Last month, through a joint collaboration between the Center for Ballet and the Arts and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, came together to co-presented a conversation on Race, Equity and Otherness in Ballet. Moderated by Jennifer Homans and featuring the acclaimed Virginia Johnson and Benjamin Millepied, all spoke on different issues of race, equity, and the challenges they have face with the concept of “otherness” in the ballet world.
Recently over the past few years, the field of ballet has received a lot of criticism for holding onto and perpetuating traditions that are at odds with contemporary society in terms of race, diversity, equity, equality, and social justice. With the rise of Misty Copeland to be the first African-American female principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre and the push back Benjamin Millepied received while trying to change racial stereotypes at the Paris Opera Ballet, has brought these issues into the spotlight.
There is an institutionalized discrimination that runs deep dating back hundreds of years and back to the 17th century when it comes to ballet. There was (and still is to a certain extent) the idea that ballet is an art form associated with aristocracy, elitism, and nobility. As a European dance, that was codified by King Louis XIV, it was primarily performed in the French Royal Court, making it often performed by and for the upper class.
I personally like ballet and I have studied it as a child in the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) technique for a number of years. It is a beautiful dance, but was often excluded by those who didn’t fit the “idea” of ballet, specifically from those who were non-white and had black or brown skin. There was (and still is) an idea of “purity” in ballet.
Benjamin Millepied, is a French-born, but American-trained ballet dancer. He started dancing at the young age of eight with his mother Catherine Flori (a former modern dancer). He came to New York to study at the School of American Ballet, where he was a student full-time and received a scholarship from the French Ministry. He was invited to join the New York City Ballet in 2001, was promoted to the rank of principal, and danced until his retirement in 2011. As a choreographer, he was a choreographer-in-residence at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, received the United States Artists Wynn Fellowship and has set work on a number of major ballet companies including the American Ballet Theatre, the Mariinsky Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the Royal New Zealand Ballet. In 2012, he founded the L.A. Dance Project and in January 2013 was appointed to be the director of the Paris Opera Ballet.
Millepied made headlines in February 2016 when he announced his resignation from his role at the Paris Opera. He came into the position wanting to “bring a breath of air to ballet” and bring diversity to both the audience and the dancers. During this conversation, he spoke about in his efforts to do his plans, but he received a lot of push back. He was told he was breaking tradition, that bringing diversity was a distraction to the stage, and that the company was built on homogeneous ideals which is the company’s strength.
One story that I personally found to be shocking was when he was planning to have the company perform the classic Swan Lake. In his efforts to bring diversity, he was able cast three dancers of color. During one of the dress rehearsal, he noticed he could not find those three dancers because the make-up artist made them up in whiteface! It was probably that along with other similar confrontations that led to his quick resignation. Although Millepied never said that was his reason for leaving, but he did say that the demands of running a company like the Paris Opera proved to be incompatible with his personal goals.
Virginia Johnson is a founding member and current Artistic Director of the acclaimed Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH). DTH was founded by the wonderful Arthur Mitchell in 1969. As a former New York City Ballet dancer, he started the company in response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s death as a racially diverse company that challenged the preconceived notions of ballet. As a dancer, Ms. Johnson performed with DTH for 28 years in principal roles such as Swan Lake, Gisselle, Agon, and Allegro Brilliante. As a choreographer, her work has been showcased at Goucher College, Dancers Responding to AIDS, Harlem Arts Festival, and Marymount Manhattan College. Fusing her love of dance and journalism, she founded POINTE Magazine and was the editor-in-chief for nine years.
During the conversation, Ms. Johnson brought up a few interesting points. Ballet has the traditions of having a “white eurocentric aesthetic.” This has been seen in its long history and still today. We have this narrow view of what is ballet and what is a ballet body and this is where it becomes a political and social issue. Because of its traditions, there is a security in it that it has order. There are certain rules that people don’t want to change and there is a lack of willingness to change. There seems to be a fear, resistance, and expectation to hold onto the past that can be detrimental to the future of the art form.
Many have said art is a representation of ourselves and with the growing number of diverse populations, ballet is not a true reflection of our society. However, it may not be the physical representation, but maybe it is the reflection of how we as a people see society. In our country, many have felt we here in America have moved on from racism and discrimination until you look at the results of our 2016 presidential election. Many have called it a “white-lash” and a desperation of holding onto the traditions of our nation’s history and foundation. Yes demographics have changed and we call for more diversity as populations are shifting, but the ideas of living in a “white-privileged” America are still here. We want to see more diversity on the stage and see other cultures represented- and in some ways we have, but perhaps we were wrong to say ballet is a poor reflection of society. Maybe it is the truest reflection. One we don’t want to admit or acknowledge. I’m not saying I agree with these ideals, but it is something to note and worth mentioning.
We want change, but have things really changed? We want things to be different, but were they ever really different? We talk about race, and equity, and otherness as if this is a new conversation. These topics have been around for centuries. We have been fighting about this for a long time. I don’t say this to discredit or lower the progress that has been made. We came from a time where we thought separate was equal and now realize separate is not equal. And that is great. But the discrimination runs very deep and is institutionalized into every aspect of society whether we realize it or not. I believe recent events have shown that clearly. Change takes time, but we also cannot ignore the facts we are facing in our reality.