Mr. B and BET

It is after dinner-time on a Tuesday night. In TV terms, one day after Anthony Bourdain and one day before Top Chef DC. In other words, a TV wasteland, except for the Rachel Zoe Project which I happen to like. What? Don’t hate. Rachel’s doing her thang. She has a vision. She’s in it. And there is something soothing to living vicariously through someone whose biggest question is Gucci or Dolce?

But Rachel’s not on til 10. I am scrolling through the channels when my boyfriend suggests we watch ATL on BET. He is surprised that I’ve never seen it. It’s a teenage-romance/roller skating film featuring rap stars and their requisite big-bootied, lollipop-sucking, weave-wearin’ girlfriends. No, harumph, I haven’t seen it.

I supposed if he can suffer through Rachel Zoe, I can watch ATL. Besides, he insists. My boyfriend is first generation French-American. He is white, as opposed to, say, Algerian. Just a straight up Frenchie. From the coastal region to the west.

“How you spell dat, baby?”

“B-R-E-T-O-N.”

He talk French too. Real pretty. Oui, oui, oui, oui, oui.

But he grew up in Queens. NY, that is. And, god bless him, my white Frenchie boyfriend loves Black people. He is not one of those white people who pretends to be black. He just loves colored.

I’m just playin’ y’all. Havin’ a little fun. Actually, he just generally loves people. He will chat up anyone who gives him the time of day. When passing strangers on the street, he will be the first to say “Hello,” “Good morning,” “Have a nice day!” and genuinely mean it. When we first met, I suspected he liked me, but then became confused when I realized he smiled at everyone that way. But, naahhh, he liked me after all. Yup.

Anyway, I find myself wonderin’ how many white people are watching BET right now. I rarely watch it for the same reason I rarely watch So You Think You Can Dance. It’s too close to home and too far away at the same time.

He is not under any delusions about BET really representing anything other than stereotypes. However, I must admit, sometimes those stereotypes are damn funny, like the way the word “ambulance” is pronounced: am-ba-lance. When you got a bunch of black folk at a skatin’ rink, you know somebody gettin’ shot. Gotta call da ambalance.

Perhaps I been drinkin’ too much Old E, but I find myself imagining Mr. Balanchine watching BET. Trust, if he was still around, he’d be tunin’ in to dance crews battling On Demand and Stomp the Yard. And if he didn’t have a hand in choreographing the group skating sequences on ATL, best believe he’d be stealin’ from it. New York City Ballet dancers be roller skatin’ on pointe next season.

I do think that Mr. B liked colored too. When I danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem, a letter between Balanchine and Kirstein was circulated to the company in which Balanchine stated that he wanted an equal number of white and black dancers. He saw something in black dance and music that he wanted to bring to ballet. Call it “the jazz.”

Obviously, it never happened. But aside from that letter, I intuitively felt Balanchine’s funky bent when I was dancing his choreography. There is a kind of attitude, rhythm and swagger that resonated with me that had nothing to do with what I got from SAB. I am speaking primarily of the so-called black and white ballets.

At Dance Theatre of Harlem, ballets such as Agon and The Four Tempraments had a kind of attack that I never saw in other ballet companies. There was a heaviness to the movement that they  didn’t get, or rather, interpreted differently.

My intent in writing this is to not put one group above another. There are dancers that I love from NYCB and elsewhere.  True artists. But I can’t help but wonder what would happen if Balanchine’s original vision could be brought to life. How that would evolve the art form…and humanity.

I have a dream…

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6 responses to “Mr. B and BET

  • Elizabeth McDearmid

    Hi Tai,
    I’m so happy you’re blogging again! I’ve missed you. I hope you are well.

    I wish you were up the street, so we could have a relaxing glass of wine (or 2 or 3..) and a chit-chat!

    Take good care, my friend.

  • Leigh Witchel

    As far back as his young adulthood, Balanchine was fascinated by Josephine Baker and she influenced his work.

    He also choreographed Cabin in the Sky, one of the first musicals on Broadway with an all-black cast (but I may be wrong – I’m talking off the top of my head about this one.)

    Yes, Balanchine and Kirstein had a very ambitious original plan, which did imagine a group of black dancers – but were they a separate wing or fully integrated into the company? Either would have been a step forward for the time, but full integration would have been visionary – look at how radical it was for Mr. Mitchell to dance with Diana Adams in Agon.

    When Mr. Mitchell coached you in Agon in ’02 (did you ever get to dance it in performance?) what was fascinating was that he got so much out of everyone, but the one thing he couldn’t get was a lightness that he had – his weight way over the balls of his feet ready to spring upwards. It wasn’t a black or white thing; it was generational. He grew up dancing tap and soft shoe and the dancers in the room were 40 years younger and hadn’t.

    When I talked to members of the original cast about Agon, they mentioned Balanchine’s fascination of casting Adams and Mitchell was not political (I gather he wasn’t particularly political, beyond being anti-communist and suspicious of unions) but the aesthetic and sculptural fascination of seeing Mitchell’s black skin in a design with Adams’ white.

    I’ve noticed the absence of black female dancers at NYCB for years (there was usually just one at a time – Cynthia Lochard, Aesha Ash, Andrea Long . . .) and the company has gotten more representative about black men; there are usually several so they integrate better.

    But sadly, the record’s even worse for Asian women. Last year, the first Asian female dancer made it in as an apprentice – and in 25 years watching the company, I can’t think of another. What is up with that?

  • Tai Jimenez

    I will preface this comment by saying that talking about race is the most sensitive topic I’ve ever encountered. To readers that don’t know me, I am half black and half white. Now. Barak Obama has a distinct swag in his gait. He didn’t get that from the white side of his family. I think there are subtle differences to the ways different ethnic groups move AND I find those differences beautiful. I don’t think they should keep us from dancing together, but am fascinated by what happens when they do come together. To say that Mr. Mitchell’s lightness of movement was generational, not racial, I think is to not look deeply enough. I think if Mr. Mitchell were observed among his white peers at the time of his dancing, and they were all doing tap, his movement quality would have had subtle differences, yes, due to his race. I think Mr. Mitchell would feel betrayed in hearing me say that. He hated the notion of “black dance.” He would say, “What is a black pirouette?” I, however, do not reject the notion of black dance. I love it! Again, this does not mean that white people should not do hip-hop or black people should not do ballet. I think that while there are threads that are common to all people there are also differences and together, these weave a colorful, alive and exciting cloth. Balanchine’s intention of casting Adams and Mitchell may not have been intended as a political statement, but he couldn’t have been immune to the politics of it either. His refusal to comment on the casting in political terms was a political statement in and of itself.

  • Tai Jimenez

    I want to elaborate on this a bit further…When Mr. Mitchell asked rhetorically, “What is a black pirouette?” he was rejecting the idea that to be black was to be inferior. He was coming from a different context. I have the luxury today to say I love “black dance” without the stigma of black equating to inferiority because of pioneers like him.

  • Madonna Jones

    Mr. B was very much influenced by what he called “American jazz”. Knowing who invented jazz music and seeing the jazz influences in Agon & The Four Temprements it’s easy to understand why DTH dances those ballets unlike any other company. That’s our s**t!

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