Black Ballet

There is a lack of diversity in many fields and vocations that have been highlighted in recent times.

After slavery had ended, there were many preconceived notions about what Black people could and could not do for a living and for recreation. Ballet was one of them.

History

It wasn’t until 1952 that Janet Collins was the first Black ballerina to be promoted to Prima Ballerina status at the Metropolitan Opera.

Raven Wilkinson was the first Black ballet dancer who toured with the famous Ballet Russe De Monte Carlo company in 1955.

The Ballet Russe De Monte Carlo company toured around the United States; Raven was encouraged to wear lighter make-up but she never hid her race.

Raven left the company after receiving numerous threats from the Ku Klux Klan. 

After moving to The Netherlands, Raven became a member of the Dutch National Ballet.

In 1969, Virginia Johnson co-founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem with Arthur Mitchell as a Prima Ballerina, and in 2009 as a Company Director.

In an interview with Misty Copeland, Virginia spoke of how during the 70s they were invited to perform at Sadlers Wells in London. The tickets sold out and they were invited to perform again a week later.

The artistic director Arthur Mitchell decided that everyone hand dyed their tights and pointe shoes to match their skin tones for the second performance to show the world “who we are”.

Dance Theatre Of Harlem

Arthur Mitchell felt compelled to open the Dance Theatre of Harlem as he wanted to form a top-notch ballet theatre that would shatter the myth that black bodies “were not right” for ballet.

It started in a garage and they left the doors open to attract young people from the street. 

To entice the boys there, Mitchell compared ballet to basketball, hired drummers instead of pianists to accompany the class, and allowed them to wear jeans.

Within four months, the Dance Theatre of Harlem school had 800 students.

Modern Day

Lauren Anderson was nine years old when she was taken to the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and couldn’t believe there was a whole company of Black and brown dancers that looked like her.

Lauren was the first Black principal dancer at the Houston Ballet in 1990, and when she saw she was cast as ‘Alice’ in Alice in Wonderland, she thought that it was a mistake

“He looked at me like I was crazy when I told him Alice was white”, her teacher responded “That the only colour in art is on a canvas

Lauren reflected how lucky she was to be in a nurturing environment as well as a protective one at the Houston Ballet. Lauren didn’t know of the hate mail and death threats she received until years later..

In 2012, Junor Souza was only one of two Black dancers out of 64 at the English National Ballet.

In 2015, Misty Copeland was the first Black woman to be promoted to a principal in American Ballet.

“Pancaking”

The struggle of being the lone Black dancer comes with many challenges, one of them is trying to find the right coloured clothing.

British-American ballet dancer Eric Underwood used to spend 45 agonising minutes painting his ballet shoes with makeup to match his skin tone.

In the summer of 2015, he was on tour in the South of Italy, and after a fruitless search of looking for dark make-up in the heat, he posted a video on Instagram.

Eric is seen ‘pancaking’ his pink ballet shoes imploring ballet shoe manufacturers to make shoes to match his skin tone.

A Russian ballet company unhelpfully replied You’re Black, you should wear black shoes.”

However, a major manufacturing company called Bloch responded by creating a line in darker skin tones, which are called ‘Eric Tan’.

Freed of London also has a line of ballet shoes for darker skin tones, created with Ballet Black. A company created in 2001 dedicated to Black and Asian dancers.

American dancer Precious Adams was training at the Russian Bolshoi Academy when she was told to “try to wash the Black off” in 2013.

Precious wasn’t keen to file an official complaint as she felt it would fall on deaf ears, which is a common reason Black people do not speak up about their experiences of racism.

The Bolshoi Academy came out with an official statement saying that they had received no report of discrimination from her and that school officials had not heard complaints from other international students” 

In 2018, Precious refused to wear pink tights as it ruined the outline of her body. 

Precious quite rightly pointed out that there was a disconnect between her upper and lower body. 

In a conversation between Virginia Johnson and Misty Copeland, Virginia explains that “pink tights and pink pointe shoes were designed to match the skintones wearing them as it’s an European artform. It’s to create a sense of line.”

Precious said “When I was a student I never really thought about the uniform – it was just pink tights and pink shoes. Then I became professional and my usual dancewear didn’t make sense.”

Tamara Rojo, the artistic director of the English National Ballet, supported her decision in doing so.

Present Day

Fast forward to 2020 and it’s a completely different ball game. 

Chloé Lopes Gomes is a French citizen who joined Staatsballett Berlin as a corps dancer in 2018.

Chloé was unaware that she was the first Black ballet dancer at the school.

Growing up with a French white mother and a Father from Cape Verde, Chloé was taught to believe that we all have the same opportunities.

From the day Chloé started, she had a target on her back placed by her ballet mistress. 

After Chloé’s audition, the ballet mistress told another colleague that the “Staatsballett shouldn’t hire a Black ballerina as it doesn’t look aesthetically pleasing.”

When Chloé starred in the company’s presentation of Swan Lake, the ballet mistress told her that all the dancers needed to wear white make-up.

Chloé responded that she would never look white, she was told to wear more than the others.

For two years straight, Chloé experienced micro and macro aggressions which eventually took a toll on her mentally.

She was prescribed antidepressants and the stress led to an injury.

When Chloé spoke to the Co-Artistic Director (at the time) Johannes Öhman, he said it was unacceptable but the ballet mistress had a lifetime contract.

This would make it harder for the ballet mistress’s work contract to be terminated.

Blackface

In 2019, American ballet dancer Misty Copeland shared a photo to her Instagram of two dancers head to toe in blackface for La Bayadère from the Russian Bolshoi Ballet.

It sparked international outrage, however, Bolshoi Ballet refuses to change a 170-year tradition.

“The ballet La Bayadère has been performed thousands of times in Russia and abroad, and the Bolshoi Theatre will not get involved in such a discussion,” Mr. Urin told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency in response to Copeland’s comments.

Resolution

Black ballet dancers openly supported Chloé’s testimony.

After Chloé bravely spoke out about her experiences, the Staatsballett said that “an internal investigation into Lopes Gomes’ allegations is underway .”

“I am sorry to see that there is an employee at the Staatsballett Berlin who had to endure a very stressful situation for a long time and that the situation could not be resolved beforehand.

Moving forward, ballet companies across the globe should make sure that their staffing practices are inclusive, safe for everyone and take heed of the incidents that have been publiscised. 

Also can they stop encouraging their Black dancers to paint their skin white?!

We hope Chloé receives swift justice and no harm to her career for speaking out.

To quote Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

#blackballet #chloelopesgomes #mistycopeland #preciousadams #ericunderwood #JunorSouza #virginajohnson #arthurmiller #ravenwilkinson #laurenanderson #balletblack #bloch #freedoflondon #ballet #blackballerina #Staatsballett #bolshoitheatre #royalballet #adeptales #stayadept #beadept #racism #blm #dancetheatreofharlem  #dutchnationalballet #englishnationalballet 

Leave a Reply