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Flash Flashback, 11-3: Keefer's Crucial Crusade
A Dissenting Voice

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2000, 2006 Christine Chen

(The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Flash Archive. This Flash View was first posted December 14, 2000. On Tuesday, dancer, choreographer, and Green Party candidate Krissy Keefer will challenge House minority leader Nancy Pelosi for the right to represent San Francisco in Congress. Christine Chen now tours with STREB.)

SAN FRANCISCO -- Nine-year-old Fredrika Near Keefer and her choreographer-activist mother, Krissy Keefer, made waves in the San Francisco dance community last month when they filed a complaint against the prestigious San Francisco Ballet School. The complaint, lodged with the city's Human Rights Commission, charged that SFBS violated San Francisco's new law banning weight and height discrimination by organizations receiving city funding when it denied Fredrika entrance into the school because she had the wrong body type. In cases like these, people often have a gut reaction, choose one side or another and find the rhetoric to support their decision. This case is more complicated, however, because multiple issues are at stake, and the sides do not line up very neatly along ideological lines. In fact, despite the fact that I am usually aligned with his views, I find myself in disagreement with yesterday's Flash View by DI editor Paul Ben-Itzak here.

Is this a case of political correctness bullying and undermining artistic vision or a publicly funded institution discriminating against a particular group of people? Does the SFBS enforce a realistic set of criteria for being a successful dancer or does it perpetuate an unrealistic body type and impose an antiquated notion of viewing the ballet body? To what degree is dancing about skill, talent and performance ability and to what degree is it about physical appearance? Should we accept realistic limitations in life or do we need to broaden our scope of inclusion and value different sets of abilities equally? Is SFBS doing Fredrika a favor by rejecting her now so she may avoid future disappointment when she finds out that no ballet companies will accept her body type, or are they prematurely squelching a young girl's dreams and setting her back from a career in any dance form (many modern companies, including the poster boy for body-type subversion, Mark Morris, still use ballet as a criteria for judging "technique")? Should SFSB be considered a professional training ground or a public accommodation? Is this lawsuit about political activism or a pushy mother and a disgruntled daughter?

Then there is the Pandora's Box of public funding for the arts. If a private arts organization accepts public funds, is it required to adhere to a particular agenda? In this case the agenda (and law) is political correctness, but last time (Remember the cultural wars of the early 1990s -- Jesse Helms/Pat Buchanan versus Andres Serrano/Robert Mapplethorpe et al?), the government agenda was about not wanting to fund art which offended certain conservative groups. Is the Left, which once supported artistic expression against government regulation but now sides with the public policy against the artistic institution, hypocritical? Is this no worse than, say, supporting states rights only when convenient?

Yesterday Paul Ben-Itzak, despite some reservations, sided with SFBS. I, despite some qualms, side with the Keefers. Here is how I see it:

Krissy Keefer is not a stage mom -- she is a political activist. Her company, Dance Brigade, is known for its politically subversive, in-your-face agit-prop material. She has been consistently active in the political arena in service of the arts community -- including being on the front lines of the campaign for Proposition L (the recently defeated local anti-growth measure to save the arts in the latest San Francisco space crisis). And, she is a successful choreographer and performer in her own right and does not need to live vicariously through her child. Is she using her daughter as a puppet/excuse for her own political agendas? Perhaps -- Fredrika's cute face and charismatic personality no doubt helped fuel the publicity frenzy, but she is no mere puppet. Articulate and grounded, Fredrika does not play the victim -- she knows this is about something larger than getting into a ballet school. She understands the broader agenda: to change our criteria for judging dancers, by looking at their talent, skill and performance magnetism and not only at their body type. This is what Krissy does. She addresses societal problems and voices her opinion when she feels they need to be changed. Her actions are those of an activist, focused not only on her daughter, but also on the larger problems. Krissy's outcry has pushed issues about body image in the ballet world into the mainstream public eye and has incited the community to think about this issue. What better way, in fact what other way, to go about revolutionizing an outdated system of values? In some ways Krissy's position in the field makes her claim more legitimate; she is not just some random ballet mom who thinks her daughter has talent, but someone with a working knowledge of the field who can say with some authority, albeit with some bias, that her daughter has talent. Great political movements have been started from a personal place. Rosa Parks has been quoted as saying that she was just plain tired when she sat down in the front of that fateful bus. Just tired -- not out to start a civil rights movement. So do not pooh-pooh this case as a silly personal complaint of a disgruntled mother -- it has far-reaching implications and could begin to challenge culture-making institutions such as SFB and make them think about the ways in which they perpetuate harmful ideals.

Which brings me to the issues involving SFBS's criteria for admission. According to its page on the SFB web site: "The ideal candidate is a healthy child with a well-proportioned body, a straight and supple spine, legs turned out from the hip joint, flexibility, slender legs and torso, and correctly arched feet, who has an ear for music and an instinct for movement." There are several questions here: Is it legal to impose these conditions? Is SFBS, because the company accepts money from the city ($550,000), responsible for complying with the city's laws including the new ordinance concerning height and weight-based discrimination? If the money was given specifically to the school, than yes, they would be responsible. However, as Paul Ben-Itzak pointed out yesterday, the public money was given to the company, not the school. We cannot strip SFB's public funding because its school's policy is offensive. This would not be unlike the conservative outcry against the Walker Arts Center, which supported controversial performance artist Ron Athey while receiving a National Endowment for the Arts grant for an unrelated exhibition.

