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.”

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Downtown Decoys: Trisha Brown, and Liebeslieder Walzing with George Balanchine, at the Paris Opera Ballet

By Paul Ben-Itzak, with contribution by Lisa Kraus
Copyright 2003, 2017, Paul Ben-Itzak & Lisa Kraus

PARIS — Why does Trisha Brown have to cross the Atlantic Ocean to find a major ballet company to undertake her choreography? Why does New York City Ballet refuse to look below 42nd Street for additions to its repertoire, instead padding its Balanchine and Robbins legacy with filler from Peter Martins and others? I fumed over these questions last week at the Palais Garnier, as I exalted over the Paris Opera Ballet’s breathless interpretations of two newly acquired American masterpieces, Brown’s 1979 “Glacial Decoy,” with photography, sets, and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg, and Balanchine’s 1960 “Liebeslieder Walzer,” to Brahms.

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