EDITORIAL: Classical Ballet and the Aesthetics of Discrimination

by Kat Richter for The Dance Journal

Yesterday’s Inquirer story, “Pennsylvania Ballet Fires the Sugar Plum Fairy” reminded me of the time I auditioned for the Radio City Rockettes. I was 17 years old at the time, not legally old enough to audition, but I was also 5’7″ and knew that it was this number—my height— that really mattered.

The Rockettes have stirred up quite a bit of press in recent weeks. Many of us in the dance community, myself included, have flocked to the defense of those dancers who feel unable or unwilling to perform at President-elect Trump’s inauguration and in their case, we’re more than happy to overlook the discrimination inherent in Radio City’s hiring practices—the fact that you can’t even audition to become a Rockette if you’re not between 5’6″ and 5’10-and-a-half inches tall—because the Rockettes are seen as an American institution. They shouldn’t have to perform for a man who stokes the fires of racism, misogyny and xenophobia.

What we forget is that these issues didn’t begin with Donald Trump. In fact, they’re woven into the very history of American dance, from the chorus girl kick line to the corps de ballet.

Take the recent case of PA Ballet Principal Sara Michelle Murawski. Writing for the Inquirer, Ellen Dunkel reported that Murawski had been fired because she was too tall, despite having initially been recruited by Artistic Director Angel Corella.

If this is indeed the case, I can empathize with Murawski: all those years of ill-fitting costumes and being the lifter instead of the liftee—it’s enough to give even the strongest of women a complex (and let’s face it: the ballet world does little to counter this). I hung up my point shoes long ago but as a tall dancer, I experienced so much trauma (both real and imagined) that I subjected my now-husband to months of ballroom lessons before our wedding so that we could finally perform a lift like I’d always wanted to.

It is unfortunate that Murawski has been let go, and like many Philadelphians, I’ve been surprised to see the amount of turnover in PA Ballet since the beginning of Corella’s tenure. But let’s pause for a moment and consider that the “problem” here isn’t so much a question of Corella’s leadership, but rather a question of the ballet aesthetic in general.

Few genres are less forgiving. Even if you overlook the seemingly ubiquitous injuries and eating disorders, ballet remains one of the most physically demanding forms of dance. And those physical demands begin before you even hit the stage.

If you don’t have the right amount of turn out, the extensions, the flexibility, the “correct” proportions and—let’s not sugarcoat it here—the “right” skin color, you’re not going to get very far in the ballet world.

This is nothing new. (Just read “Dancing on My Grave” by former New York City Ballet principal Gelsey Kirkland if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) And even though it’s appalling, we have to remember (as implored by ethnographer Joann Keali’inohomoku in her groundbreaking 1970 essay, “An Anthropologist Looks as Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance”) that ballet is, in fact, an ethnic dance form.

As such, it embodies the social, cultural and aesthetic values of the time and place in which it developed (16th-century France), and even though ballet has grown into what may be considered an international art form today, it’s essence—it’s aesthetics values—have a long way to go.

You can count the number of dancers of color in PA Ballet (and in many classical ballet companies) on one hand; last season, in fact, you could count them on one finger. The career of Misty Copeland and the recent documentary “Black Ballerina” illustrate just how difficult it is to find employment as a classically trained dancer of color, especially if you’re a woman.

Countless Americans have flocked to Europe over the years, from artists of color like Josephine Baker and Will Gaines, who found greater acceptance across the pond, to a slew of modern-day athletes—especially women—for whom the market does not yet exist in the United States.

And yet rather than examine the systemic forms of discrimination that force so many homegrown talents to go abroad, many of us would rather point fingers. Indeed, Corella’s attempts to diversify the company have been met in some cases with the same sort of xenophobic vitriol we usually reserve for “illegals” in this country with one reader on the Inquirer’s website ranting,  “If he hires any more Cubans…”

At its core, ballet requires uniformity. And whereas dancers who don’t fit the mold suffer— whether because of their height, their weight or the color of their skin— the greater dance world suffers too.

How so? Just ask a choreographer like Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who rightly maintains that this aesthetic of uniformity promotes a culture of conformity, which in turn discourages women from stretching their creative wings.

Few ex-ballerinas go on to become choreographers, and while there are many female choreographers who experience success in the world of modern dance, women like Ochoa are rarely commissioned by classical ballet companies. (Ochoa has set numerous pieces on Philadelphia’s contemporary ballet company, BalletX, but her burgeoning success in the classical world is the exception, not the norm.)

America is neither post-racial nor post-gender, no matter how often we tell ourselves otherwise. And if we’re going to get all bent out of shape about certain forms of discrimination in the dance world, we had better be willing to open our eyes to all of the others.

About Kat Richter

Kat Richter is a freelance writer and professor of both dance and cultural anthropology. She is also the co-founder and Artistic Director of The Lady Hoofers Tap Ensemble, Philadelphia's premiere all-female tap company. Her work has appeared in Glamour, Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher and The Journal of Research in Dance Education.

As a professional dancer, Richter began her apprenticeship with the New Jersey Tap Ensemble at the age of 9 and was promoted to Principal Dancer while still in high school. In 2005, she received a scholarship to Oxford University and returned to the UK in 2009. She holds a BA in Dance and History from Goucher College and an MA in Dance Anthropology from Roehampton University. A proud Philadelphia transplant, she blogs at www.fieldworkinstilettos.com

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3 Comments

  1. Thankfully, it seems the winds of change are finally coming to the ballet world. A “perfect” dancer body is not what engages an audience. (That sort of thing only impresses other dancers who have been taught to be impressed by such.) To fill seats, beyond other ballet dancers, companies need dancers that can perform! Without them, they will not have an audience.

  2. Jockeys are short. Basketball players generally tall, ballerinas slender with turnout and extension. Deal with it. Dear God it’s not the friggin end of the world. Corella has a vision for his company. He changed his mind on a dancer. It’s harsh. It’s unfortunate for her and it’s life. The Rockettes should be honored to perform for the President of their country and put it above themselves. This article really annoyed me.

  3. While I don’t disagree with this article, I want to add a few points it didn’t address. In a purely economic sense, Ballet suffers from too much supply (dancers) for little demand (professional dance companies.) It costs a lot to start and sustain a dance company, that can be considered a national contender. And with the price of tickets approaching $100, it will continue to be seen as elitist, and hence not popular with the masses.

    Due to this dynamic, Dance Company Directors can be very picky, and only allow for George Balanchine’s idea of an ideal body type. That’s when the recent and rigid “stick figure” uniformity took hold, (the past 50 years), not in 16th century France – when it was mostly men who danced. During the 1800’s and early 1900’s individual dancers who were popular, became known because of their flair in performing, despite many being short and stocky back then, like Nijinsky. No choreographer would utilize high extensions, because it was considered vulgar. Anna Pavlova had poor turn-out, but her artistry was outstanding. She traveled the world promoting Ballet, and ignited the next generation of ballerinas, like Margot Fonteyn – another non-conforming body type.

    Therefore, I don’t think “ballet requires uniformity” due to its history – quite the contrary. I hope the current trend of successful dancers who “break the mold” return it to its past glory of being popular with all people.

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