Economic factors forced the disbanding of the Dance Theatre of Harlem Company in 2004. Now, eight years later, reading the series of pieces about the dearth of black dancers that recently ran in the UK's Guardian newspaper, it is as if Dance Theatre of Harlem never existed.
With increasing frequency, the scarcity of black dancers on the ballet stage bubbles back to the surface--a sure sign of the need for change. The roving finger of blame identifies a different culprit with each round of discussion, yet because there are multiple factors at work, we are still far from a resolution.
In founding Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969 at the height of the Civil Rights movement, Arthur Mitchell intended to put the question of whether black dancers belonged in ballet to rest for good. As a founding member of the groundbreaking Dance Theatre of Harlem and throughout my 27 years as a ballerina with that company, we demonstrated that dancers of many hues could not only perform ballet, but do so at the highest level. It was gratifying that, ten years into our existence, a second generation of dancers of color began arriving at our doorstep, ready to claim their place in ballet.
The good news is that we are back. The new Dance Theatre of Harlem Company will make its debut performance at the Kentucky Center in Louisville, KY on October 20. As artistic director, I have selected 18 racially diverse artists who will carry the legacy of Dance Theatre of Harlem forward into the 21st century. The idea at the heart of that legacy is that--given access and opportunity--an individual can create for his or herself a future outside of convention.
Once again a different perspective on the art form will enliven the field, but the absence of role models is not the only reason ballet remains so pale. The high cost of training for a career in ballet (though let us not assume that there are no African Americans of means who can afford to do so) and a literal old guard who prized a cookie-cutter similarity in the dancers they put on their stages stood in the way of diversifying the art form are certainly factors, but there are also systemic aesthetic and political issues that contribute to the exclusion blacks from ballet.
One of them is no doubt the notion of an idealized body. This essential aspect of ballet has often been cited as a reason to exclude black dancers. It hardly needs to be stated how great a mistake it is to assume that one group is uniquely qualified and another uniquely unqualified as it is also a mistake to hold the art form hostage to 19th century ideals of beauty in which pale skin was equated with goodness and dark with evil. No thinking person would allow him or herself to indulge in these kinds of discrimination, but such prejudices persist below the level of thought.
Ballet's aesthetics have evolved. Compare the slope shouldered wasp-waisted Taglioni perched on the petal of a flower with George Balanchine's ideal of a small-headed, long legged Amazon capable of fleet, space-gobbling, off-kilter movement. Balanchine himself dreamed of a company equally divided between blacks and whites. And even looking at the company he founded, New York City Ballet, the favored body-type has continued to change. And, as has been pointed out, a new, enlightened generation of artistic directors is broadening the perception of what ballet can look like by bringing dancers of color to their companies.
Beyond the physical look of ballet though, is the notion of what the ballet has come to signify an aspirational ideal. Historically, the classical arts, opera, music, ballet have been seen to convey the highest expression of the human spirit. They were closed clubs whose cachet was exclusivity. On the outside were all of those who did not match a particular set of standards. While ballet is an exclusive form of expression--only the truly inspired, strong and exceptionally gifted can master this rigorous artform, none of the aforementioned is contingent on race, ethnicity or nationality.
One of the opportunities we have now that a more substantive discussion of the role of diversity in the classical arts is arising, is the question, not of whether blacks belong in the art form, but what, exactly is the role of art at this point in human history, and how can that best be fulfilled? We are not living in a colonial world in which culture is a weapon of dominance. It is time to think differently: the art of ballet as a common language that transcends difference that can build unity.
WATCH the Dance Theatre of Harlem perform "Contested Space":