Credit Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times
Laurie A. Woodard, Ph.D.
New York University
By Laurie A. Woodard
July 15, 2015
MISTY COPELAND’S elevation to principal dancer with American Ballet Theater is a tremendous accomplishment for her as a ballet dancer and as an African-American ballerina. Neither her talent nor her achievement should be underestimated. But even as she reaches the apex of her art in the role of Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake,” her promotion poses complicated questions about black artists in classical ballet.
This country has a long history of embracing exceptional African-Americans decades before we will fully admit their equal talent and abilities. Whether it was Jackie Robinson, Halle Berry or Barack Obama, somebody had to go first. The world of classical ballet is no different.
Since ballet was developed in the court of Louis XIV in late 17th-century France, it has proved resistant to evolving beyond its roots as an elite, rigidly European art form. Balletomanes, choreographers and directors generally concurred that black bodies were unsuited to the lines of classical technique. Racism and discrimination continued to plague ballet, and throughout most of the 20th century, African-Americans were largely barred from quality training and professional careers.
Largely, but not completely. Although Ms. Copeland is the first African-American ballerina to attain the rank of principal dancer with the historically white A.B.T., she is not the first African-American professional ballerina. In fact, the line is long and illustrious, including Janet Collins, who danced with the Metropolitan Opera House in the early 1950s; Raven Wilkinson, who joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1955; Nora Kimball, one of the first African-American soloists (a rank below principal) with A.B.T.; and the legendary Virginia Johnson of the Dance Theater of Harlem.
These women, and others, established trailblazing careers despite the subtle and overt racism they faced. Ballet Russe reportedly told Ms. Wilkinson and her family that they were not to let the public know that this light-skinned young woman was actually black. Onstage, she was often required to “white up,” masking herself in pale pancake makeup.
This practice continued when I began my ballet training decades later in Washington, D.C., though it was generally limited to the so-called white ballets — “Swan Lake,” “Giselle,” “La Sylphide” and “La Bayadere.” (White ballets are so named not because of racism, but because they are peopled with ghosts and swans and spirits, their ashen costumes illuminated in a pale white glow.)
Although the white ballets were not designed to exclude African-Americans, that is what happened. In Washington, in “The Nutcracker,” African-American dancers were inevitably cast in the Arabian/Coffee divertissement, regardless of their aesthetic qualities or mastery of technique. And it was regarded as ludicrous for an African-American child like me to dance in the opening party scene.
On one occasion, in a “Nutcracker” production of the prestigious ballet school I attended in the 1970s, I appeared in the party scene because the young dancer cast in the role was snowbound. I was so plastered with powder that I came across the footlights deathly pale — shades lighter than all the other dancers. Such was the anxiety about preserving ballet’s whiteness.
I went on to become a professional ballet dancer, touring internationally with Dance Theater of Harlem. D.T.H., America’s first world-class predominantly black ballet company, was created in part as a response to racism within and beyond the world of classical ballet. Upon learning of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Arthur Mitchell, the first African-American principal dancer with New York City Ballet, resolved to create a space for black ballet dancers.
The classical and neoclassical repertory, coupled with Afro-Caribbean- and African-inspired works, demanded great technical virtuosity, and company members served as ambassadors of black ballet on six continents. Mr. Mitchell gave lectures and demonstrations that expanded audiences for black ballet — and black audiences for ballet generally — even as he illuminated the often unperceived similarities between classical ballet and popular dance. D.T.H. provided African-American dancers like me with a home and opportunities, including the chance to dance “Swan Lake” and “Giselle” sans powder.