If you’ve ever seen a professional ballet company perform, chances are you were struck by the grandeur of it all. The tulle and the sequins and the elaborate backdrops make the production all the more thrilling to watch. Even beyond all the bells and whistles, ballet is essentially visual perfection. The flawlessness we see on the stage, however, masks the depths of an art that has several flaws of its own. Centuries of glorifying a very specific type of dancer to play a very specific type of role have slowly yet indisputably built an ideal that is exclusive and problematic.
Ballet revolves around forcing the body into extremely unnatural shapes and tasks the dancer with making those irregularities look beautiful. It normalizes the seemingly absurd notion of placing one’s entire weight onto the tips of the toes as they stay confined in a rigid, satin box. It aggrandizes what is extreme, in terms of flexibility, control and grace. In addition to technique, ballet is the ability to convey an ancient story to an unfamiliar audience without words. It is composure, emotion and strength all rolled into one.
Despite the intricacy and the beauty of ballet, the art form hides a blatant disregard for the very purpose dance is supposed to serve – that of designing and executing movement that corresponds to the experience of being human. In many of the most prominent companies in the United States, the dancers chosen for the spotlight often match this false ideal – an ideal that is, almost undeniably, white. This disturbing imbalance between dancers of color (especially Black dancers) and white dancers is especially true at the principal level, the most coveted position for a ballet dancer. We can see the same trend in company leadership – the artistic directors for the New York City Ballet, Boston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, just to name a few, are all white.
Despite this exclusive structure, several Black ballet dancers have made incredible achievements in their careers, expanding the rigid structure of the dance industry. Janet Collins was the first Black dancer to join the Metropolitan Ballet and Arthur Mitchell was the first Black dancer to accomplish the role of principal within a leading company. The problem, though, is that Anna Pavlova is a household name while Evelyn Cisneros is not. (Misty Copeland is a notable exception, having garnered significant media attention after becoming the first Black woman to dance as principal for the American Ballet Theatre.)
The pink tights and pink pointe shoes that are the uniform of so many ballerinas are meant to mimic skin tones. Where, then, are the products designed for several shades of darker skin? Many ballerinas of color must take the time out of already hectic schedules to darken their shoes using costly makeup products. In recent weeks, however, some major shoe producers have stated that they are working to make their products available in more shades.
The issues generated by ballet’s “ideal” do not stop at race. When examining a handful of the most popular ballets, we find stories that repeatedly confine female leads to dainty and powerless roles. In many of the classics, ambitious men pursue women as mere prizes who have little control over their own outcomes. Odette and Odile in “Swan Lake” are completely bound by the wishes and commands of fathers and lovers. In “Giselle,” the eponymous character dies when she discovers that her love interest has been dishonest with her. The title character in “La Sylphide” meets a tragic end because she was too fascinated by a beautiful scarf. None of these stories seem to be promoting the right messages to young viewers.
Thankfully, though, the future of ballet is beginning to look much less bleak. Several companies are shaping their craft to fit our modern era. Alonzo King LINES Ballet aims to “create performances that alter the way we look at ballet today,” which they do by drawing upon new choreography instead of the classical pieces touted by many companies. LINES Ballet was established by and runs under King as artistic director, thereby bringing another Black voice into the dance industry’s particularly consequential creative roles. The company also works closely with schools to encourage Bay Area youths’ interest in dance. Complexions Contemporary Ballet strives to develop a more inclusive space for artists. The company’s “WOKE” even swapped classical music for rap and placed topics like immigration and police brutality at its center. Modern dance fixture Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, founded in 1958, has even tackled themes of gun violence (“Ode”) and historical tragedy (“Greenwood”) in their performances.
If you plan on seeing “The Nutcracker” this winter, make sure to take note of what you find. Which dancers are in the lead roles? Whose vision is being executed on stage? What type of “ideal” is this performance constructing? For a long time, ballet has thrived on tradition. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it cannot be transformed by work for a more equitable future.
Megan Pontin is a rising sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected].