Dance Weekly: Race and ballet

A documentary about the great Misty Copeland reminds us that race problems extend to ballet

Screening Thursday night at the Hollywood Theatre is the movie “A Ballerina’s Tale—The Incredible Rise of Misty Copeland” directed by Nelson George, part of the Portland Black Film Festival in partnership with Oregon Ballet Theatre. The film will be introduced by Oregon Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin Irving and OBT dancer Jordan Kindell. I interviewed Kindell back in the summer as part of a boys in ballet article I wrote for Artslandia.

Misty Copeland is the first African-American woman to be promoted to the rank of principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre in New York City. But for some, she might only be known for her inspiring and powerful commercials and advertisements for the fitness clothing line Under Armour. In her most popular commercial, Copeland flies across the screen, a strong, chiseled beautiful body in motion. In the accompanying voiceover, a young girl reads a rejection letter from a ballet school. The letter says she has the wrong body type for ballet and at thirteen is too old to be considered. Copeland dancing puts the lie to it: We understand that the rejection is based on the girl’s race.

misty-copeland-nelson-george-ballerina-lead

Misty Copeland, Principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre. Photo courtesy of “A Ballerina’s Tale.”

I get choked up every time I watch this commercial. Like so many dancers everywhere I can relate—too old, not the right body type, not quite “right”—and I feel charged and empowered by the company’s message: “I will what I want.” I secretly hope (not so secret now) that if I wear Under Armor clothing, I too will have the courage of my convictions, just like Copeland. Oh, and look and dance like her, too!

Copeland isn’t the first African-American ballerina to be promoted to the rank of principal in an American ballet company, just the first at American Ballet Theatre. According to my research, the first black ballerina to be promoted in a major white American company was Lauren Anderson in 1990 with Houston Ballet. Tai Jimenez joined Boston Ballet as a principal in the early 2000s. Here in Portland Elena Carter Richardson was a principal with Oregon Ballet Theatre and Pacific Ballet Theatre. And to change gender, we shouldn’t forget the amazing Arthur Mitchell who founded the Dance Theater of Harlem and in 1962 became the first black dancer ever to be promoted to principal at the New York City Ballet. There was also Albert Evans who became a principal with New York City Ballet in 1995 and Desmond Richardson the co-founder of Complexions Contemporary Ballet, who joined American Ballet Theatre as a principal in 1997. Yes, just a handful that I was able to find.

Interestingly the same week that Copeland was promoted at ABT, dancer Stella Abrera became ABT’s first Filipino-American ballet dancer to be promoted to principal as well.

But before all of these lovely dancers came Janet Collins who became a Prima Ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the 1950s and Raven Wilkinson who initially wasn’t able to dance in America and danced for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and later with New York City Opera. Their stories are filled with rejection, racism and exclusion.

So, while Copeland IS a prominent public figure and spokesperson for the movement to change the landscape of American ballet, she is not alone. She is part of a long legacy of amazing black ballerinas of all ranks from all over the world that have paved the way to where she is today.

Keep your eyes peeled for a full-length documentary, currently in production, called “Black Ballerina.” It follows the stories of three ballerinas—Joan Myers Brown, Delores Browne and Raven Wilkinson—and contrasts their experiences with those of three young black ballerinas pursuing their careers in 2015.

This week’s performances

A Ballerina’s Tale—The Incredible Rise of Misty Copeland (Film)
Co Presented by the Portland Black Film Festival and Oregon Ballet Theatre
7 pm February 18
Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd
This documentary directed by Nelson George follows ballerina Misty Copeland as she deals with a major, possibly career-ending injury, race, body image and her rise to stardom within American Ballet Theatre and beyond.

The film will be introduced by Oregon Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin Irving and OBT dancer Jordan Kindell.

Cabaret Boris & Natasha. Photo courtesy of Performance Works NW and Linda Austin Dance.

Cabaret Boris & Natasha. Photo courtesy of Performance Works NW and Linda Austin Dance.

