STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
A centuries-old ideal of uniformity is still squelching opportunities for ballet dancers who are not white.
That’s one of the uncomfortable points in the American Public Television documentary “Black Ballerina,” set to air at 9 p.m. Oct. 24 and 1 p.m. Oct. 30 on WHYY.
“Black Ballerina” tells the story of several African-American women from different generations who fell in love with ballet, as explained at blackballerinadocumentary.org. One of them is Joan Myers Brown, founder of the Philadanco dance school and ballet-rooted contemporary dance troupe.
“I was introduced to classical ballet by my gym teacher,” Brown recalled in a phone interview. Seeing a performance of “Swan Lake” when she was 17 also had a profound effect. However, when she went walking up and down Market and Chestnut streets in Philadelphia in the late ‘40s in search of a ballet school, “everybody looked at me like I didn’t belong.”
She became a nightclub dancer, eventually putting Philadanco together in 1970. A ballet class in Canada and working with a European artistic director were some of the things that supported Brown’s feelings that there was something broken with the ballet culture in America. “It’s not undercover racism, it’s racism. Dance companies should look like America … Latino, Asian, black … Come on, it’s 2016,” she said.
Brown is hopeful, however, because “there’s a new generation of artistic directors we’ve been reaching out to.” She specifically named the Oregon Ballet Theatre as one company that’s making strides in diversity, equality and inclusion, instead of getting hung up on an aesthetic “distraction” of an African-American ballerina with a different body type than the 45 other dancers.
“Black Ballerina” also gets to know Delores Browne, Raven Wilkinson — who was the first African-American woman to join the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo — and others that struggled to persevere through barriers based on their race while pursuing careers in classical dance.
Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, the artistic director of the Charlotte Ballet, and Roy Kaiser, artistic director emeritus of the Pennsylvania Ballet, also appear on camera to join the conversation.
The film’s director and producer, Narberth resident Frances McElroy — whose specialty is documentaries about the arts through the lens of social justice — said that when Barack Obama was elected President, she believed we were living in “a post-racial society.” Then came a new volatile strain on race relations that began with Ferguson.
The film uses the world of ballet as a starting point to address issues that reach far outside the arts. “My hope is let’s get people talking about it,” said McElroy, who made “Black Ballerina” over the course of four years with two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional support from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Women in Film, The Philadelphia Foundation, The Montgomery County Foundation, The Leeway Foundation, Citizens for the Arts Pennsylvania, The Dolfiner-McMahon Foundation, The Capezio Foundation and others.
There are complaints that American ballet companies pay little more than lip service to equal opportunities for dancers of color by hiring one or two “tokens.” “What they mean is a number of companies around are cognizant of (lack of opportunities for minorities) because there’s a lot of media coverage of it. They get one — well meant as it is — and think their work is done,” said McElroy.
When asked about interview content that had to be edited out in order to keep the film at approximately 56 minutes, she mentioned Keith Lee. “He was one of the first African-American male dancers to be a part of the American Ballet Theatre. He was a star. He was funny. He now runs a school in Lynchburg, Va.,” McElroy said, adding that Lee could be the subject of a documentary in his own right.
See the “Black Ballerina” trailer at www.blackballerinadocumentary.org, and follow @BlkBallerinaDoc on Twitter.