Race, Equity, and Otherness in Ballet and Society
Curated and introduced by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Featuring Virginia Johnson, Jennifer Homans and Benjamin Millepied
Made possible by support from Michele and Timothy Barakett,
and Cheryl and Blair Effron
Sunday, November 6
By Theresa Ruth Howard
I was anxious about attending the panel on Race, Equity, and Otherness in Ballet and Society. Where I am intimately familiar with Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Artistic Director, Virginia Johnson (having worked with her at both Dance Theatre of Harlem and Pointe Magazine) I had only a pop culture knowledge of Benjamin Millepied à la Black Swan, his Oscar winning wife, and as the former artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet. I was intrigued to hear about his experiences relative to his directorship of the world’s oldest ballet company. Jennifer Homans was the moderator, and what I knew of her was also Google-able: Founder/Director of the Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University, historian, and the author of the Apollo’s Angels, a virtual tome on the history of ballet. The other thing that I was aware of was the fact that nowhere in her 643-page book tracing ballet from its origins in Europe, across the pond to the America, and up through Balanchine, is there any mention of Dance Theatre of Harlem. This struck many as odd. Founded in 1969 by New York City Ballet alum Arthur Mitchell and Karl Shook, DTH was a major ballet company in the 80’s and was heralded for its performance of their Balanchine repertoire. Ballet’s journey from the courts of Louis the XIV in France to a ballet company comprised primarily of Black dancers in Harlem could be seen as one the greatest evolutions of the form, and surely worth a mention.
I believe that what one chooses to exclude is just as telling as what they include. Perspective, point of entry, assigned value, and relevance are not only the elements that inform one’s work; these are also the principles that govern the issue of race, equity and otherness. Such a conversation is a direct confrontation about who decides what is valid, and what is important enough to be included. So the irony that Ms. Homans who through her writing has stated her position, was moderating a panel on racial equity was not lost on me. It made me nervous — the way that Black people get when they know that inevitably, something ill-informed, inaccurate, or just plain ignorant is going to be said, and we are going to have to sit there and behave, because heaven forbid we confirm a suspected stereotype, #blackfolksproblems. I always say, “It’s a fact that you feel, but feelings aren’t facts”. The fact is, I am a person who generally starts from a space of neutrality, then draws conclusions based on what transpires. Since I had no real idea who Ms. Homans was or where she stood, I worked on inhabiting that calm openness in preparation for the commencement of the talk. It was a bit of a stretch, but I am a dancer, I know how to warmup.
As curator of the 5 day festival celebrating French and American culture, Ta-Nehisi Coates gave a brief opening statement, remarking that of all sessions, this was the one he knew the least about, and was looking forward to the dialogue, then he turned it over to Ms. Homans. Ms.Homans opened by giving a brief history of Ballet, the standard regurgitations with illustrations of Louis the XIV and early ballerinas, including Pavlova. With photos she illustrated the evolution of ballet as it reached America (via costumes, body type etc.) Ms.Homans questioned what is Ballet? Her definition in part was “It shows us an image of civil society.” She went on to say that it was a reflection of refined society that exists to make the body civil. This statement made Ms. Johnson tilt her head and squint her eyes as if to ask, “Is that really true?”. My head was also cocked to the side, my brow furrowed as I worked to unpack that statement. It was loaded for many reasons, what came up for me was the counter question: Is that what it was when it was created? Or as Johnson would later remark, is it the edifice of what ballet has come to represent? I shifted in my seat, uncomfortable not with Ms.Homans’s perspective (I am all-too familiar with that), but with how that particular perspective was setting up the narrative for the conversation to follow. Let me explain:
Often when I go events such as this, I feel like I am an unsuspecting extra in a play. A production in which white liberals get to feel good about themselves for being “open” enough to tackle the “hard” topics. They pat themselves on the back while with fanciful circumlocution they evade core issues and responsibility. In these productions people of color are generally minor players, cast as optimistic townspeople hopeful that change is on the horizon…(you do realize that you can never actually GET to the horizon right?) The prelude to this dialogue had the familiar tone of inauthenticity in the positing of the question, and the “staging” of feigned investigation in search of enlightenment when in truth, the conclusion had been drawn long before the evening began. You don’t need a sixth sense to know when you are participating the “production” of discourse, just a keen ear. First you listen for the the coded verbiage, next you have to catch the tone (the nuance of emphasis on certain words the hesitance on others). Finally be aware of the level of careful restraint in the choice of words; is the care really about avoiding offense, or to obscuring true positions? It’s a fact that you feel, but feelings aren’t facts.
