Clive Barnes on Racial Diversity in Dance

May 14, 2007

    Only a few years ago, when Britain’s Royal Ballet was touring the United States, a friend (who was, in turn, a friend of the local promoter in Boston) phoned me to ask my opinion on whether it would be a good idea for The Royal Ballet to open its series of Swan Lakes with a Prince Siegfried who, from his photograph, was quite clearly black. I replied that the guy in question was regarded as one of the finest male classical dancers of his generation, and the local promoter should regard himself as damn lucky. The engagement went on without a hitch, and the Cuban-born Carlos Acosta had a triumph.      

     But race is still an issue, and will doubtless continue to be in the near future when Caucasians are anticipated to become just another minority in the multi-ethnicity of our nation. And just 50 years since Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the front of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and 37 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King, racial integration, which liberals such as I imagined was just around the corner, remains elusive—at least in the sense we, in our pie-in-the-sky manner, envisaged it.    

     Race in dance is an issue far more complex than I considered it on my arrival from Britain in 1965. I had taken on the position of chief dance critic at The New York Times, and immediately I found myself having to articulate, in private and public, my views on black dance, black dancers, and the future of both.

    It was perhaps emblematic that the first person I met after stepping off the S.S. Amsterdam on September 14, 1965 was Alvin Ailey. I had walked down to a supermarket on Columbus Avenue, when I was suddenly swept up in a massive bear hug by my friend, Alvin. He believed, as I did, in multi-ethnicity, calling his own troupe an American dance company, and on his first visit to London in 1964 his leading female dancer, Joyce Trisler, was white.

    However, over the years, and long before his death in 1989, the company had become virtually a black company. And there were soon other predominantly black modern dance companies, all following the pattern of those founding mothers, Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus. Modern dance, despite its liberal underpinnings, has never been truly integrated. The black dancer in such established groups as Graham, Cunningham, and Taylor is a rarity.    

     Classical ballet, once worse, is today hardly any better. The first black dancer to perform the lead in a full-length classic at Lincoln Center was Christopher Boatwright in 1973, dancing Romeo in Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet for the Stuttgart Ballet. Earlier, New York City Ballet’s Arthur Mitchell was the first—and almost the last—black principal in an American company. Little wonder, then, that when in 1969, together with Karel Shook, he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem, and its associated school, it became like the Ailey company, a black company.

    In recent years both American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet have become more hospitable to the black male dancer—although at the time of writing the only black female is ABT’s Misty Copeland. Probably the most integrated classical companies are Alonzo King’s LINES and Eliot Feld’s BalletTech (currently, like Mitchell’s DTH, on hiatus).     

    Yes, over the last 40 years the opportunities for the black dancer have widened, but dancers have also frankly been ghettoized. There are black companies and white companies and not much gray matter in between. Forty years ago this situation would have appalled me. Now, while I am totally in favor of more integration, the situation doesn’t worry me quite so much. Is theatrical dance—as seen by City Ballet and ABT—with its exclusively European, even aristocratic origins, perhaps not part of black culture? There are very few black members in their audiences, although this may be because there are so few black dancers. Both Ailey and DTH do attract a black audience.  

    Nowadays we don’t think of “black” culture but of “African American” culture. The ethnic heritages of European Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans are totally different. Without much more intermarriage than nowadays seeming likely, this is not going to change radically. We can all appreciate other cultures and other heritages, but we cannot just as easily adopt them. At one time it was thought, for example, that black dancers were anatomically unable to perform classical ballet with the same facility as white dancers. This is today demonstrably false. But the differences of background, awareness, and culture run deep.

    Perhaps in the United States we should glorify our diversity rather than try to homogenize it. It’s just a thought—and certainly not one that would have occurred to me that September day in 1965 when I got off the boat.

Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for the New York Post.