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Flash View, 12-13: Keefer's
A Wounded Ballet Mom Strikes Out Blindly
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider
Last week, the San Francisco
Chronicle reported that Krissy Keefer, a fixture in the Bay Area
dance scene, has filed a complaint with the city's Human Rights
Commission after the San Francisco Ballet School declined to admit
the choreographer's 8-year-old daughter to the school. The complaint
was the first filed under a new local law which bans discrimination
based on height or weight by organizations receiving city funds.
While the school itself does not receive city monies, the company,
San Francisco Ballet, receives $550,000 from the municipal Grants
for the Arts program. This in an annual budget that hovers somewhere
around $20 million -- most of which comes from the box office and
Before addressing why
Keefer's case is flawed, and the damage Ms. Keefer might do, let's
dispose of an issue raised in this case which, while taken on its
own has merit, is in the Keefer case, I believe, a red herring.
Granted, ballet directors'
and school directors' general -- and we are definitely generalizing
here -- preference for rail thin, preferably tall women is a fair
target. It's also a topic about which the SFB School might be said
to be particularly mindful, caring, and sensitive; Heidi Gunther,
a Boston Ballet dancer who died in 1997, possibly because of an
eating disorder, had also studied at the SFB School. My personal
opinion of ballet's body problem is that the bottom line should
be the dancer's performance quality. Let's take two of my own favorites,
the New York City Ballet principals Wendy Whelan and Monique Meunier:
Others have commented that Ms. Whelan "looks unhealthy," and so
they can't even look at her. I look at Ms. Whelan and she makes
me see the music, as she's seeing it, feeling it, and expressing
it. Ms. Meunier is not svelte -- okay, she has curves -- but what
I notice most about her is her unrivalled brio and spirit. I haven't
seen SFB recently, but my recollection is that its principal women
come in all shapes and sizes, from the compact Tina LeBlanc to the
towering Muriel Maffre to the curvaceous Joanna Berman -- three
of my personal favorites.
The second red herring
would be that Ms. Keefer is not trying to interfere with the SFB
School's right to discriminate -- only saying that it should not
receive public funds if it's going to have such policies, as the
city has declared such discrimination not in the public interest.
Diane Kounalakis, the ballet's spokeswoman, says, "This is a school
that trains professional dancers. We are not a recreation department."
In fact, as pointed out above, the city money goes to the company,
not the school. The access, therefore, that one would assume this
money is meant to augment is that of the public to the art, not
of all the public's children, indiscriminately, to attendance at
the school and the professional ballet careers that may follow.
It gets worse. According
to a press release issued on Ms. Keefer's behalf late last night
by one Todd Edelman, she would also have us substitute an 8-year-old's
judgment for that of the seasoned ballet dancers who examined her
daughter Fredrika at her audition. "They didn't look at me," the
press release quotes the youngster, now 9, as saying. "They had
us do things that wouldn't prove that we're good."
If Ms. Keefer really
had her daughter's interests in mind, she would explain to her that
it is not up to the audtionee to determine audition standards --
it's actually the other way around. When I was a youngster growing
up in San Francisco, I was determined to be an actor. If it was
up to me to determine what auditioners should see as "proving I
was good," I wouldn't be sitting here right now but would be performing
on Broadway, my thespian career unimpeded by pesky directors who
would substitute their own judgment as to whether I was talented
for my own and my mother's.
But no, Ms. Keefer would
have her daughter believe that she herself can determine audition
standards. And that artistic standards can be subject to political
vetting. She would inject affirmative action, an objective standard,
into a subjective field, the arts. In effect, Ms. Keefer would substitute
a socio-political judgment for an artistic one. The SFB, she says
in her press release, "should have a program that reflects the real
needs of S.F.'s citizens, and the SFB school should foster a program
of physical, emotional and mental well-being of its female participants
as it pursues artistic excellence."
In fact, Ms. Keefer,
it is not the job of the SFB School -- which itself receives no
public funds -- to assure the mental and emotional well-being of
the city's citizens. What the SFB company does receive some public
money for -- tho not the heavy portion of its budget that Ms. Keefer
would have us believe -- is to contribute to the artistic life of
the city. To do that, it must have the right to set its own artistic
standards, for both its company and its school.
Ms. Keefer, I hear, is
herself a choreographer. I wonder: Would she allow Tom Ammiano,
the San Francisco city supervisor who authored the new law, veto
power on all her casting decisions? I think not. Indeed, I suspect
what we have here is a ballet mother whose vanity is vicariously
wounded, and who is shamelessly, in the guise of public-spirited
concern, trying to hurt San Francisco Ballet because it, in her
view, hurt her daughter Fredrika.
What's ironic is that
Ms. Keefer is not a typical ballet mother unaware of the inner workings
of the dance community. She is herself a longtime leader of that
community. As such, she is no doubt also aware that these are tough
times for dance in San Francisco, with major studios losing their
homes as landlords see the gold mine in renting to dot.coms.
In fact, Ms. Keefer,
in a bizarre twist of logic, has cited that lack of studio space
as another reason the SFB School should have admitted her daughter.
As her press release would have us believe, "The issue is compounded
due to the lack of dance space in the City. This means that there
are fewer alternatives to institutions like the S.F. Ballet. Fredrika's
current school, Pacific Dance Theatre, lost their (sic) space and
has moved to Antioch. They have to rent space in the city if they
want to rehearse here." The press release goes on to quote Ms. Keefer:
"If there were other places to train, it would be a little less
of a problem. But dance in S.F. is becoming rare, so the exclusionary
actions of the S.F. Ballet are even more damaging."
What Ms. Keefer conveniently
fails to mention is that it is SFB itself which is providing a program,
Dance in the Schools, from which her daughter has already benefited!
Octavio Roca, a dance
critic for the Chronicle with whom I do not always agree, framed
the overall issue here well in a December 9 commentary:
"We are in a world where
artistic canons are devalued, and every opinion, no matter how biased
or uninformed, is worth the same as every other. Perverse educational
trends neglect art education but preach the lie that everyone can
be an artist while teaching no one how to be part of an educated
audience. In the name of democracy, with the laudable goal of nondiscrimination,
we end up bypassing excellence while propping up the mediocre and
Lastly, I want to return
to the caveats with which I began: Ballet does have a body image
problem. It's a problem that is, if you'll pardon the pun, short-sighted.
I, for one, will continue to rail against that prejudice. However,
it is my very concern for this real issue that makes me all the
more angry that Ms. Keefer would exploit it when all she really
cares about is her own wounded vanity.
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