• Zoe Phillips

On Black lives in ballet

Ballet’s history is fraught with racial prejudice.

Ruth Hogben

It’s said that every theatre is inhabited by at least one ghost, and contrary to legends propagated by Halloween, these ghosts do not like the dark. Thus, when the curtain falls and a theatre’s house empties, an employee will leave a light — a ghost light — to burn onstage until the performers return. Across the world, ghost lights have remained on and untouched for months. But the lives of performers continue offstage, each day adding pressure to find performance spaces on digital platforms. What happens when the ghost lights keep burning and we’re left with a stage wholly mediated by posts, shares, comments and likes? 

In a utopian alternate reality of a world without coronavirus, this week would have been quite historic for American Ballet Theatre. Dancers Misty Copeland and Calvin Royal III were scheduled to become the first black artists at ABT to headline the archetypal love story “Romeo and Juliet” together. The casting would have been the newest in the ballet world’s glacially slow-moving progress toward a more diverse stage. Copeland recently told ABT Trustee Emerita Susan Fales-Hill that when social distancing necessities dissipate, the performance will have the potential to shift an audience’s perspective on black love, elaborating that “I just think it’s going to blow people's minds just by seeing two brown bodies in this romantic, passionate young love that has nothing to do with the color of our skin.” 


The specialness of this potential should not be minimized — quite frankly, the mere fact that ABT has two black dancers high enough in its ranks to cast such major roles makes the company far ahead of many others. In 2015, Copeland became the first ever black female principal dancer at any major international company and since then, the success stories have been few and far between. 


Ballet’s history is fraught with racial prejudice. For generations, the art form was emblematic of a white aristocracy that firmly denied access to audiences and dancers of color. It began in the courts of Italy and was later codified by King Louis XIV of France in the 17th century. These blue-blooded beginnings helped support an aura of elitism that continues to hinder ballet’s potential for growth from racial and socioeconomic standpoints. Today, ballet’s lack of diversity is fed by ugly stereotypes of black artists’ supposed lack of grace, and its expensive point of entry can make it hard for new talent to break these boundaries — one estimate projected that a dancer-in-training will need at least $100,000 before reaching the possibility of a professional audition. This reality creates a world that continues to exclude and oppress dancers of color. 


This oppression is currently backlit by a country enveloped by protests against the recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Activists and Instagram users alike continue to use these crimes as platforms to talk about the importance of fighting racial injustice at every level — ballet may be far removed from police brutality, but the art form remains at the center of many systems of white privilege that also enable the perpetuation of racism in America and beyond. The layers of that privilege run far deeper than just casting, but the stage is almost always where choreographers, teachers and directors get their start. Changing the racial makeup of a ballet’s performance thus has the long-term potential to shape the entire industry going forward.


Misty Copeland is perhaps the loudest voice in this fight today — even before her official promotion, Copeland’s status as a powerful black ballerina changed the landscape of ballet audiences. In 2014, she became a spokesperson for Under Armour and broke out of ballet’s insular bubble in a way that few dancers ever have. Copeland pushed the ballet community to see the importance of growth and became the face of ballet’s progressive fans. Nevertheless, she is not the only voice out there: ABT’s Erica Lal and Calvin Royal III, Houston Ballet’s Harper Watters, Washington Ballet’s Nardia Boodoo and Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Daphne Lee are all beautiful voices to listen to. Lee recently told her followers, “We could cripple this country. We could also elevate it in ways we haven’t done before.” 


Copeland and Royal III’s performance of “Romeo and Juliet” would have been special for its elevation of ballet’s possibilities: They were both eager to show the world a new face on an old story. This excitement is melancholic in context of the uncertain future of live performance, but both express confidence that this groundbreaking show will happen one day. Their conviction is an optimistic reflection of how far the ballet world has come, yet the mere necessity of delaying such a milestone in 2020, especially this week, underscores how much further it needs to go. 


In the wake of these events, ballet companies are also taking stances — Lincoln Center cancelled this week’s scheduled live streams in honor of the Blackout Tuesday media initiative under the growing hashtag #TheShowMustBePaused. Last Sunday, ABT joined the also-growing #BalletRelevesForBlackLives initiative to address the racism lingering in the ballet industry. A réleve is a step in which the dancer pulls their body up onto the ball of their foot or the top of the pointe shoe. The simple yet powerful step is the backbone of many of ballet’s most important movements. In essence, these companies are pledging to step up, to grow and to lift their world into a more racially equitable tomorrow. 


The sentiment is quite beautiful: By hiring more black dancers, those dancers then have the opportunities to grow into choreographers, teachers and directors. The pledge has the potential to change the future of this art form, but only if these companies follow through on their words. Just like a réleve itself, change requires strength that comes from long stretches of active perseverance — words and hashtags are only the trailhead of a steep road of effort. Also like a réleve, that road needs to become the backbone of this industry if real change is to be enacted. Black lives and black dancers must matter today, tomorrow and forever to come.

This article was originally published in The Michigan Daily on June 3, 2020 as part of the series "Ghost lights and Instagram likes."

Updated 2020. Many thanks to Emily Considine for the header art at the top of my page! 

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