Cabaret Boris & Natasha
Curated by Linda Austin
February 19-20
Performance Works NW, 4625 SE 67th Ave
A salon-styled evening featuring the Seattle-based dance artist Alyza DPM, theatre artist Amanda Boekelheide, sound artists PANTING (Davis Hooker + Evan Spacht), a series of vignettes by writer/performer Stacey Tran and a work-in-progress by TopShakeDance directed by Jim McGinn.

Also making an appearance will be The Boris & Natasha Dancers, “the most famous (un)talented batch of untrained male (non)dancers in the universe,” directed by PWNW Director Linda Austin and featuring Tom DeBeauchamp, JAH Justice, and Padraic O’Meara.

There will be many surprises.

Skinner:Kirk

Skinner/Kirk Dance Ensemble
February 18-20
BodyVox Dance Center, 1201 NW 17th Ave

The skinner/kirk Dance Ensemble, directed by long time BodyVox dancers Erik Skinner and Daniel Kirk and featuring dancers Mari Kai Juras, Holly Shaw, Brent Luebbert and Vanessa Thiessen as well as Skinner and Kirk, will present four new works thematically exploring the complexities of relationships and the diverse and personal interpretations of what church means to each of us. The Skinner/Kirk duo have been making work together since 1998, developing dances rooted in classical ballet but deeply informed by their decades of performing with modern and contemporary choreographers.

The soundscore for “Church,” created by composer Tim Ribner, will feature an array of sounds including interviews, recordings in French cathedrals and live vocals by Lindsey Stormo.

Bob Hicks wrote in his review for Arts Watch that the concert was “a sparkling blend of new and old, highlighted by this fascinating, if a little meandering, contemplation on the nature of faith and its connection to the world of dance.”

Coming up later this month

February 25, Visiting dance scholar Dr. Christina Rosa will present a public lecture: “Regarding the New Wave of African American Choreographers and Their Gesture of Interweaving.”
February 25-28, Edge Effects, Tere Mathern
Feb 26-27, Performance Works NorthWest, Alembic Co-Production Series, presents “GHOSTS” by Asaf Aharonson & Ruairí Donovan (Berlin) and “Snake Talk” by Abby Crain, Maryanna Lachman and Mara Poliak (Oakland).
Feb 27-March 5, Romeo and Juliet, Oregon Ballet Theatre

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3 Responses.

  1. Sam says:

    Black ballerinas have always been around, kicking butt on the world’s biggest stages! It’s a shame that certain ballerinas continue to be overlooked in history and on the internet. DEBRA AUSTIN joined Pennsylvania Ballet in the early 1980s as a principal (Pennsylvania Ballet is a major U.S. company). She previously danced with Zurich Ballet , and hails from New York City Ballet where she was chosen by Balanchine himself and became the 1st and still only black female soloist in NYCB’s history (see YouTube) Not long after Lauren Anderson’s promotion at Houston Ballet, another former NYCB dancer, MYRNA KAMARA, became a principal dancer with Miami City Ballet. She was there from 1990-1996. She then danced with Bejart Ballet in Lausanne, Switzerland as a principal. Also, as you noted TAI JIMENEZ became a principal with Boston Ballet, around 2006. Even though Francesca Hayward is a member of The Royal Ballet, she is currently a soloist, and most likely will become a principal in the near future. The media has managed to neglect proper research and continues to do so. If you have any interest in learning more about the extensive black history in ballet, you should check out the article by Theresa Ruth Howard entitled THE MISTY-RIOUS CASE OF THE VANISHING BALLERINAS OF COLOR: WHERE HAVE ALL THE OTHERS GONE? on http://www.mybodymyimage.com. There’s a wealth of info in the COMMENTS as well! She also started a Museum of Blacks in Ballet website that also had an incomplete Roll Call, but it is not accessible at this time. Perhaps she is working on it. There seem to be more than just a few who have made such accomplishments over the years and we should know about all of them.

    • Oregon ArtsWatch says:

      Thank you Sam for all of this information. I spent a good part of my Saturday evening checking out http://www.mybodyimage.com-it is a great website. I will continue my education in all the directions you have presented. Thank you for reading my article and contributing to the conversation and history keeping of black dancers. Do you live in Portland?

  2. Sam says:

    So glad to know that my information was useful to you. I currently live in the New York City area.

Comments are closed.

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