dance theatre of harlem

Diversity and Ballet


I was very happy when I saw the cover of Pointe magazine’s June/July issue. It’s about time that talented ballerinas of color—ABT’s Misty Copeland, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Ashley Murphy and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s Ebony Williams—get some time in the spotlight!

Pointe‘s current issue tackles the lack of diversity in ballet. For this, I applaud them. I have a hard time being critical of the art that brings me so much joy, both as a dancer and a spectator. But I do think ballet’s lack of diversity is a real problem, and one that needs to be addressed.

I touched upon this issue before, in my post about Dance Theatre of Harlem. I still find it hard to believe that now, in 2014, there are no black principal female dancers at any of the country’s major ballet companies—and very few Asians, Hispanics, Indians or other minorities in the upper ranks. Though I’m way past the age of pursuing ballet as a career, I feel a bit disheartened when I sit through entire ballet programs without seeing a single dancer who looks like me. So I can only imagine how talented, young, minority dancers must feel when they try to decide if they could ever succeed in the ballet world.

In addition, the lack of diversity makes ballet seem like it’s stuck in a bygone era.

Pointe‘s three cover ladies discuss the difficulties they faced, as up-and-coming ballet dancers of color. Murphy noted that one of the reasons she never considered ballet, as a career, is that while growing up, she never saw ballerinas who looked like her. Williams recounts an incident when she was a scholarship student at Boston Ballet: A dance mom pulled her aside, told her she was paying for her to be there and was undeserving of the roles she received. And Copeland describes the isolation she felt being one of the few black ballet dancers at ABT. (It should be noted that Alicia Graf Mack wrote the cover story. She, herself, is a classically trained ballet dancer who was turned down by both ABT and NYCB. She dances with Ailey, and continues to be a standout among a company of fantastic dancers.)

The magazine also has a timeline of diversity in ballet. (There are very few milestones.) A longer piece addresses what companies are doing to become more diverse. ABT’s new Project PliГ©, for example, grants scholarships to talented dancers, teachers and arts administrators of color; works with other ballet companies on outreach; and has a partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to identify minority children with ballet potential.

It’s a start. Hopefully we’ll see some changes soon.

(Image via Pointe )

Dance Theatre of Harlem

Dance Theatre of Harlem

This past Saturday night, I had the pleasure of seeing theВ Dance Theatre of Harlem. Their five-night run at Jazz at Lincoln Center marked the end of a nine-year, financially driven hiatus for the company, and I was super-excited to see one of their first NYC performances.

Saturday’s program could best be described as “lovely”—a real joy to watch. It opened withВ “Gloria,” a gorgeous new work by resident choreographer Robert Garland. It was one of the most inspiring pieces I’ve seen in a while—one that I would love to dance, if I were so talented! The movement was deeply classical with refreshing contemporary elements woven throughout. During the piece, the mood shifted between melancholy and and joyous, as dancers effortlessly wove among each other, partnered up and separated. At the start and end of the piece, ballerinas-in-training, from the Dance Theatre of Harlem school, joined their more seasoned counterparts onstage—an apt metaphor for the company’s new beginning.

The next piece, Helen Pickett’s “When Love,” was a moving, athletic duet featuring Jehbreal Jackson and the ultra-talented Ashley Murphy. (My apologies to Jackson—I kept finding my eyes drawn to Murphy!) Set to Philip Glass’ stirring “Einstein on the Beach,” the piece depicted all the wild emotions that you experience in love. I especially appreciated how well the dancers conveyed the feeling that the two of you exist separately, in a world apart from everyone else.

Balanchine’s playful “Glinka Pas de Trois” followed (also featuring Murphy), then Ailey’s “The Lark Ascending” (pretty, but it felt less tight than the previous three works). The last piece of the evening, Donald Byrd’s “Contested Space,” was my least favorite. After the moving, uplifting dances that preceded, this felt like a misfit. “Contested Space” is set to a jarring, techno score and features flashy, ultra-contemporary ballet moves—overwrought developpes and the like—the type that you might see in So You Think You Can Dance. This was not a good thing. And I’m saying that as a diehardВ SYTYCDВ fan!

I’m hoping Dance Theatre of Harlem is back for good—not just because I really enjoyed the Saturday program. I also fully support what the company stands for.

Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell, the firstВ African-American principal dancer of New York City Ballet. (He’s probably best known for his В role in Agon‘s pas de deux, which Balanchine famously choreographed for him—ground-breaking, at the time, because it paired him, a black man, with a white woman.) Dance Theatre of Harlem’s mission has always been, in part, to break boundaries and prove that black dancers can perform classical ballet at the highest caliber.

Today, it’s no secret that the ballet world is still not the most diverse. In most of the classical ballet performances I’ve seen, there have been very few—or, often, no—dancers of color. And in comparison to the very diverse world I’m used to seeing every day in NYC, I can’t help but notice that. (That’s also one of the reasons that led me to take ballet at Ailey—I wanted to be surrounded by a diverse group of dancers.)

And that’s why I’m hoping Dance Theatre of Harlem will be around for many years. I’m hoping this diverse, talented company will inspire everyone who has the drive to pursue ballet to do so, no matter what their backgrounds.

(Photo of “Gloria” via the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Facebook page)