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3-7: Race Matters
Pittsburgh Turns Ballet Indigo
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider
The other day
at the Children of Uganda performance (Flash
Review 1, 3-6: Suffering and Smiling), 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. 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.
An apocryphal legend has it that several years back, when Evelyn
Cisneros was just breaking in there and was about to go on stage
for a George Balanchine piece, 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. 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 his
comments that he was very uncomfortable there.
I saw a very relaxed
Richardson last night at Fez in Greenwich Village, where PBT 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."
Indigo in Motion will
be performed May 4-7 at the Bendedum Center for the Performing Arts,
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