When I was a teenager, Lauren Anderson was my generation's Misty Copeland. The former Houston Ballet star made history as the company's first African American principal ballerina in 1990, and her partnership with Carlos Acosta thrilled audiences before he left Houston for The Royal Ballet. Since her retirement in 2006, she's had her hands full as Houston Ballet's program manager of community engagement—yet she still finds time to teach master classes around the world. On April 8–12, Anderson will be headlining Debbie Allen Dance Academy's "DADA On Pointe" Ballet Intensive, including an exclusive talk-back with Allen on April 8. Anderson spoke with Pointe about the impact the Fame star had on her career, and how she's tried to pay it forward since.
Have you worked with Debbie Allen in the past?
Debbie Allen and I have a long history—she's from Houston. I've never taught for her Academy in L.A., but we've popped up in each other's lives throughout our careers. She was so influential on me when I was younger, starting with Fame—I'd watch it every Saturday afternoon. She was also the first African American student in the Houston Ballet Academy. She and I share the vision that every child should have high quality dance education, period. I am so excited about collaborating—we've been trying to do this for a while.
When you're teaching a master class, what do you focus on?
Definitely musicality, relaxation and control. A master class is a one shot deal—you've got an hour and half, and as a teacher you think, I'm there to change their life in some way or another, to inspire them. My idea in the studio, which I got from my mentor Ben Stevenson, is to create an atmosphere that lets the student know that the possibilities are endless within the confines of classical technique. Each class is different, but by the second or third combination I know what the theme of the day is going to be. My job is to make that theme fit into the combinations that I'm giving.
Your pointe shoes are on permanent display at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. How does that make you feel?
What's cool about it is that my shoes are in a display case along with Dance Theatre of Harlem. My mom took me to see DTH when I was nine. All of a sudden I saw a black dancer go across the stage—and then I saw another one. And I looked at my mother and I said, “Mom! There's a whole stage full of them!" I hadn't seen a black ballerina until then. I knew I didn't look like anyone in my class, but at that point I thought, I can do this.
The influence that company has had on my life is amazing. Virginia Johnson was a ballerina I looked up to. So it's humbling that I'm in the same case with Arthur Mitchell's bronzed ballet shoes and Virginia Johnson's Giselle costume. When I saw my shoes next to them I was overwhelmed with joy. To even think that I'm on the same level—it's still surreal to me.
There's been a lot of attention in recent years about the lack of diversity in classical ballet. Are things starting to get better?
Things are getting different. Of course things are better—we had African American dancers back in the '50s that had to pass for white to get jobs, for instance. But it's still a European art form and there are still people who think the corps de ballet needs to be like the Rockettes. But things are changing, because more and more people are beige. Evolution is going to take over and everyone will be beige soon. That sounds flippant, but it's true. There's more opportunity for people of any nationality or color, but there's also more awareness, especially with social media. We see things as they happen—we watched Misty Copeland's rise unfold in real time! We've had black ballerinas forever, but now they're just more visible, which is good because they're inspiring more kids to dance.
You presented Misty Copeland with flowers during her Swan Lake debut in New York City. Did she contact you beforehand?
She did. I got a call from her manager who extended the invitation—she discussed my giving her flowers and I said I would be honored! And what's neat is that this goes full circle to Debbie Allen. Every time Houston Ballet was in Washington performing at the Kennedy Center, Debbie was at the show (she lived there at the time). I remember we were performing Serenade and I was the Russian girl. Afterwards there was a party and Debbie was there. She came up to me and I was just floored. I said, “It's an honor to meet you! I've wanted to be you all my life!" And she took my shoulders and said, “No, honey—we all wanted to be you." I didn't get it then, but I did later—it was the ballet thing. So I will traipse around America to see dancers—we gotta support our babies! Those mentorship moments are so important. You never know who you're going to affect and how you're going to inspire them.
What was the biggest lesson you learned during your career that you try to pass on to younger generations?
You have to be honest with your weaknesses, you have to be honest with your strengths, and you have to figure out, in the muck and mire of being so young, who you are in the role. We're constantly comparing ourselves to other dancers. But you gotta be real. There's always going to be someone out there better than you. But it's your part, and when you can bring your realness to the technique? There's nothing like it!
