Sunday, November 1, 2015

New York Times: Push for Diversity in Ballet Turns to Training the Next Generation

Members of City Ballet and School of American Ballet students.
Credit Jesse Dittmar for The New York Times

Dancers from New York City Ballet, clockwise from top left: Sebastian Villarini-Velez and Sasonah Huttenbach; Rachel Hutsell and Christopher Grant; Preston Chamblee; Taylor Stanley and Olivia Boisson; Silas Farley; and Clara Ruf-Maldonado. Credit Jesse Dittmar for The New York Times

On the stages of American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet black, Asian, Latino and multiracial dancers are beginning to change the face of ballet where it matters most: Lincoln Center, home base to both companies.
Finally a major New York ballet company has a black swan. Misty Copeland’s promotion to principal dancer at American Ballet Theater this summer put ballet back on popular culture’s map and ushered in a conversation about diversity in ballet. So what now? Classical ballet is still overwhelmingly white, but over the past few years diversity has finally become a priority.
More than equality is at stake when Ms. Copeland — the first African-American principal female dancer in the company’s 75-year history — dances. When a company is diverse, the audience becomes more diverse, too, and for those faced with aging, dwindling audiences, that is priceless. Money is another incentive to change: The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Ford Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation have financed recent diversity initiatives.
The two major New York companies have realized that change starts with the schools. If it takes 10 years to make a dancer — and you can’t waste a minute — diversifying ballet must begin with children. Both Ballet Theater’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and the School of American Ballet, the training ground for City Ballet, have initiated programs to spot and recruit young minority dancers.
It’s still early days, but minority enrollment has increased at both schools. Growth at the School of American Ballet expanded substantially in 2011 with its “Beauty of Ballet” program at Queens Theater and Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College.
That seemingly small step led to an increased turnout for the school’s free community auditions, which has dramatically shifted the minority presence in the children division. “It’s gone Technicolor fast,” said Silas Farley, a 21-year-old member of City Ballet whose mother is black and father is white. (He refers to himself as “a cultural gumbo.”)
Peter Martins, the ballet master in chief of City Ballet as well as the artistic director and chairman of faculty at the School of American Ballet, says that substantial change may take time, but it will happen. “We are not a white company,” he said. “We don’t seek to be a black company. We don’t seek to be half and half. I just want to be American.
While it’s still too soon to tell if the children discovered through recent community auditions will make it into City Ballet, since 2008-9, the school has graduated 36 minority dancers who have gone on to join professional companies. Eleven of those joined City Ballet. India Bradley, a 17-year-old advanced student at the school said her ambition — obsession really — is to become one of them. “More than anything in life,” she said. “I have actual dreams.”

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