I cannot support conditional financial support from the government to the arts, but still, it is difficult to say that SFBS is necessarily beyond the jurisdiction of this discrimination law. SFB is heavily funded by local, state and Federal monies, and by accepting money from the government, or anyone for that matter, they enter into an agreement with these funders. Sometimes these agreements between artists and their funders have more obvious influences on the work. (E.g., a choreographer applies for a specific grant that requires the choreographer to address certain issues/do community outreach, etc.) Other times the effect is more subtle, and the agreement more implicit. (E.g., if a women's organization gives money to a choreographer who is a known feminist, the choreographer may feel pressure to address women's issues in their work even if they might rather create something completely unrelated, and even if no specific terms were named.) Money is, unfortunately, power, which is why we get worried when politicians accept money from special interest groups and big business. Accepting money implies a certain allegiance. This is depressing but, as dance is not a profitable industry, we must be aware of this because it is a reality.

Back to the specific criteria SFBS uses. Does this list of criteria accurately portray the requirements for success in the field? Yes, but are these requirements inherently necessary or are they necessary only because they are viewed as being necessary? In other words, can only tall, slender, long-legged people be good ballet dancers? No, superstar ballerinas from the past (Anna Pavlova, for one) have had a variety of body-types. Ideals have changed along with the ideals of the culture over time. Have not Balanchine's ideals outlived their cultural context?

Would changing these requirements undermine the aesthetic values of the ballet field? Maybe, but do these values need to change? Yes -- we should be focused on fostering a healthy dance field since, right now, we have anorexia and bulimia off stage and unrealistic images of ethereal sirens and sylphs on stage. Sure, the Balanchine body is capable of drawing beautiful lines, but do we want these lines, knowing their price? I am reminded of castratis. Surely it can be argued that the unique sound of their voice is intrinsically linked to their lack. Should we therefore require a certain operation for those wishing to enter voice school? Also, athletes on steroids are faster, stronger and swifter than those who do not take performance-enhancing drugs. Should we only accept steroid-enhanced athletes on the Olympic team? The integration of ballet dancers of color affects the aesthetic look of the corps de ballet, yet no one would think of systematically excluding all dancers of color based on this argument of striving for a look of uniformity. So, why can we not envision a corps with bodies of different build if they are all able to perform the work with equal intensity and competence? Ballet is admittedly a difficult discipline not meant for everyone, but it is also not exclusively for the tall, slim and trim set. I have seen many wonderful, technical ballet dancers of varying shapes and sizes, and have often been most impressed by the abilities of those whose bodies do not fit the mold. Because they have had to overcome the obstacles, namely their body and how it is seen, they tend to have more personality, power and strength in their performances.

Would enforcing this law undermine the integrity of directors/choreographers who should have a say in choosing who they want to work with? Yes, and where is the line between political correctness and artistic necessity? This is difficult, for while I do think that the ballet world needs to take a more inclusive view of bodies and consider a wider range of capabilities, I also respect a choreographer's right to choose dancers based on any criteria they want in order to achieve their vision. The difference, as I see it, is that for SFBS and for the ballet world in general, the discriminating criteria are universal and systematic. The SFBS audition in which Fredrika took part was not a casting call for a specific work -- it was an audition for admittance to the general training ground, and represents a worldview. By denying an entire group of people access to this training, SFBS excludes this group from the field. I am not championing mediocrity. I think it is fair for SFBS to set certain standards, but I think that the body type requirements should be more flexible and that SFSB and other ballet schools should look at each candidate as a dancer as well as a body. Height and weight requirements should not be used as a way to blackball potential students without considering their other assets that might make them exceptional dancers.

Should Fredrika wise up to the fact that there are some things she will not be able to do because of unchangeable limitations? Sure, we should all have realistic ideas of what we can and cannot do. But we should also try to be aware of which limitations are real, which are perceived, and which are imposed and can be fought. The idea that only lean, long-legged people can be dancers is a perceived limitation that can be fought. If we need to recognize our limitations, we need even more to be aware of our strengths and be allowed to foster them. For Fredrika, one of her strengths is her ability to dance and perform. (She is currently starring as Clara in the Pacific Dance Theater's production of "Petite Nutcracker.") These are valuable assets for ballet dancers, and yet she was not able to show SFBS these assets in her audition because they were too busy denying her entrance because of her muscular body type.

Paul Ben-Itzak contends that SFBS (and not the applicants) has the right to determine its audition criteria. Yes, but we as dancers (who already have so little power in this industry) also have the right to question some of these criteria. Since Paul included a personal anecdote about his acting experiences, I too will share a personal story. A few years ago, I auditioned for an MFA program at what will remain an unnamed University. Despite the fact that I was auditioning for the graduate program in choreography, I was cut after a mixed BFA/MFA audition (I was the only MFA candidate) which included a ballet barre and a brief pass across the floor. I did not even get to perform the solo I choreographed even though I was applying as a choreographer. Does this University have the right to set the standards for their applicants? Yes. Do these criteria necessarily show them the best candidate? In my admittedly biased opinion, no. Do I have the right to question these criteria? Yes.

Also lost in this mess of an argument is the fact that this is a women's issue as well, which Keefer brings up. I will just pose a few questions for your consideration. Is the same criteria applied to male dancers with regards to their body type as is applied to female dancers? Is there more diversity in body type among professional male dancers than professional female dancers? Can males because of their dearth in the field compensate for certain things (shorter physique and even a less experienced technique) with enthusiasm and hard work? Is the same true of women?

So, what should be done? Punishing SFBS by slapping it with a fine or taking away city funding seems harsh but the threat has its attention. This attention may cause it and other ballet institutions to rethink their set of values. This is not about only about political correctness; it is about not denying good dancers access to quality training because they do not have the perfect body type. This is an industry-wide problem and SFBS is by no means the only institution culpable. I applaud Keefer for bringing our attention to the issue -- now we, as a community, need to institute change.

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