Two Pointe cover stars, two Japanese dancers and a woman who rocketed through two ranks in one year are among the dancers newly promoted to The Royal Ballet’s highest ranks. With artistic maturity far beyond her 23 years, we knew it was only a matter of time before Francesca Hayward, who we featured in our February/March 2016 cover story, rose to the top. She’ll start next season as a principal along with Alexander Campbell, Ryoichi Hirano and Akane Takada.
With these newly promoted dancers, The Royal’s principal roster reflects more diversity. Hirano and Takada, both Japan-born, came to The Royal Ballet fresh off of Prix de Lausanne triumphs. Campbell is a native of Australia and Hayward, who grew up in England, was born in Nairobi to a Kenyan mother and a British father. Yet while there's been much public interest in her African heritage, she’s more vocal about her English training. In our February/March issue, Hayward told writer Laura Cappelle, “It’s only when people ask me what it’s like to be a mixed-race dancer that I realize that I am. I’ve never been made to feel different, or like I shouldn’t be doing it.”
American dancer Beatriz Stix-Brunell (our 2012 October/November cover girl) is a new first soloist. Before joining The Royal, Stix-Brunell was a protégé of artistic associate Christopher Wheeldon. She trained in New York and at the Paris Opéra Ballet School, and she joined Wheeldon’s Morphoses when she was just a teenager. Claire Calvert and Yasmine Naghdi are also newly appointed first soloists, and Matthew Ball and Mayara Magri have been promoted from first artist to soloist.
English dancer Tierny Heap was promoted to first artist in the middle of the 2015/2016 season. She danced the title role in Carlos Acosta’s Carmen among other featured roles, and artistic director Kevin O’Hare evidently decided that Heap needed even greater tests for her talents. She will start the 2016/2017 season as a soloist.
See The Royal’s website for a full list of promotions, new hires and departures.
What color is a flesh-toned technique shoe? Usually it's a light tan, which doesn't leave much wiggle room for dancers with darker skin. While it's common for dancers to pancake their shoes to match their skin tone, the fact that "flesh"-colored shoes only come in a few shades—all of which are light—sends a strong message to dancers with darker skin. It tells them that even though they're working just as hard, and dancing the same roles as their lighter-skinned colleagues, their specific needs are less important.
Royal Ballet soloist Eric Underwood (who is African-American) took to Instagram to vent his frustration over constant pancaking. After tagging several dance wear companies in a video showing his pancaking preparation, he asked the companies to make more than one "flesh-toned" shoe. Bloch was the only company that publicly responded to his post and, because Underwood spoke up, the company now makes canvas technique shoes in the color "Eric Tan." According to the BBC, the shoes will soon be on sale. It's a small step toward honoring the people who keep ballet alive by taking class, rehearsing and performing; who need tools of the trade that flatter their bodies, no matter what their skin color is.
When Debbie Allen auditioned for a Texas ballet school as a young girl, she was initially rejected because of the color of her skin. Now world renowned for her performance, choreography, acting and producing credits, Allen seems dedicated to fighting the obstacles she once faced. This month, Debbie Allen Dance Academy is hosting DADA on Pointe, a five-day workshop March 19−23 that will offer students the chance to learn from such stars as Misty Copeland and Desmond Richardson—diverse artists who, like Allen, have paved the way for dancers of color.
Students will take technique, partnering and contemporary classes taught by Desmond Richardson, Dwight Rhoden, Complexions Contemporary Ballet dancers, Debbie Allen and Bolshoi Ballet alumni Giana Jigarhan, Alla Khaniashvili and Vitaly Artiushkin. Misty Copeland will also teach a master class, open to students who purchase the highest of the program’s three price packages.
The intensive kicks off March 19 with a one-on-one conversation between Copeland and Allen. “Misty Copeland has been part of our dance community since she was a young girl,” Allen says. “Before she was anointed by the world, we knew who she was at the ripe age of 13.” Allen believes that Copeland’s meteoric rise to fame is deeply inspiring: “Her story resonates with every student who is challenged by anything. [It’s] a story of success and the power of talent over perception.”
