New York City Ballet. San Francisco Ballet. Boston Ballet. Great companies named after great cities. Yet the ranks of these institutions fail to reflect the racial and cultural diversity of the cities after which they are named. However, that doesn’t prevent them from receiving public funds from taxpayers. I’ve listened in on many conversations, public and private, where black people discuss their anger and frustration over this. I’m sure similar conversations happen among other groups. Do the heads of these companies realize this? Do they care?
The big ballet companies in this country are lacking in racial diversity. This issue has many layers to it. On the one hand, it’s like a catch-22. Many blacks are reluctant to allow their children to study the art form because they are afraid to subject them to racism. If they are allowed to do so, it is only up to a certain point. In my observation, academics are stressed above art. The parents of these children would rather see them go to college than join a dance company, or at least get their degrees first. Since the art is not allowed to be prioritized, many black children do not receive the necessary rigorous training required to become a classical dancer.
As a result, few show up to audition at the big classical companies. Those that do often do not have enough training. This is partially the reason why there are few blacks in these companies in the cases where artistic directors are open to having them. On the ugly side of all this, some white artistic directors are not open to blacks in ballet. Period. If they allow a token black to enter, they will not be loved and nurtured as one of their own. On the positive side, there are a few black ballet artistic directors, like Alonso King, who refreshingly, have a diverse cast and audience and there are white directors who are more open than in the past. There is hope.
As the world becomes more and more racially mixed, ballet companies need people of color to buy tickets in order to survive. The old guard is simply dying off. So the question arises as to how to get a more diverse audience to the theater. Some naively think that once they are introduced to ballet and great dancing, they will just fall in love with it. This will sometimes be the case. But ultimately, people want to see themselves reflected. So, if you don’t have black people dancing up there on the stage, black audience members will feel alienated, NO MATTER HOW GREAT THE DANCING IS. There is a deep wound in our American psyches around the issue that people of color are physically and intellectually incapable of ballet, and the classical arts. An all white, or nearly all white cast only makes the wound deeper.
Incidentally, this argument was also used to prevent blacks from entering professional sports teams, colleges, and a lot of other good things. The arts, it seems, are way behind, the last bastion of white superiority clinging fearfully to the good old days.
Another matter to be addressed is the content of the programming. Again, if the choreographers and composers are all white, black people, people of color, will find that alienating. As an artist, I find that just plain impractical. It is too limiting. The issue of diversity, if it is to be thoroughly addressed, has to be dealt with on all levels of the organization, throughout the entire structure, outwardly in community, and inwardly, in our own hearts. I know it will take time. I also know that it is inevitable. Or ballet will just go the way of the dinosaurs.
Many artistic directors would not agree. They love their aesthetic and, quite frankly, don’t see the need, apart from money, to integrate. They have not loved “the other.” They have not seen from their point of view. But they are gonna die. And the generation coming up is the first in which it is ok for whites to love black culture and vice versa. White folks love hip-hop and black folks love skate-boarding, and etc. People are adopting children of all races. That is the future.
Art has to be for everyone. It doesn’t belong to any one race. It doesn’t belong to its creator. We are all human. Let us all rejoice in what is still beautiful about that together.