Words like civility, elegance, and refinement, are loaded for Black people as they carry a sub rosa message of exclusion. Historically African Americans are believed to be the antithesis of these adjectives, incapable by virtue of our melanin of embodying them, Therefore “It shows us an image of civil society” landed in an emotionally raw space. I bristled at the mention of those adjectives in relation to ballet, an art that I love, and have participated in since I was three, because beneath it I hear the whisper of, “Not you”. Ms. Johnson’s physical reaction to that phrase made me wonder if the statement felt like an insect in her ear as well? Did Ms. Homans mean to invoke the code? I doubt it, I would venture to bet that she has not thought that deeply about it, and therein lies the problem. When you take on the responsibility to host such a conversation you should do your homework, research, talk to some black people, ask some questions, prepare, extend a level of respect for the subject and your guests to stretch beyond your own comfort zone. Challenge your perceptions privately in mixed company with people who will be honest with you, and tell you the truth… Hell, take a doodle poll. !!!
These panels should come with a trigger warning for people of color, because inevitably you will be triggered by the blindness created by the veil of privilege. Forums like these often allow speakers who probably have little to no experiential intimacy with the reality of systematic racial prejudice, or racial exclusion, to engage with a tone of authority while steeped in ignorance. They know so little that they are unaware of how charged and coded certain words and phrases are to the demographic they are trying to engage with or advocate for. They should be trying to understand and not from a racial, statistical perspective, but from a place of humanity and empathy. It’s a fact that you feel…The questions that should be asked first and foremost is “What does it feel like to be a person of color in this situation…in this country?”. The only way you are going to get the answer is to actually talk to, engage with, get to know and listen to the actual people, not a safe surrogate in a diversity workshop. Yes workshops are great warmups but boots on the ground it what is really required.
Let me make it clear, none what transpired here was stunning to me. I have been Black all of my life, I have navigated the world in spaces intended for the most part for White people (Private schools, Ballet etc.) I have heard and sat through worse, so I could shake it off. I, like most people of color am confronted with this type of micro-aggressive language daily. We are adroit at finding center, and staying focused in hopes that what we thought heard is not actually what was meant. We are educated to “Keep hope alive”, to believe in the mirage of the horizon getting closer, breathe, stretch, flow, let it go…But It was when Ms. Homans introduced her history on Blacks in ballet that I was particularly insulted and I knew that I would have to parent myself into my best behavior through the next hour or so.
As a historian moderating a panel about race and equity, the idea that Ms. Homans presentation of the history of Blacks in Ballet was so incredulously deficient, lacking in content and factual information was unconscionable. Where she stated that blacks had been doing ballet in this country since the early 1900’s she presented no examples. Here are some:
Ella Gordon’s School of dance was founded in 1919 in New York and Essie Dorsey School of Dance was founded in 1929 in Philadelphia both taught classical Ballet. This lineage begot the likes of Delores Browne (member of the New York Negro Ballet 1956) John Jones, and Billy Wilson. Of course, she mentioned black dance history 101: Janet Collins (the first Black Principal with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet 1951) Raven Wilkenson (Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo 1956) and Arthur Mitchell (Member of New York City Ballet, and founder of DTH). She even mentioned that Lincoln Kirstein’s original intent to create an integrated ballet school (8 white and 8 black dancers) Albeit she neglected to mention in 1943 Betty Nichols and John Jones were students at the School of American Ballet, (as was Delores Browne). Nichols performed with Ballet Society (the precursor to NYCB) while Louis Johnson performed Jerome Robbins’ Ballade with the New York City Ballet in 1952. Arthur Bell, danced the world premiere of Fredrick Ashton’s Illuminations with the New York City Ballet in 1950.
These might be seemingly “obscure” references (which illustrates the inequity in the recounting of history) however I would expect a historian to (if she hadn’t already for her extensive book on the history of ballet) dredge up a few credits, if only to make her guests feel like she was interested enough to make the effort. To add insult to injury, the images used to exemplify her sparse, ill-informed version of Blacks in Ballet were a picture of Josephine Baker, not a ballet dancer (though she had an affair with Balanchine and temporal muse), Katherine Dunham and a male dancer, (no direct correlation). eventually she showed a picture of Arthur Mitchell in Agon, and DTH from the 1970’s. Her knowledge, and her interest in the history and legacy of Black ballet dancers seemed cursory, reductive and sadly, typically lazy. Later when discussing “Breaking the line” of the corps de ballet with brown dancers, she did not reference the fact that DTH as done Creole Giselle and Swan Lake Act II to contrast the argument of the concept of “sameness” as aesthetic (hence no picture). I will say, kudos to her for playing a very convincing devil’s advocate for tradition though. My vagus nerve clenched, my neutrality began to lean, and not in. I was afflicted by something akin to an out of body experience. As my blood pressure rose it took X-Men like strength to keep me from sighing, sucking my teeth, and muttering under my breath.
