Ballet Memphis dancers in Steven McMahon's Being Here With Other People. Photo by Brandon Dill.

 

Ballet has a lily-white reputation.


The great “ballet blanc” works glorify white swans, white shades, white wilis and white sylphs. Still, in 2014, balletgoers might expect some progress in racial diversity onstage, especially in the U.S., where populations of color are growing. But comb the rosters of most American companies and you’ll find a striking sameness. While a few have established inclusive policies in training and hiring, they are the minority. There is a notable exception—Asian and Asian-American dancers have made real inroads. However, dancers of other ethnic backgrounds continue to face challenges, especially women.


Many factors contribute to ballet’s lack of diversity: economic inequality—ballet training is notoriously expensive; a lack of role models for aspiring dancers to emulate; a failure on the part of schools and companies to provide support for young dancers of color on the uphill road to professional success. And another factor looms large in the discussion: Many believe a thread of racism still runs through the ballet world. “There are people who define ballet in a very specific and historic sense and think it should look like the Mariinsky in 1950,” says American Ballet Theatre executive director Rachel Moore, who last year launched the company’s Project Plié, an initiative to support the training of ballet students from underrepresented communities.


However, prejudice has many facets. “People still have not embraced the notion of diversity within this art form because it’s always been seen as an exclusive art form,” says Virginia Johnson, the artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, which has been carrying the torch for racial inclusion for 45 years. “It’s not only been exclusive of people of color—it’s been very class-oriented.”


And, of course, there’s the canard about black bodies appearing unsuitable for ballet. “I’ve heard from the mouths of dance professionals that black dancers categorically cannot become ballet dancers because they don’t have the right body,” says Moore. “I think that is an incredibly unfortunate myth that still exists.”

Racial demographics in the U.S. have changed dramatically in the past three decades. Hispanics, who made up just 6.45 percent of the population in 1980, made up 16.3 percent by 2010. The African-American population has increased from 11.52 percent to 12.6 percent; whites are expected to no longer make up a majority by 2043. Dorothy Gunther Pugh, the artistic director of Ballet Memphis, long anticipated this change. “I made this a priority years ago—creating a ballet company committed to representing what more and more of America looks like,” she says. “I love the beauty and esthetic of ballet, but I think it’s been awfully rigid.”



Of Ballet Memphis’ 19 dancers, 4 are black, 2 are Asian, 11 are white and 2 are Hispanic. Pugh has adopted a philosophy that Ballet Memphis’ artists are “citizen/dancers,” serving their community whether onstage, in a community center or by teaching in the school. The company’s outreach to Memphis’ underserved communities has been a core component of this approach. “We’re rethinking the most effective ways to engage with the community,” says Pugh. “This ‘helicopter drop’ of going to a school and then leaving has a lot of limitations in terms of effectiveness. So we’re trying to develop partnerships with community centers. We’ve given our dancers some training in how to work with children, to meet them where they are and not say, ‘I’m a ballerina floating down from the sky.’ ”

Twenty years ago, Rachel Moore ran Project STEP, an outreach program of the Boston Symphony Orchestra that went into every Boston public school kindergarten, identified talented children of color and gave them high-quality musical training from ages 5 to 18 in hopes of getting them into major conservatories—a “grow your own” strategy. Last year, Moore initiated ABT’s Project Plié, which mirrors Project STEP by targeting African-Americans, Native Americans, Indian-Americans, Mexican-Americans and Arab-Americans, with the goal to nurture talented dancers in those communities. (Cubans, at least at ABT, have been well represented due to their rich ballet tradition.)



Project Plié takes a multi-pronged approach to mitigating the diversity problem. It grants merit-based training scholarships to talented children of color; it provides teacher training scholarships to teachers of color; it grants intern scholarships to young arts administrators of color (“It should be diverse not only onstage but backstage,” says Moore); it partners with other ballet companies (like Nashville Ballet; see sidebar) to determine effective outreach tactics; and it has established a partnership with Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

    
Some companies have taken a lower-key approach. Stanton Welch, Houston Ballet’s artistic director, says his viewpoint on racial issues stems from his Australian background and its affinity with Asian cultures. Houston Ballet has 10 Asian dancers out of a company of 47. He seems less concerned with a lack of black dancers in his company (there are only two—both male corps dancers, and Houston’s population is 23.7 percent black) than in trying to recruit Hispanics, who make up 43.8 percent of Houston’s population. “There’s definitely a need to reach out, especially to the Hispanic community,” says Welch. “I just don’t know how to do it. Even with more accessibility, I think there’s a sense that ballet is elitist in communities that aren’t as affluent.”


