The father of ballet, Marius Petipa, paved the way for modern-day classical ballet. Ballet, with its origins in the 15th and 16th century Italian and French Renaissance, has evolved from court entertainment to the contemporary art form we know and love today. The 20th century gave birth to masterpieces such as Romeo and Juliet, The Dying Swan, The Firebird, and Petrushka. Ballet greats like Sergei Diaghilev, Michel Fokine, and Igor Stravinsky breathed new life to this European art form, with greater emphasis on technique, adroitness, and precision. New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine further pushed the boundary of what ballet could be and introduced what’s now known as neoclassical ballet. Neo-classical ballet is an extension of classical ballet with advanced techniques, “plotless” recitals, and minimal aesthetics; a far departure from the pompous Romantic period performances. In the face of all the renditions that ballet has undergone since its inception, one glaring common denominator is that most of the ballerinas have historically been white. Although powerhouse dancers like Arthur Mitchell, Janet Collins, Evelyn Cisneros, and most recently Misty Copeland have altered the discourse of who can be a ballerina, the ballet world is still overwhelmingly white. The lack of racial diversity in the world of ballet is one of the dance world’s hotly discussed issues.
Classical ballet has traditionally resisted diversity and fallen short in reflecting the pluralistic composition of 21st-century society. While progress has been made in terms of inclusion, it’s still an uphill battle for people of colour. Ballet is widely seen as an exclusive and elitist art form that prevents accessibility of performers from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The dereliction of established institutions to provide financial support to young dancers of colour has meant that most performers struggle to realise their dream of pursuing ballet professionally. The reminiscence of European hegemony has instilled a sense of purity in the ballet world. Old guards of ballet have long held the belief that white dancers are most eligible to consummate the Eurocentric-rooted visual aesthetic and technical virtuosity of ballet. Additionally, classical ballet is heavily reliant on corps de ballet (a group of dancers who dance in unison in a ballet). The necessity of synchronisation and artistic elements to elicit grandiose, immersive experience for the audience, have ushered the preference of homogeneous corps de ballet with a focus on not just the movement of the dancers but also an emphasis on similarities in body type and skin colour. This has proved to be a roadblock for dancers of colour as most choreographers seek to create analogous corps de ballet where all blend in together and no one stands out.
Instances of racism and microaggression have been recounted by many ballet dancers of colour. Evelyn Cisneros, the first Hispanic principal dancer in American history, has recited multiple times in interviews about her experience with racism in the industry, especially early in her career when she was asked to lighten her skin with makeup to match the other dancers. Until very recently, pointe shoes and hosiery that were available to ballerinas came in shades of pale pinks, flesh-toned palettes to match the pale skins of the dancers. Darker skin dancers needed to take it upon themselves to tint their shoes with paint or dye to match their skin tone. The act of “pancaking” is a realisation of the racial exclusivity in ballet. Pancaking is a messy, tedious task that reminds dancers of colour that they are the odd ones out and highlights the subtle microaggressions that riddle their path to professional ballet. The very symbol of ballet; the pointe shoes has been a poignant reminder to BIPOC dancers that they are not the right fit for the art. The disproportionately low numbers of black and other minority dancers on the ballet scene meant that most garment and pointe shoe producers never bothered to diversify their products to meet the needs of this demographic. In the last few years, companies like Freed Of London and Gaynor Minden have created pointe shoes in a variety of brown shades to cater to darker complexions. Major dancewear enterprises like Bloch and Capezio have recently vowed to manufacture skin colour inclusive clothing and shoes for dancers of colour. This transition is indicative of the inclusive movement brewing in the ballet world. This small step of inclusion has massive repercussions for the future of the next generation ballet dancers…A path to greater diversity and acceptance of all.
The rise of black dancer Misty Copeland, who became the first black female principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, and her compeers Eric Underwood and Michaela DePrince are signals of broader changes in the purview of classical and contemporary ballet. These superstars have become ambassadors of diversity, forging a legacy that fosters inclusion and inspires the young dancers to follow their footsteps without fear or apprehension. They are not the first ballet dancers of colour, but their visibility and clout have rendered the spotlight on lack of heterogeneity in repertoires, narratives, and corps of ballet institutions. Although it’s still early days, enrollment of BIPOC dancers has been on the rise in ballet schools and companies. Project Plié by the American Ballet Theatre (launched in 2013) is an initiative to train and support ballet dancers from minority communities. The project, in conjunction with Boys and Girls Clubs, scout talented dancers from underrepresented communities and connect them with teachers, schools, and companies. Initiatives as such and many others are helping to bridge the gap of socio-economic obstacles encountered by most young dancers of colour. The Swan Dreams Project by Aesha Ash, ex-New York City Ballet dancer, is inspiring a generation of inner-city kids to embrace the beautiful dance form. In Australia, The Western Australia Ballet has launched a collaborative initiative to promote diversity and inclusion within the frameworks of the company.
Representation is important in every field. For young children to feel validated, they need to see someone like themselves represented in the world that has traditionally ignored or marginalized them. Figures like Misty Copeland and Sudarsna Mukund are aspirational to young dancers who have historically been left out of the ballet narrative. Small but significant steps need to be embraced by the ballet world to address issues of racial inequality. The inroads being made today through multiple initiatives are a step forward to creating a ballet that is accessible to everyone regardless of their race, gender, or social background.
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