Students’ involvement may extend beyond the studio, too. Richardson and Rhoden will hand pick a group of 6−8 dancers to appear with Complexions for a performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles April 15−17. Allen says that the chosen dancers will have a unique opportunity, “to be on stage with dancers that will inspire them to go where they want to go.” An inspirational week, indeed.
Registration is open until the first day of the program, March 19, space permitting. Tickets for the Misty Copeland talk are also available to the public. For more information on price packages and registration, click here.
Ballet training and all of its associated fees provide a serious barrier to entry for many aspiring dancers. Tuition, appropriate dancewear, pointe shoes and summer intensives add up, and up...and up. Nowadays, many students also compete and the cost to travel to competitions, pay for custom tutus and contract private coaching is astronomical. Then there's room and board at a professional school or conservatory, and the private lessons and coaching that many dancers receive regardless of whether they go the competition route.
As the ballet world grapples with its lack of racial diversity, there's another profound issue that must be addressed—an issue that's related to, but can be separate from, our cultural assumptions about race and ability. The socio-economic disadvantage that many families face—a disadvantage that's often compounded by race, but isn't always—hangs heavily over young dancers and can halt their training.
Abby Abrams, a data reporter intern from the respected statistics site FiveThirtyEight, recently examined the cost of raising a ballerina. She lays out her method in detail. Her conclusion? It'll cost a family about 120K.
There are many complex factors that contribute to the high cost of an excellent ballet education, not least of which is the sorry state of arts funding, arts education and dance literacy in the United States. That's to say, individual families aren't solely responsible for their own (in)ability to access dance training. Ballet's race problem, and it's closely related socio-economic elitism, need to be aggressively addressed through programs like American Ballet Theatre's Project Plié. Outreach measures might not bring the actual cost of ballet training down to accessible levels, but they can create subsidized opportunities for kids who want to pursue dance. As Dance Theatre of Harlem school administrator Kenya Rodriguez told Abrams, "You have to practice diversity."
The Washington, DC, dance scene is abuzz this week. Not only is The Washington Ballet premiering its first-ever production of Swan Lake tonight at the Kennedy Center, but two African-American dancers—American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland and TWB’s Brooklyn Mack—will star as Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried in Thursday and Sunday evening's performances.
Ballet’s abysmal lack of diversity, especially for black dancers (and women in particular), has been an ongoing topic of discussion, recently with Copeland at the forefront. She debuted as Odette/Odile with ABT last summer in Brisbane, Australia, and is slated to perform it again in June at the Metropolitan Opera House. But pairing Copeland and Mack together for Swan Lake sends an even more powerful message. “To have two African-American dancers as the leads in a major company is so important,” Mack told writer Lisa Traiger in this month’s issue of Pointe. “There are so many inequalities imbedded in society.”
There are only a few tickets left for Thursday, and Sunday night’s performance is sold out. But you can check out rehearsal footage, posted by TWB artistic director Septime Webre’s Facebook page, here.
Photo of Brooklyn Mack and Misty Copeland by Theo Kossenas, Courtesy TWB
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.”
The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago recently hired nine new dancers—and they’re a notably diverse group, hailing from Cuba, Venezuela and Brazil, as well as the U.S.
“I want the company to reflect Chicago’s diversity, and I was conscious of the Joffrey’s past, when dancers like Chilean Maximiliano Zomosa were part of the troupe,” says Artistic Director Ashley Wheater. “Also, because the Joffrey is a no-stars-yet-all-stars company, I was, as always, looking for talented, hardworking people.”
Of the three new international dancers, two approached Wheater on their own. Cuban-bred Miguel Blanco, who was also offered contracts by ABT and San Francisco Ballet, opted for the Joffrey because, as Wheater puts it, “he knew he would get a chance to really dance with us.” Yumelia Garcia, whom Wheater describes as “a real spitfire,” was born in Caracas but grew up in Rockford, IL, and went to see Wheater at the urging of her friend, Joffrey dancer April Daly. Ricardo Santos de Paula, from Rio de Janeiro, was a bronze medalist at the 10th New York International Ballet Competition, for which Wheater served as a judge. De Paula earned the NYIBC’s Arpino Award, which comes with a one- year Joffrey contract. —Hedy Weiss