Choreographing Inclusion

By Siegel, Marcia B. | The Hudson Review, Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

Choreographing Inclusion


Siegel, Marcia B., The Hudson Review


Dance has been expanding off the stage for decades, beginning with the anti-proscenium experiments of the 1960s. But now, with television and the Internet, dance is everywhere. The dance-on-screen era on TV has greatly increased the audience by throwing all kinds of dancing-ballet, modern, street dance, social dance-into one successful, styleless reality show format. Ballet and contemporary art-dance also have upped their presence on screen, with live-streamed stage performances, documentaries, and feature Films. All this brings immediacy to the field and nourishes dance lovers who can't travel to New York or other centers of activity. The most creative use of the screen can expand our idea of what dance can be, and what it needs.

The documentary Black Ballerina was aired around the country on PBS on 22 October. The film examines the careers of female AfricanAmerican ballet dancers in what has been defined as an all-white world. A persistent cliché of dance, the ballerina is an ethereal creature who exists only on a stage, and because of the stage. In order to achieve this ideal, a real woman must spend most of her life pressing her body into unnatural postures and teaching it to do unnatural things. Litde girls go to ballet classes with this in mind. Most of them don't attain mastery of the regimen, let alone employment in a professional company. The competition for those few open positions is fierce. For aspirants of color it's even worse. Like most documentaries, Black Ballerina is a mix of archival and contemporary footage, combined with interviews. Directed by Frances McElroy, it follows a roughly chronological timeline, cutting back and forth among three generations of dancers. The stories are poignant and piercing.

Delores Browne got hooked on ballet around the age of ten, thrilled by dancing in the movies, especially that of Cyd Charisse. She began looking for lessons but couldn't get into any of the main ballet schools in Philadelphia. (The documentary doesn't actually say so, but Browne did have ballet lessons in Philadelphia, with the noted black teacher Marion Cuyjet.) Browne danced in ballet clubs in junior high school and eventually sought opportunities in New York. In 1957 she joined the New York Negro Ballet, which had a great success in the United Kingdom. She danced the ultra-classical Bluebird pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty with Bernard Johnson, and "nobody ran screaming out of the theater." But when they returned to the States, the company's benefactor died, and it ceased operations. Browne couldn't find another job. She kept taking classes but ran into the same brick wall that stopped others. She knew she had talent, but her skin color disqualified her from what was considered a white domain.

Raven Wilkinson, from Harlem, encountered the same problem. After studying with Russian teachers, she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, one of the troupes carrying on the legacy of Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. After two audition rejections, Wilkinson was hired. Eventually she gained soloist rank, but it took her three years to gain a featured part in a classical ballet, the Waltz in Les Sylphides. In the film, Wilkinson talks about her harrowing experiences when the company toured. With her light skin, she could pass for white, but in the still-segregated 1950s South, she was sometimes barred from hotels and had to find other accommodations in the local black community. She remembers having to stay in her hotel room when a Ku Klux Klan convention happened to coincide with ballet performance dates. It was the first time, she says, that she saw a cross-burning. Wilkinson was eventually sent back to New York.

Things there were discouraging; she was advised to start a little company and do African dance. Wilkinson tactfully doesn't mention how condescending this recommendation was. Her old friend Sylvester Campbell was in Holland by that time, and he invited her to join the Dutch National Ballet. …

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