The After-Effects of the Balanchine Body on American Ballet

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Oklahoma City Ballet Soloist DaYoung Jung as Clara and Principal Yui Sato as Hans. Photo:  a1000wordsphotography.net
Oklahoma City Ballet soloist DaYoung Jung as Clara and Principal Yui Sato as Hans. a1000wordsphotography.net

What does Clara (from The Nutcracker) and Santa Claus have in common? They are both associated with Christmas, both are (spoiler alert!) fictitious, and, most important for purposes of this column, both are white, according to the popular imagination. Do a Google image search for Clara. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a nonwhite dancer portraying this iconic character.

White characters in dance, of course, are not just limited to Clara (or Santa Claus), Cinderella, the Sugar Plum Fairy or a host of well-known ballerina roles. While white characters are particularly a casting problem for African-American dancers, the problem isn’t limited to them.

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But this discussion does beg the question: Is this racism? Is it harder for dancers of color to get contracts and get cast in the roles all young ballerinas dream of? In short, yes. The truth is, many companies have a limited number of dancers of color and even fewer principals and soloists.

In the dance world, this is a widely accepted occurrence. Partly it’s because our world is fraught with discrimination on all fronts. If you’re too short, too large, flat-footed, of the wrong sexual orientation (you read that right) or if any other minute details of your body or character are not what an artistic director or audience expects, then it doesn’t matter how good a dancer you are. I asked a few of our dancers about this. Most just shrugged and said that’s just how it is.

Ballet is not a meritocracy. Simple as that.

Let’s pause for a moment to bask in the irony that one of the most liberal professions in the country is also one of the most discriminatory…

There, wasn’t that fun?

In a perfect dance world, the best dancers would always get the roles and recognition they deserve. But this is not a perfect world and it is high time we at least recognize this and accept—well—compromise. Because that is exactly what it is.

Let’s ask another question: Why are things this way? From where did we get burn image of a perfect ballerina in our minds and what does she look like? What color is she?

George Balanchine
The father of American ballet.

Let’s try an exercise. Close your eyes (read the entirety of the instructions first) and imagine a prima ballerina. Imagine how she moves, the natural flow of her body, but take a keen interest in how she looks. If my guess is correct, you have just imagined the same type of ballerina that George Balanchine, the man oft-hailed as the father of American ballet, envisioned. In many ways, Balanchine is responsible for that image in your head—of a perilously thin, desperately beautiful, gracefully elongated girl who is, of course, pale as the driven snow. In short, a skinny white girl.

For the record, I am not stating that Balanchine was racist. I am stating that his hiring practices had a ripple effect which, decades later, still prevails in the dance world, and this perception has hurt and will continue to hurt ballet in America if it remains unaddressed. The reality is that we are becoming more culturally diverse, and the dance world acknowledge this trajectory.

Last December, a patron approached me during intermission of our Nutcracker. At this performance, DaYoung Jung, a beautiful dancer in our company from South Korea who trained for five years at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, played Clara. I need not exaggerate this patron’s question for dramatic effect—a direct quote is more than sufficient:

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What do you expect me to tell my daughter when she leans over and says ‘Mommy, that’s not Clara!’?

I apologized and told the woman, as politely doleful as possible, that I would be more than happy to exchange her tickets to a performance where Clara was more ethnically appropriate for her daughter’s imagination.

The State Ballet Theater of Russia performing Swan Lake
White swans in the State Ballet Theater of Russia’s performance of Swan Lake.

This story should not make you angry with the child or even the parent: you cannot fault the type of flower that grows from the seed. Balanchine planted the seed and, through his vision, a nation created an ivory princess (who hopefully has ribs almost grossly exposed) for a ballerina. That is not to say that Balanchine created that image, because he certainly did not. That image has been there since the dawn of this art form. Balanchine merely helped popularize it in America.

The problem is that this model, this image, cannot last because the demographics of this country, as noted, are changing. It is not right that dancers of color have a harder time because they must compete against each other for a smaller number of positions and roles. If this art form is to survive, it must evolve at the same pace as this country. If you see what the average American will look like in the year 2050, you will find it tough to identify a proper Clara in the bunch.

Certainly there are companies that celebrate their diversity, like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Dance Theatre of Harlem. But they are by far, if you will, in the minority. Diversity must become more widely accepted because as the number of talented ethnic dancers that are out there and auditioning continues to rise, so too must the spots and roles open to them to play. It is a matter of supply and demand. And Misty Copeland simply can’t dance all the roles.

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Shane Jewell
Shane Jewell is the Executive Director of the Oklahoma City Ballet. Previous to this, he was the Executive Director for the OK MOZART International Music Festival. Before his time at OK Mozart, Jewell worked at Celebrity Attractions in Tulsa presenting National Touring Broadway shows to 8 markets in the Midwest. During his tenure there he handled several roles such as: Company Manager, Technical Director and Advertising Director. He also was the Company Manager and Stage Manager for the national touring musical, The Rock & The Rabbi. Jewell currently serves on the Education and Programming Committee for Oklahoma Contemporary and is a member of the Oklahoma Presenters Network.