancers turning up to audition for the top companies points to a more acute issue at a community level, bringing the problem full circle; no role models for young black dancers can be created if there are no young black dancers to begin with. Ballet Black was founded in 2001 by Cassa Pancho “in order to provide role models to young, aspiring black and Asian dancers”, and to set them up with “inspiring opportunities in classical ballet”. The British company began with six dancers and has now grown to a larger company which tours across the UK and also includes a junior ballet school based in West London to inspire the next generation of black and Asian classical ballet stars.
Across the pond in the States, there is a new engagement with black ballet dancers after Misty Copeland was promoted to principal dancer with the distinguished American Ballet Theatre in June this year; the first African-American woman to have achieved this in the company’s 75 year history. Copland is an icon and inspiration within her field, making the cover of Time Magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People’ in 2015 and publishing a memoir “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina“. Her dark skin and muscular build stand apart from the slight white dancers that classical ballet audiences are accustomed to. Copeland has spoken extensively on the lack of black female dancers in ballet, in an interview with New York Magazine she said, “[Ballet is] such a traditional and historic art form that people are afraid to change it”.
In a similar vein, at age 13 The Washington Post called Shannon Harkins “the face of African American ballet dancers’ struggle,” as she performed as the only African-American in The Washington Ballet line up. The article also points to Copeland as Harkins’ idol, two years before her appointment as principal dancer.
Black male ballet dancers have generally fared better in the industry with a greater percentage than that of black female dancers taking on principal roles within companies. Carlos Acosta being the most famous black British dancer who draws in sell out audiences with the English National Ballet. Despite this, black male dancers are still underrepresented compared with their white counterparts. Christopher McDaniel, a dancer at the Los Angeles ballet states in The Guardian that, “a lot of black men are cast in full-mask roles, like the Mouse King or the wolf in Sleeping Beauty. It‘s also common for black men to be cast in aggressive parts.”
The lack of black classical ballet dancers at professional level is a conversation that has been echoed time and time again and will continue to be discussed until directors and choreographers represent the real world on their stages. As far back as 1990 Lauren Anderson became the first black female principal dancer at any major dance company in the USA upon her appointment with the Houston Ballet. Despite this, in a 2007 interview with The Times she spoke out on the courage it, shockingly, still takes for directors to cast black dancers: “but why should it take guts?” she says, “It’s art, it’s ballet, it’s dance and it’s for everyone.”
See Ballet Black perform a Triple Bill at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre in Leeds on 20th and 21st November 2015, 7:30pm. Tickets £15.00, £12.50 conc. See the website for more details: www.balletblack.co.uk.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Loadmaster (David R. Tribble)