Many, Welch included, have placed all bets on ABT soloist Misty Copeland, the author of Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, and on her potential to become the first black female principal dancer in ABT’s pantheon of stars. “Misty’s such an extraordinary face of ballet, beautiful and smart,” says Welch. “She’s the one that could turn this around for everyone.”


“I’ll go on record as saying I think that Misty should be promoted to principal dancer, but it’s not for me to say,” says DTH’s Johnson. “It really is up to the artistic director to make that choice.” Nevertheless, it points to a larger issue. “We’re in that place where you have all your hopes pinned on Misty Copeland,” she adds. “There should be 15 Misty Copelands in our schools ready to step up. When I look across the country, I see fine training going on, but I’m not seeing that level of advanced 16-  or 17-year-old dancers of color.”


One key could be rethinking what ballet means to communities. Diversity training in ballet schools, Johnson points out, could help teachers and students understand the importance of inclusion. Perhaps more fundamentally, ballet companies need to lose their image as status symbols drawing wealthy local patrons eager to show off their cultural credentials. Today’s younger generation, Johnson believes, craves an updated version of ballet. “If you’re going to the ballet, you want to see something that has meaning to you, not something harking back to another culture,” she says. “I think we need to look at ballet that is a living art form expressing a contemporary vision of beauty.” She believes this will foster more interest and engagement from underrepresented communities.


But Johnson is surprisingly optimistic about the future for ballet dancers of color. “I think five years from now, we won’t be talking about this anymore,” she says. “When it happens, it’s going to happen very fast.”

 

Nashville Ballet's Kayla Rowser and Jon Upleger in Firebird. Photo by Marianne Leach.

 

Teaming Up with Project Plié

Nashville Ballet is one of the latest companies to sign on for Project Plié, ABT’s initiative to increase diversity in ballet schools and companies nationwide. “Nashville is changing,” says Paul Vasterling, artistic director and CEO. “Our goal down the road is to have a company that looks like the community.” Project Plié will augment Nashville Ballet’s current outreach efforts, which already show results at the school’s lowest levels. Nashville Ballet partners with six public elementary schools to bring in ballet performances and workshops, and also offers scholarships to the company’s affiliated school.


Vasterling was looking for ways to expand his outreach program when Nashville Ballet’s African-American ballerina, Kayla Rowser, approached him about Project Plié. He signed up immediately. The company will collaborate with local Boys & Girls Clubs of America and talk with other Project Plié participants about outreach that works in their respective communities. “The first step is the sharing of knowledge,” says Vasterling. As of now, seven companies in addition to Nashville Ballet (Ballet Austin, Ballet Memphis, Ballet San Jose, Cincinnati Ballet, Oklahoma City Ballet, Orlando Ballet and Richmond Ballet) are partnering with ABT to develop Project Plié’s goals.


At Nashville Ballet, Vasterling says that Rowser will continue to play an important role. “It’s key for children of different ethnicities to see themselves onstage,” says Vasterling. “I’ve seen it, like when two little girls of color were sitting in front of me at a performance. They were wiggling and talking, as children do, until Kayla came out. Then they stopped, mesmerized. They connected to her. They could see themselves.” —Julie Diana

 

 

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Angela Sterling, Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

Clear your schedule now for Monday, January 29th, 2:45PM (EST)/ 11:45AM (PST). Pacific Northwest Ballet will be live-streaming rehearsal from Kent Stowell's Swan Lake, straight from their Seattle, WA-based studios. To psych us up for their on stage performances February 2nd - 11th, PNB is letting us in on their Act II rehearsal.

From the corps of swans to Odette and Prince Siegfried's pas de deux, and the infamous four swans, this rehearsal is not to be missed. You can sign up now for a live-stream reminder on their site. In the meantime, we'll be brushing up on our Cygnets with this PNB sneak peek.

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Videos are a great alternative when auditioning in person isn't possible. Here are some general guidelines for making a good impression.

1. Follow directions. Before filming, research what each school you're interested in requires. "It demonstrates your ability to follow instructions, and schools pay attention to that," says Kate Lydon, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre's summer intensives and the ABT Studio Company. "If the guidelines haven't been followed, your video might not be watched the whole way through." You may need to make multiple versions to accommodate different schools.

2. Videos should be no longer than 10 minutes. "Keep it short, simple and direct," advises Philip Neal, dance department chair at The Patel Conservatory and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet. "You have to be sensitive to how much time the director has to sit down and look at it." Barre can be abbreviated, showing only one side per exercise, alternating. Directors will be looking at fundamentals—placement, turnout, leg lines, stability—but don't ignore musicality or movement quality. Make sure music choices match combinations and are correctly synced in the footage.

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I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

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They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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The author at 13, rehearsing at her home studio, Ballet Arts Theater, in Endicott, NY. Courtesy McGuire.

This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.

As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.

I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.

My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.

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