Writing in the Guardian last week, Olivia Goldhill and Sarah Marsh noted the complete absence of black dancers at the Bolshoi Ballet. Out of the English National Ballet's corps of 64 dancers, only two are black.
In a followup piece, Luke Jennings countered Goldhill's and Marsh's stark reasoning for this imbalance, that "classical ballet celebrates pale princesses and fair swans," with a defense of ballet bigwigs. Jennings claims "there is not a single director of a UK ballet company who wouldn't jump at a talented black or mixed-race dancer."
Jennings asserts that outright discrimination against qualified dancers is not just illegal, but outdated in the upper spheres of the UK ballet world, which comprises sophisticated leaders. He argues that change must happen outside the institution, at a community level. "Perhaps the simple truth is that only a limited number of black children are interested in training for classical ballet," he suggests. In his architecture, qualified black ballet dancers are not being rejected at the final audition because of their race. Instead they are never stepping in the studio door.
But what role do ballet's tastemakers have to play in that reality? We would argue it's a starring one.
Look, for example, at the costumes we mostly take for granted as standard ballet garb. Peach colored ballet slippers, nude colored tights, white powdered bodies, these innocuous seeming traditions may not be consciously hateful, but they are exclusive. White skin is not just the norm but the uniform.
Then there is Jennings' point about captivating the young. While the existence of barriers early on is an important problem to be sure, it's once again an institutional issue. Most serious-minded ballerinas start dancing before elementary school and continue until their careers take off. This course of study is not cheap. Peridance Capezio Center, a dance school in New York, has a discounted deal for toddlers ringing in at $468 for an 18 class series. Many dancers train rigorously for up to fifteen years, only to enter into one of the most financially risky professions there is. To lessen such costs would require a top-down restructuring either of the ideal resume for a young dancer, or of the way schools are financed. Until then, committing to a life of dance implies more than passion -- it may require a trust fund.
Jennings caps off his piece with a telling hypothetical:
"If no black ballerina has danced the female lead in Swan Lake at Covent Garden, it's not because anyone's opposed to the idea. Covent Garden audiences love Carlos Acosta, and a black Odette-Odile of the calibre of existing Royal Ballet ballerinas would be a sensation, and box-office magic."
Even ignoring the throwback exoticism of the premise (we can't help but hear "I have a black friend!" logic in the argument that "audiences loving Carlos Acosta" is proof that any non-white lead would be similarly accepted), there is the fact that Jennings has doomed his own argument. At the shallowest level, he's right. For a black woman to dance the black swan would be an event. It would take precedence in the reviews, and probably set the headlines. It may indeed even yield "box-office magic," but only because it would be an anomaly.
Probe any deeper into the hypothetical, and it becomes a disturbing, not a comforting one. While Jennings uses the scenario to excuse the "ballet establishment" and its way of operating -- calling instead for more "imaginative programming" to encourage black dancers at a childhood level -- we can't help but worry at the fact that his thought experiment is just that: only a thought. The fact is, there hasn't yet been a black Odette-Odile, though there are accomplished black dancers with definitive box office appeal. If even one major ballet company were to entrust a black dancer with such a career-changing turn, surely it could inspire the next generation in a dramatic way, as effectively, perhaps, as increased regional youth classes. That such a casting evolution would be welcomed is no excuse for it not having transpired as yet.
What do you think, readers? Do ballet's higher-ups have to answer to the problem of race, or this a question of grass-roots change?
CORRECTION: An earlier edition of this article stated incorrectly that the American Ballet Theater has only had three black dancers since its inception in 1937. It also overstated the price of a Peridance ballet class as $486; that is the cost of a package of classes.