Bringing Color To Ballet

November 24, 2009


Diversity is not going to just happen to ballet companies—that much is clear. At a time when attitudes toward race seem to be evolving—in this country and across the globe—dancers of color are still too few and far between when it comes to ballet.

Yet the situation is not at a standstill. Under the radar, and very much in a spirit of self-determination, young artistic directors such as Cassa Pancho in London, Robyn Gardenhire in Los Angeles and Donna Jacobs in Baltimore, to mention only three out of the many who have taken the initiative, are creating needed opportunities.

Not so very long ago, black dancers were denied the chance to even learn ballet, never mind join a company. Despite such an obstacle, the history of blacks in ballet is rich with pioneers such as Joseph Rickard, whose First Negro Classic Ballet debuted in 1947, and Arthur Mitchell, who with Karel Shook founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969. Few would now hold that blacks are incapable of dancing classical ballet, but without concerted effort, it will be a while before, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech, dancers of any race or ethnicity will be judged by the quality of their dancing rather than the color of their skin.

Ballet’s current lack of diversity is making for a self-fulfilling prophecy. With DTH still on hiatus and few black professionals in other companies, role models are in short supply.

“If you don’t see blacks on the stage in ballet enough, then you don’t identify with it,” says Gardenhire, artistic director of City Ballet of Los Angeles, the company and school she founded in 2000.

Gardenhire is one of the rare African American females who can look back on a successful career in ballet, having danced with such companies as Joffrey II, Cleveland Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. After she retired, she returned to her hometown and eventually started a school and then a company, which is now in the Pico Union district of downtown L.A.

“For the school, I wanted to get those kids who are not getting the best training and put it in an area they can access,” she says, “but I want the company, because when you are a kid, seeing what you are working toward is key. When you have professional dancers walking around and in rehearsal, it’s like heaven. It was for me.”

With similar grit, Pancho, artistic director of London’s Ballet Black, is tackling the shortage of ballet dancers of color in Britain.

“I started Ballet Black after doing a dissertation about black women in ballet in the UK,” says Pancho. “I originally thought that I would interview five black ballerinas to see what they had to say. But I couldn’t find any—I couldn’t even find a corps de ballet dancer.”

Pancho’s expectations may spring from her background. “My father is West Indian; my mother is British,” she says. “My family environment was half black, half white, so for me to get to professional ballet school and suddenly be in a completely white atmosphere was a little strange for me.”

When it came time to find dancers for her own company, she soon discovered that high-caliber dancers of color were hard to find. “If you look at a tape of our early work, you would probably cringe. You’d think, ‘Those people aren’t ballet dancers,’ but we had to start somewhere,” she says. “As we went along, and as we got more money and more recognition, we were able to bring in more people of a higher standard. And each year the standard goes up.”

However, she still struggles to find qualified dancers. At a recent London audition, no black dancers tried out, despite a push to expose minorities to the arts. “There definitely has been a big shift here. The ‘in’ thing is to encourage black kids to study ballet,” says Pancho. “But with ballet, because it takes so long, it’s not like playing soccer in school, where you can just kick around a ball and play with all of your friends for free. You can’t learn ballet any way but one way, and I think that’s the problem—why we have such a deficit.”

And while outreach programs here and abroad introduce young people to the strengths of ballet training, such as learning self-discipline, focus and the value of hard work, they are geared to be educational rather than recruitment programs. This means that there is little follow-through between outreach programs and company academies, where future professional dancers are trained. Without nurturing, talented dancers of any color may make other choices rather than entering the field and sticking with it.

“People want to do what they see,” says Donna Jacobs, who is an African American choreographer and artistic director of the multiethnic Full Circle Dance Company. “What children see as little ones may be that ballerina image, but when they grow up, they see So You Think You Can Dance, modern, hip hop or jazz—all of these other things that are in the marketplace.”

And if aspiring students—and their parents—do take ballet’s gamble, the reality is that a winning combination of talent, good training and hard work still may not add up to a contract, let alone stardom.

“Success in classical ballet? Even for white dancers—a rarity,” says Gardenhire. “It is a rare animal who can do this. Ballerinas themselves are minorities, any way you look at it.”

Knowing this can make self-doubt as much a factor as institutional rejection. “We tend to not dare think that we could actually put a tutu on and be a ballerina. But you need to just look at the art form as art, and the body as that thing that inspires awe in an audience, as opposed to looking at just the cover of it,” Gardenhire says. “There’s this magic that happens that can’t be explained most of the time. You watch a dancer who is absolutely technically superior to everybody onstage, but that other person over there is an amazing artist. And art doesn’t have a color to it.”

Embracing difference and maintaining standards are compatible objectives. A passé is a passé, no matter who executes it. “What’s foremost is the absolute technical training, the striving for excellence, the knowing what it is that you need to do at any given moment and being able to execute it in a great way,” says Jacobs, whose company performs contemporary and modern works, although the training is based in ballet.

Full Circle Dance, Ballet Black and City Ballet of Los Angeles were all founded in 2000, and, as each director will tell you, there is still work to be done, but the commitment to make a difference is strong. Recently Ballet Black got a boost by becoming a resident company of The Royal Opera House and will have its next performances in April at the Linbury Studio Theatre.

“My ideal goal for Ballet Black is that it become completely obsolete, in however many years it takes,” says Pancho. “I feel we are on our way. Our dancers now go on to mainstream companies, and that is the goal, to see more black and Asian dancers throughout ballet—to change the landscape.”