One of the reasons we were there was to hear the trials and tribulations Mr. Millepied faced as he pushed for diversity within the Paris Opera Ballet during his brief tenure as artistic director. While a noble endeavor, you have to admit that unless this is a Marvel comic adaptation, we could see how that was going to fail right? Upon hearing his story here are some of the thoughts racing through my head:
“Wow that is awesome that he took that on, he really didn’t have to.”
“Did you really think that you could polonaise into a centuries old, state-run institution, on which the country’s identity is attached, and without investigating the environment, or priming the powers that be, single handedly change a system because it’s the right thing to do? And were you really gobsmacked when there was push back and rejection to your altruistic efforts even from the dancers themselves all 150 of them?”
Upon hearing how he told the higher ups that he would not stand for the Black dancers being painted white in Swan Lake, and the meeting that transpired afterwards when the dancers were pissed:
“Wow, it really must have sucked to be the black dancers in that company meeting, knowing that you, and your brownness is the problem. That all of these people in the room see you as a stain on the perfection of the traditional ballet aesthetic, and see nothing wrong with you having to white yourself out”
Upon hearing that the push back he received for his efforts were some of the reasons he chose to leave:
“Wow, that didn’t take long, stir shit up and leave those dancers there to carry the the torch unprotected and unsupported. You can sit here having your voice heard, and be applauded for giving it a try, and they are on the battlefield everyday silenced, whited out, and expected to be grateful…”
Unwittingly Millepied cast himself as the “Great White Hope” in the fantasy in his own mind without pausing to do his homework about the Goliath he was seeking to slay. To my brown ears his tale rang of the hubris of White privilege. Please don’t misunderstand me, I am happy that he was courageous enough to take the risk, one that paid off, albeit in smaller dividends than he expected. He did managed to hire some black dancers. That is a bittersweet victory for when the others are dancing Swan Lake they are at a masquerade ball painted white to blend, and not “not break the line” or a fragile reality of a country, a world that is changing. It seems as thought he found the struggle discouraging, hard, and exhausting, and fruitless. It seems that he didn’t have the fortitude, or the stamina for it. Perhaps when faced with the reality of what it would take, the commitment, the personal sacrifice, he didn’t have the inclination. After all he could just walk away and his life his personal potential would not be effected…To truly make change it takes time 5, 10, 20 years of consistent and unwavering hard work and still you might not be successful. That is the reality of being Black in America. Think about how long we have been having this same conversation then go talk to some older black folks who marched, and sat in, and got hosed, and chased by dogs. Go ask them what it takes to create change…
I listened as Virginia was doing her best Simon Biles impersonation as she performed what could be considered a verbal floor routine when tackling Ms.Homans’s concept of “civility” and ballet, and challenging her statement that DTH was a company for Black Ballet dancers. I watched her execute tumbling pass after tumbling pass like a ninja, as she adroitly and single-handedly did what most black people are reared to do in these situations, she represented herself and her community with elegance and class, she set the record straight where she could, educated, up lifted, and shut it down when needed. She stuck the landing, but just like watching a gymnastics routine it was exhausting and nerve wracking, mainly because it was a space where she should not have had to work that hard to represent what felt like “her side” when we all love ballet and want what is best for it. Perhaps that is the issue, divergent ideas of what is best for the future of the form.
We all get the concept of “tradition” in Ballet, we all understand the importance of “uniformity”. As people of color, we too were seduced by the aesthetic of sameness. There are few things that are more lovely than a line of 90 degree arabesques, or 20 heads tilted at exactly the same angle. However, when the art itself is allowed a level of elasticity (changing body types, exaggeration of extensions etc.) yet the antiquated, era-based aesthetic does not evolve with it, we start to have a problem. It begins to feel like a commitment to whiteness. It’s fact that you feel, but feelings aren’t facts. The fact remains that we are not seeing brown ballet dancers on the stage in the numbers that we should. Neuroscientist Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, author if the Aesthetic Brain sites symmetry and survival as two primal reasons why we find certain things appealing. Perhaps it is the latter creates the greatest resistance to diversity, or dare I suggest equity? Survival…
I will say to Ms. Homans in this instance the Devil does not need an advocate, he is well represented. Every time there is pristine Swan Lake corps de ballet, he is represented, every time there is a pure white Nutcracker Snow Scene, alabaster Willis, and Sylphs — so white they blend into the mist — he is represented. Almost every time curtain goes up in a ballet concert he is represented. I wouldn’t worry about him too much; he is busy, but he has a large staff. This is edge of the slippery slope we encounter when we endeavor to talk about race, diversity and equity; you are not undone by what you know, but by what is imperceptible by you. You will never know what you cannot know unless you engage the people who do, ask questions, listen more than you talk, and let what you hear in. When you are authentically ready to have a conversation, let me know.