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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
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.