The Buzz, 5-24: White-out Conditions, Wipe-out Conditions
How to Cure Ballet's Dire Race Problem; How to help a Direly Injured Dancer
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2007 The Dance Insider
It's a Black Thing
The deeper I got into Gia Kourlas's "Where are all the Black Swans?," from May 6's New York Times, the clearer it became that when it came to asking the tough question about New York's leading ballet companies, the most venomous critic in dance had decided to retract her fangs. I guess it's one thing to hurl darts at a solitary dancer or a modern dance theater with no advertising budget; quite another to expect that in a story whose putative focus is the lack of female African-American dancers atop the hierarchy of the U.S.'s top ballet companies, the Gray Lady would at least ask whether racism was involved. But forget swans; if it walks like a duck and acts like a duck, isn't it just possible that in its results -- if not its intentions -- it might be a duck?
Are New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre racist by intent or design? No. But when one considers that, as Kourlas points out, ABT has but one female black dancer, in its corps, and City Ballet none since talented and exuberant corps member Aesha Ash departed, then it's clear that these companies have a race problem, one which their current directors have not adequately explained nor sufficiently tried to remedy. And they're not alone among American ballet companies; nor is the problem confined to black women.
Let's skip across the country to San Francisco, and the case of the late Christopher Boatwright.
Christopher Boatwright defined beauty and lyricism -- no, poetry -- in male dancing. After training in New York City, Boatwright got a scholarship in Stuttgart, Germany. After three years in the Stuttgart Ballet corps, he was promoted to principal by artistic director Marcia Haydee. For Stuttgart, he performed all the major roles, including Romeo in "Romeo & Juliet." Sometimes on tour the local presenters didn't want him dancing Romeo with a white Juliet, but the company always stood by him and refused to change casts. Then San Francisco Ballet star Evelyn Cisneros saw Boatwright in Los Angeles after he left Stuttgart, and urged then SFB co-artistic director Michael Smuin to hire him. Under contract to another U.S. company, Boatwright was not immediately available. When he was, new and current SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson wasn't interested -- until local critic Allan Ulrich saw Boatwright in a solo choreographed for him by long-time friend Alonzo King and gave him a rave review. Then Tomasson hired the former Stuttgart principal dancer -- and put him in the corps. (At the time, Stuttgart had the grander international reputation.) In Stuttgart, Boatwright had danced everything -- including "Swan Lake" and "Romeo & Juliet" -- and had roles created on him. In San Francisco, while he was eventually promoted to principal, except for "Nutcracker" he never got to do any of the romantic leads in which he'd excelled in Germany. Eventually, a hip injury sidelined Boatwright at SFB and he joined Lines Contemporary Ballet, where King -- a past master at creating dances that reveal the value that even severely injured dancers still have to offer -- created roles for him, in which the elegiac Boatwright continued to make audiences swoon.
Boatwright was not the only black male who found his path blocked at SFB. Both Duncan Cooper and Ikolo Griffin left the company after it became obvious that despite talent that was obvious to the audience, they were never going to get anywhere. Both went on to become principals at Dance Theatre of Harlem -- Cooper, it could be argued, the strongest male DTH dancer of his generation. Griffin also went on to the Joffrey Ballet, where he danced principal roles, and currently dances for Smuin Ballet.
As Kourlas adroitly points out, the dissolution (sorry, 'hiatus') of the Dance Theatre of Harlem performing company in 2004, tragic as it was for that company, provided a treasure trove of ready, accomplished, proven, major league black talent for America's major ballet companies. Only Boston Ballet, under the direction of Mikko Nissenen, profited, by hiring Tai Jimenez as a principal dancer. (It's instructive to listen to Nissenen's reasons, which had nothing to do with race, but with the value he placed on having a mature role model for his up-and-coming younger dancers.)
One of DTH's other female stars, the stellar Alicia Graf (what line and pristine beauty!), sought employment at both ABT and NYCB, according to Kourlas. At the former, she related to the Times, she was told that at 5 feet 10 inches she was too tall; at the latter, that there were no jobs. She ended up at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, where she's happy but where, as former DTH diva Virginia Johnson commented to the Times, "she's fabulous..., but she's also wasted.... She's bigger than Ailey." A third star, the sensational Caroline Rocher -- who wowed New York State Theater audiences when she starred with NYCB's Damian Woetzel in Balanchine's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" -- is now dancing in Munich, for the Bayerisches Staatsballett. (To see images of Rocher with Cooper in Balanchine's "Prodigal Son" -- in which she put most of her City Ballet contemporaries to shame -- click here; of the ballerina with Griffin in Smuin's "St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet," here.)
The closest Kourlas comes to probing the 'why' is when Johnson suggests that "the side (ballet companies) may be... afraid of is their whole subscriber base and their whole history of being a ballet company the way you thought ballet was. It means that you have to create a kind of trust, and they've never challenged their audiences to move forward." The closest she gets to proposing 'how' -- to fix the problem -- is Graf's statement that "we have to challenge companies to make it a priority to diversify their roster, and not just to do an outreach or bus in some kids and expose them to dance. The companies, as a business tool, have to go into communities where dance is not present to expose and train dancers."
With all respect to Ms. Graf -- who's lived the situation -- I would go further. When lilly-white institutions consistently fail to diversify -- and above all when they are institutions that benefit from public funding or tax breaks -- there's one effective tool for forcing them to diversify: Affirmative Action. Far from making race a criterion for hiring at the expense of talent, if companies have no choice but to hire more black dancers, they will do everything in their power to ensure that they cast the net widely to bring in dancers who qualify not by the color of their skin but by their innate ability. They exist; it's time to force directors like Peter Martins, Kevin McKenzie, and Helgi Tomasson to seriously start looking for them.
It's a Back Thing
Terry Dean Bartlett, associate director of STREB, writes:
I am in the process of securing a venue, help in organizing, etcetera for an evening, afternoon -- all day? -- of dance performances to help out my dear friend, an amazing performer, deeAnn Nelson, of STREB, who broke her back this past weekend, in a fall during a performance. She fractured her L1, and destabilized her spine above that, is going into surgery on Thursday, and will be in pins, rods, screws, and a brace for the next six months. Her medical bills will be covered by workman's comp, but rent, bills etcetera are going to mount up and I want to help her out in any way I can, and ask if anyone is willing/able to help out a fellow dancer/performer/artist.
I hope to secure a venue within the week, for the Monday or Tuesday the 18 or 19 of June. If anyone can contribute a piece, it would be greatly appreciated, and it will help to raise funds for one of the fiercest performers I've ever known.
Do you wanna show new work? Great! Wanna show a classic/old favorite? Great. Got PR connections? A huge e-mail list? A fabulous theater? Tons of money, and love dancers? Any help would be greatly appreciated.
.... Thank you for all your help. Send your thoughts/prayers/energy/love to deeAnn at Bellevue ICU.
Got something to volunteer? Drop the Buzz a line, and we will forward to Terry Dean.
Thanks to Ed Winer for research assistance.