This is all Misty’s fault.
I mean, if she had not made history with American Ballet Theatre by becoming the first black woman principal there, there may not have been such a profound appetite for finding her archetype for other companies. Perhaps The International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) would not have had such a plump turnout from white ballet organizations in its unprecedented black ballerinas audition.
Well, maybe it’s not all Misty’s fault. IABD has been holding an annual audition for black modern repertory companies for 26 years. Dancers convene at the conference and festival, often hosted by one of the five founding legacy companies (also founded by black women), crowd a room and get seen at what has become a job fair of sorts. Kids and pre-professionals can come on a different day to compete for scholarships and acceptance into various programs as well. So, the ballet remix of this is rooted in context.
Guilt may be to blame too. Ballet companies are surely over-burdened by scrutiny and pressure to make their ballerina rosters look more genuinely American, instead of keeping women of color cramped beneath the pink nylon ceiling….
Or so these were the prevalent assumptions I heard before the historic event this past Sunday. Whatever the reasons, these above alone, in combination or not at all, people showed up. The artistic directors and representatives of Ballet Memphis, Colorado Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Charlotte Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Dance Theatre of Harlem (perhaps a given), Houston Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, as well as representatives from Dance/USA, Pennsylvania Ballet II, Washington Ballet, Nashville Ballet, Jacob’s Pillow and School of American Ballet fought weather and airport dramas to watch 101 women of color in pointe shoes—40 of whom were walk-ins—jam the bars of Studio A at the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance building. The adjudicators and their associates lined the mirror as if courtside at the NBA playoffs for three hours despite the hiccups that besieged the audition.
There were hiccups. Delores Browne, who was a principal dancer with the New York Negro Ballet in the late 1950’s and whose honor of classical tradition (ironically) moored her in using only a live accompanist, drummed her thigh to keep time for plies. Well, at least until I acquiesced to Cleo’s insistence that I play anything until the back-up accompanist showed up (Mrs. Browne’s thigh was probably a better idea but I’ll save commentary about my personal failures and Cleo’s persuasion gifts for later). We probably should have sequestered potential students from potential company hires right from the whistle. And the marley floor, perfect for modern, often barefoot repertory dancers but unusually too slick for pointe, took several ladies down. But whatever. As I said, NBA playoffs.
We weren’t fazed either really. On some levels it was okay that this event wore no costumes. Everyone could plainly see that IABD is the not-so-little engine that would, despite copious odds, and oiled for years by a grocery list of grassroots volunteers who supply elbow grease wherever money is missing. Rather, everyone could plainly see IABD period. In fact, this audition had shone out, providing a platform for over 100 women of color—buoyed by the absence of a white prototype to pulverize confidence—to dance classical ballet before a row of its gatekeepers.
Admittedly, I did not consider the power of this when confronting naysayers, most of whom are well-respected black dance peers with stellar careers and Copeland-commensurate talent. Their worries were not unfounded. Years of disregard for turn-of-this-century pointe shoe paragons like Tanya Wideman-Davis, Ayesha Ash, Ebony Williams, Christina Johnson, Tai Jimenez and Theresa Ruth Howard (whose thoroughly researched blog on history’s neglect of their predecessors/pioneers remains online), offer little hope that sudden interest in black ballerinas is more than just minstrel cooperation. It’s beyond the possible shame I mentioned earlier. Overt racism, even in the name of tradition, is not en vogue these days. and Misty has provided ballet with a face that fresh, young consumers now want to see in spades—isn’t the American way to capitalize, 16th century traditions be damned?
And here we are, an entire black organization with a Next Generation Leadership arm I am a part of, helping the exploitation with this audition. I understand my colleagues. But what I didn’t know to tell them is that before this audition, courtside front row folks had convened with IABD head Denise Saunders Thompson, Malik Robinson, Joan Myers Brown (who was a ballerina long before she founded Philadanco) and their constituents to have a conversation. In the wake of Misty’s promotion and meteoric stardom, along with a desperation for every person with a pulse to see her dance, the issues were laid bare on the table.
The seeds of this revolution will not be televised; out of respect for the sensitivity of the subject matter, the discussion details will remain confidential. Ayisha McMillan-Cravotta, colleague, friend and academy director of the Charlotte Ballet School, was able to nevertheless assure me that there is a “genuine desire to have more women of color in ballet companies.” Companies have noted the decline in black women showing up to auditions, a truth she can speak to with authority as a black ex-ballerina herself, having danced with both Houston Ballet and Charlotte Ballet.
“There are layers and layers happening there,” Ayisha said. “You get tired of going after a goal or contract when you get messages back, unspoken and unwritten cues that say ‘This is not the place for you.’”
Without her saying as much, I imagine this insidious practice made it into the room too. Still, she satisfied my audacity of hope.
“What I like is that there were enough faces around that table who have been working at this for more than 20 years as a clear initiative,” Ayisha said. “Maybe they were smaller companies so they don’t get a lot of press.” She also cleared up the Misty factor, happy that “in that room, there was clear understanding and knowing by name who came before her. This is not an ignorant bunch of [white] people who didn’t know Raven [Wilkinson] and Lauren [Anderson] and Janet [Collins]. There were directors in there who have had successful work, even in misguided attempts to get black ballerinas.”
Denise Saunders promises this is only a beginning.
“We must continue to do the work and the conversation must now turn into action.”
The implications for IABD, for which she is the sole volunteer employee have been made more plain.
“We of the African Diasporic Dance Community are of value and can be resourceful in creating a pipeline, serving as a conduit/bridge to link the field together,” she said. “And we can be of assistance by connecting some of our members to the ballet organizations that exist in the members’ communities and help with introductions.”
What else has come out of this for us?
“The biggest thing to come out of all of this is trust,” Ayisha said. As the only person who has been on both black dancer and director/administrator sides of this specific conversation (a tricky negotiation), she gets the questions.
“What is going to make [black dance organizations] want to trust me enough to send your dancers to audition for our program? What is going to make you trust that I’m going to create access to ensure that when they get here they will have an equitable experience?”
Outside Cleo’s building, a lattice of bars protect the windows. Through one of the small diamonds, I was able to capture the hazy image at the top of this blog. I’m glad that the dust on the glass limited resolution; this way the collective power of brown skin throws into relief traditional balletic ideals. We are forced to see that the total significance is bigger than individuals both against the mirror and on the marley could ever be alone.
And perhaps there it is. Turns out this thing has a lot more body than even Misty. We’re just at its toe and maybe that’s the point.