Race Matters: Why are Blacks Ballet’s invisible men (and women)?

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the Dance Insider on March 7, 2000. Today’s publication sponsored by Freespace Dance.

NEW YORK — The other day at the Children of Uganda performance (reviewed elsewhere in the DI Archives), I saw something that I rarely see at the ballet: Black people. Not just on stage, but in the audience. Actually, the two are related: I believe the reason I rarely see Black people at the ballet, with the exception of Dance Theatre of Harlem, is that there are so very few — and in the case of American Ballet Theatre, no –Black people on stage. This is not meant to infer that Black people just want to see Black performers. Rather, when a company, such as ABT, is so lilly white, the message is that this is not a Black-friendly environment. So it was refreshing Monday night to go to an event that indicates that another company, Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, is not just welcoming Blacks into its house, but going to their house.

A caveat before I begin: I live in New York, so my observation about the dearth of Blacks in ballet applies to the two companies I see most of the time, ABT and New York City Ballet. (Author’s note, December 28, 2019: At last viewing, the Paris Opera Ballet was doing a lot worse than its New York counterparts, making them look like the Ailey company by comparison.) I am aware that the problem is not so severe elsewhere. Houston Ballet, for example, goes beyond tokenism. Atlanta Ballet, too, has one of the most diverse companies in the country. San Francisco Ballet, on the other hand, which is located in one of the most racially diverse cities in the country — I grew up there — has very few Black dancers, and no Black principal dancers. Several years ago, when Evelyn Cisneros was just breaking in there and was about to go on stage for a George Balanchine piece, Cisneros would later tell me, an assistant ballet master instructed her to coat her beautifully brown skin with white pancake makeup.

New York City Ballet also has just a handful of Black dancers. Its one black principal, Albert Evans, does not typically get the princely roles. He gets the character parts, such as Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” A similar lack of opportunity befell the late Christopher Boatwright at SFB. A beautiful prince if ever I saw one, Boatwright had no problem landing the Romeos when he danced in Germany; those opportunities ceased when he joined San Francisco.

But the most blatant example in our times of ballet’s “Invisible Man” is Desmond Richardson’s experience with ABT. (Yes, I am picking on ABT — how can it call itself “American” and not reflect this country’s rainbow diversity?) Initially, ABT did the right thing. The immediate need for bringing Richardson in was its new production of Lar Lubovitch’s “Othello.” But ABT didn’t just make him a guest artist for that one ballet; he was welcomed into the company as a principal dancer. It stopped there, however. Richardson is probably our greatest living male dancer –and yet beyond “Othello,” he was put to little use. The visiting Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato used him in a lovely trio. I think he performed in one other one-act ballet. And then he was cast in “Romeo & Juliet”– not as Romeo, of course, but as the villain, Tybalt. In a Times story at the time or shortly after Richardson left, it was clear from Richardson’s comments that he was very uncomfortable there.

I saw a very relaxed Richardson last night at Fez in Greenwich Village, where Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre was hosting a press reception for Indigo in Motion, its upcoming evening of three ballets set to the music of some Pittsburgh-connected jazz giants: Billy Strayhorn, Lena Horne, Stanley Turrentine, and Ray Brown, the last two of whom are creating original music for the program. Kevin O’Day, Lynne Taylor-Corbett and Richardson’s partner in Complexions, Dwight Rhoden, make up the choreographic team. As members of the Steel City’s Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild jammed live last night, Rhoden and Richardson chatted with PBT artistic director and former ABT stalwart Terry Orr. Orr’s passion for this project appears not just a token effort to bring in new audiences, but seems genuine; he wore a big grin on his face the entire evening, snapping along with and tapping to the jazz.

There were probably more Black people in the small lounge last night than I saw on or off-stage at ABT the entire last season.

Of course, there are box office considerations at work here. “In some ways, you could subtitle what we’re doing as putting butts in seats,” said Steven Libman, PBT’s managing director. “Unless dance begins to develop a connection to its audience, we are not going to have an audience.”

Helping to put those butts in the seat will be jazz singer Vivian Reed, who will sing the songs made famous by Horne. Last night she gave us a stirring example, a bluesy rendition of “Stormy Weather.”

20 years of stories not told elsewhere: When Blackface (& body) reared its ugly head onstage at the Paris Opera Ballet

By Paul Ben-Itzak 
Copyright 2006, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

From the Dance Insider Archives: First published on October 24, 2006. Today’s re-publication (to which the only addition is the term ‘lilly-white’)  sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance. To learn how to obtain your own copy of the DI / AV Archive of  2000+ reviews of performances, exhibitions, films, & books  from around the world by 150 artist-critics,  e-mail  paulbenitzak@gmail.com . 

PARIS — When racism rears its ugly head in a supposedly civilized setting, a sort of stunned, incredulous shock can set in. So it took me a minute Saturday night, sitting in my lush red orchestra chair in the ornate Paris Opera House, presided over by a colorful Marc Chagall panorama of the arts painted around the chandelier, to realize what I was seeing up there onstage, a few minutes into Serge Lifar’s 1947 “Les Mirages”: Two characters straight out of an “African” “tribal” “sacrifice rite” from 1930s Hollywood, clad entirely in black body suits, hands and faces included. Eyes and lips in a pronounced white, of course. Making bugaboo facial expressions and doing some sort of stereotyped to the nth degree savage dance — they stopped just short of scratching their crotches. (Just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, I checked the program after my premature but necessary exit: Ah yes, these would be “Les Negrillons.”)

What is this petrifying example of racist stereotyping doing on the stage of a theater in 2006? What was the (lilly-white) Paris Opera Ballet’s dance director Brigitte Lefevre thinking? (Obviously, she wasn’t. Voila le problème.) (Incidentally — or not so — Serge Lifar was condemned for collaborating with the Occupiers after World War II.)

On my wall is the second edition ever of Paris Match, and the first to feature just one person on the cover: Katherine (or “Kathrin” as the magazine spelled it — they Frenchify everything here) Dunham. It’s dated April 1, 1949. I don’t know if Katherine Dunham was here in 1947, but if she was, and happened to find herself at the premiere of “Les Mirages,” she likely would have had a much more demonstrative response to offer than my polite exit from the theater.

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The DI, Year One: Alonzo King — Tracing Lines of Ecstacy without words

By Jordan Winer
Copyright 2000, 2017 Jordan Winer

SAN FRANCISCO — Two women take turns performing solos on a vast stage bathed in burnt sienna and ocher light. One sits and watches the other with full, rapt attention. As we in the audience watch the smile of the watcher, as well as the serpentine prowling of the soloist, all to the haunting strains of master oud player Hamza El Din, we are exactly where the title of the dance would have us be: Ecstasy. And this is only one part of one of the longer pieces, “Tarab,” the only non-premiere in a mostly satisfying program of Alonzo King’s Lines Contemporary Ballet which opened Friday at Yerba Buena. The crown jewel of “Tarab” is the brilliant Wedding Dance. As El Din played and sang, his sensual reedy voice filling the vast theater as soothingly as bathwater, pairs of women and pairs of men crossed back and forth striking snaky, Egyptian poses that contorted through every joint in their body. It was a pure and wonderful piece, the marriage couple ending the dance in mock fatigue, jostling together in reckless joy.

To receive the complete article, first published on April 9, 2000, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. Subscribers receive full access to the DI Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $109 (institutions) Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Lines Ballet performs Alonzo King’s “Biophony” and “Sand” December 13-22 at the Maison de la Danse in Lyon.

The DI, Year 1: Conspicuous by their Absence — Blacks’ Lack in Ballet Matters

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK — The other day at the Children of Uganda performance, I saw something that I rarely see at the ballet: Black people. Not just on stage, but in the audience. Actually, the two are related. I believe the reason I rarely see black people at the ballet (with the exception of Dance Theatre of Harlem) is that there are so very few — and in the case of American Ballet Theatre, no — black people on stage. This is not meant to infer that black people just want to see black performers. Rather, when a company, such as ABT, is so lilly white, the message is that this is not a black-friendly environment. So it was refreshing Monday night to go to an event that indicates that another company, Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, is not just welcoming blacks into its house, but going to their house.

To receive the rest of the article, first published on March 7, 2000, subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check or in Euros. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $109 (institutions) Purchase before May 7, 2017 and receive a second, free copy for the recipient of your choice. Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com .