In Our Words: Dancers, Choreographers, and Directors Talk about Race

By Hanlon, Khara; Perron, Wendy et al. | Dance Magazine, July 2010 | Go to article overview

In Our Words: Dancers, Choreographers, and Directors Talk about Race


Hanlon, Khara, Perron, Wendy, Poon, Kina, Stuart, Elaine, Dance Magazine


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Francesca Harper Artistic director, The Francesca Harper Project, NYC

When my mother, Denise Jefferson, director of The Ailey School, was 11, her ballet teacher warned her that she would have to fight to pursue ballet because there were no African American ballerinas in major dance companies. So from an early age ballet became kind of a mission. I grew up at the School of American Ballet--I think there were two black females in my class--seeing these wonderful ballerinas and also seeing Balanchine's love of jazz. There was an abandon and a ferocity that I associated with Mom's ferocity and Martha Graham. Merrill Ashley was one of my idols; she had this kind of Amazonian womanly body and was a ferocious technician. That to me was thrilling.

I would study at Ailey in the summers. My senior year when I went to the audition, Alvin took me in his office--he had known me since I was 3 or 4--and said, "You have a place in our second company, but I sense that you want to do ballet." I kind of broke down and started crying, really out of relief that he knew. So I went to Dance Theatre of Harlem. To do all of that Balanchine rep, which I had fallen in love with as a child, was amazing! And then I went over to Germany and joined Frankfurt Ballet.

Ballet is a white-dominated world, and I don't necessarily think it's racism. I've had some amazing directors. Susan Stroman is a good example of someone who is aware of race and hiring African Americans. But I feel like what happens in these ballet companies is that it is just not in their palette. It's not at the forefront of these artistic directors' minds. That's what it was with Billy Forsythe. He took the time to think about the social impact of his work and what it meant to put diversity out on that stage. The scary thing is that most directors just coast along in their comfortable bubble and don't look at the larger picture of art and its social impact.

I am definitely aware of who I hire and where they come from. When people come to see the performances, the diversity heightens their awareness. In my company I have a Chinese American; three Japanese; one Indian woman; two women who are half Caucasian, half black; I have a man who is half Dominican, half black; and an ex-Ailey dancer who is French. I want to learn from other cultures and other people.

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Maile Okamura

Dancer, Mark Morris Dance Group

Mark hires the best person for the job at each audition. He's not setting out to build a company that has 3 black people, 2 Asians, 1 Hispanic, and 14 Irish people. It's not like reverse discrimination in companies where they want the roster to look very diverse. I don't like it when it obviously looks like a Benetton commercial.

A teacher once told me that Asians had a difficult time expressing themselves. I thought, Is that really true? I was a teenager. She might have looked at me as a student and thought, "This student has difficulty expressing herself because she's Asian." The truth may have been that I just had a difficult time expressing myself--or that I was a teenager. Someone once remarked to me that he saw the entire history of China in a dance that I did. I'm really glad he had that interpretation. That's wonderful. People will see what they'll see. I was just in Moscow and someone commented to me that people from China and Japan perform with great endeavor. What does that mean? We put ourselves on the stage and people have their opinions and ideas. I don't think of myself as an Asian dancer, just as a dancer.

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Stacie Williams

Dancer, Ballet Memphis

I was the only African American student besides my sister in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School. When I was Clara in The Nutcracker, I remember coming out of the stage door and hearing somebody say, "I'm surprised that little black girl did a good job. …

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