by Chrysta Brown for The Dance Journal
Earlier in the month Lela Aisha Jones suggested that the success of art requires funding and visibility. I do not think that a work requires an audience to be considered art, but I would not even try to deny the importance of visibility. Performances allow an artist to share what’s on and in his heart and mind. In addition to creating a demand that can only be fulfilled with more work, it gives the artist a chance to connect with the community. The benefits for the creator are obvious, but what does visibility do for the people watching?
I think a lot of us can say that at one time or another we wanted to be dancers because of the dancers we saw. I remember adorning my middle school binder with pictures of former Dance Theater of Harlem dancer Andrea Long. I carried that collage in my head from my middle school to my dance school. I would try to imitate the carriage of Long’s arms, the height of her arabesque, and the generosity in her smile. There was one day that I did not particularly want to go to ballet, but I asked my eleven year old self “What would Andrea Long do?” She would go to class. So I did.
Michaela DePrince, now with the Dutch National Ballet, said that her own ballet dreams began when she saw a picture of a ballet dancer in a magazine. She was living in an orphanage in Sierra Leone at the time. She was three years old. DePrince said that if she was ever adopted she wanted to “be a dancer like the lady in the magazine.” When she was four, she was adopted by a family from New Jersey, and she took her first class with The Rock School shortly after.
Even now, the beauty of ballet is not free from the ugliness of racism. DePrince has spoken about being denied roles and opportunities because her black skin did not fit with the Eurocentric aesthetic of classical ballet, but she kept working and, perhaps more importantly, kept succeeding. If the name Michaela DePrince sounds familiar it may be because you saw her performance and story in the 2011 documentary, First Position. The documentary follows six children and their participation in the Youth America Grand Prix, an international and prestigious ballet competition. DePrince’s own thread in the story ends with a full scholarship to the American Ballet Theater training program.
While her love for ballet provided a lot of inspiration, she has mentioned that part of the reason she did not give up was because of Lauren Anderson, the first black principal dancer in a major ballet company. In 2012, DePrince was invited to South Africa to perform Le Corsaire with South African Mzansi Ballet Company. She says that she enjoyed the trip because it gave her the opportunity to do for the little girls there what Lauren Anderson and the ballerina in the magazine did for her.
Earlier this spring, American Ballet Theater principal, Misty Copeland, came to Philadelphia to promote her new book Life in Motion. Copeland’s virtuosic and diverse talents have earned her popularity in and outside of the dance industry. The tumultuous and triumphant details of her life are lyrically narrated in her memoir, and although the details differ from DePrince, the struggles to fit in and succeed as a ballet dancer feel familiar.
Copeland began dancing at a Boys and Girl Club when she was thirteen, and was on pointe several weeks later. She joined ABT in 2001 as a member of the corps de ballet. Six years later she was promoted and became the company’s first Black female soloist in twenty years. Community is also a major part of Copeland’s journey. She talks about the encouragement and support that came from, among others, Dance Theater of Harlem founder Arthur Mitchell, and Raven Wilkinson, whose contract with the Ballet Russe in 1954 made her the first Black dancer in a major ballet company. The book begins on opening night of Copeland’s performance as the lead in Firebird. “This,” she repeats, “is for the little brown girls.”
In April the African American Museum hosted an event called “Who I Am, Why I Dance.” The evening featured a discussion with Jermel Johnson and Meredith Rainey. Meredith Rainey was the first black soloist with Pennsylvania ballet and performed with the company from 1999-2006. After retiring, he tried his hand at choreography. His has created work on Brandywine Ballet, Ballet X, Delaware Ballet, Hubbard Street 2, and for festivals in the United States, South America, and Europe.
A current member of the company, Jermel Johnson is Pennsylvania Ballet’s first Black principal dancer. Johnson’s body is different from the typical danseur’s. Some critics describe him as muscular, short, and athletic, but his performances have earned him other sorts of descriptions. He has received positive recognition from many publications including The New York Times. Pointe Magazine states that Johnson’s performance in The Four Temperaments was “magnetized not with his terrific jumps, but with the silken unfurling of his limbs, the fleetness of his développés and the refined architectures of his full form.” The review went on to add “Mr. B would have approved.” That may be one of the highest compliments a dancer can receive.
It almost goes without saying, yet each dance documentary, interview, memoir stresses its importance. You only need to watch a class to know that hard work is an integral part of classical ballet. But the strongest common thread in the stories of many successful Black dancers is not only hard work, but interacting with other Black dancers who encouraged and inspired them to keep dancing on the days when the political pressure was overwhelming. Misty Copeland says it best in her memoir “The story made me sad and angry, but it was also somehow affirming,” she writes. “I was not alone after all.”
While Black ballet dancers are more visible now than they were one hundred years ago, no one can deny that ballet has a long way to go before we can truly call it diverse. Part of the solution may lie in giving developing Black dancers heroes to look at and look up to. Give them magazine cutouts, documentaries, master classes, and memoirs. Fill their sights with talented people who share their racial identity as wells their passion. Let future dancers see people who look like them on stage and be surprised by how contagious hard work, bravery, hope can be.