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Breaking down ballet's barriers

DIVERSITY IN DANCE: Dancers from Ballet Black. The company has led the way in broadening the appeal of ballet

ORIGINALLY FROM the Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th century, ballet is a highly technical form of dance.

It’s also an art form that celebrates pale princesses and fair swans, a world in which black dancers are often not visible in leading productions and dance companies.

If you take a quick look at the history of 20th Century it’s clear just how influential black culture has been to all forms of dance. The Charleston, the Lindyhop and the Jitterbug for example all sprang from the clubs of Harlem, New York, during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance.

And it’s an influence that continues to this day.

Take a look at Miley Cyrus, credited with starting a supposedly “new” dance craze called twerking at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards.

Except it wasn’t new.

Black people have used this style of dancing for hundreds of years and its roots can be traced to West African traditions such as the mapouka. The term twerking first became a part of popular culture when, in 1993, New Orleans DJ recorded the track Do The Jubilee All in which he calls out “Twerk baby, twerk baby, twerk, twerk twerk.”

So, given this huge influence, where are all the black ballet dancers?

Mark Elie, a former student at The Rambert School of Ballet and The Harlem School of Dance says that the rarefied world of ballet means it struggles to embrace diversity.

“The ballet world, just like the Royal Family, is steeped in tradition” he says. “That tradition often means that black dancers are not embraced. Progress has been slow because ballet institutions did not accept them into the establishments. The dancers in turn left the country and went to the one place were there could be celebrated which was the Dance Theatre of Harlem in the United States.”


VISION: Mark Elie, founder of Portobello Dance School

He continues: “The migration of classically trained dancers to the US has had a knock on effect on the number who now exist in the UK. Unlike black actors we have a limited number of trained black ballet dancers.”

Elie is among a group of determined British based dancers who are trying to change this.

DIVERSE

After a successful career in starring in leading ballet productions and choreographing for television, movies, pop videos and fashion shows he is now the Artistic Director of the Portobello Dance School in Notting Hill, west London, which he founded in 1994. The school offers dance classes in classical ballet as well as tap, street dance and salsa to an ethnically diverse range of young dancers.

The school’s high achievers often move onto further training, or auditioning for professional dance companies.

The school not only uses successful black dancers as teachers and role models to its young pupils it has an outreach programme which takes its mission and training methods to other schools across London.

Elie is also the founder of Classically British, an annual event which shines a light on female black and minority ethnic (BAME) ballerinas.

Successful dancers such as Marie Kamara, an original member of the ballet group, Ballet Negre have been a part of Classically British.

But Elie’s mission to help diversify the world of ballet faces tough odds. Despite greater diversity in areas such as theatre and television, ballet remains a very white dominated art form.

Famous black ballet dancer Carlos Acosta, who last year retired from The Royal Ballet after 17 successful years, is an exception to the rule.


TRAILBLAZER: Carlos Acosta, a leading light of British ballet

The situation is not exclusive to the UK; many of Europe’s top ballet companies also lack a diverse range of dancers. Recently The Guardian reported that Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet has no black dancers in its 218 strong company.

Precious Adams, ‘Artist of the Company’ at the English National Ballet, trained at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. According to media reports, during her two years plus at the academy she was left out of performances and told to “try to rub the black off” to make herself look more like what directors want for shows.

MISTREATMENT

Responding to Adams’ allegations of mistreatment, the Bolshoi Academy said in a statement that they had received no report of discrimination from her. Despite these allegations, in 2014 Precious Adams became one of the first African American ballerinas to finish the school.

Acosta agrees that the situation is discouraging for people who want to see greater diversity in the ballet world. In a recent newspaper interview he said: “The percentage of classical black ballet dancers around the world is sadly minimal, which is quite embarrassing.”

He continued: “In most companies, when a talented black dancer is chosen as a member, they don’t know how to cast them properly. Still there is this mentality, especially with directors, that a black ballerina in the middle of a flock of white swans would somehow alter the harmony.”

Another person trying to change this situation is Carol Straker, a Le Gat School of Russian Ballet and Urdang Academy classically trained black British dancer who set up the UK’s first BAME ballet school.

The Carol Straker Dance Foundation was founded in 1987 and a year later the Carol Straker Dance Company was launched. Members of the company included black dancers who were not accepted by the English National Ballet and The Royal Ballet.

It wasn’t long before it starting making a serious impact. As Carol Straker’s Dance Foundation grew in popularity among audiences who had seen its productions, leading companies took note. In 1990, the English National Ballet introduced its first black male and female dancers, Noel Wallace and Brenda Edwards MBE, to its company.

FUNDING

Funding issues resulted in The Carol Straker Dance Company folding in 2001. In the same year Ballet Black was founded and is currently the only company in Britain which provides international dancers and students of black and Asian descent with major opportunities to perform in classical ballet productions.

This, according to Elie, is a big part of Straker’s legacy.

“The Carol Straker Dance Company was the catalyst for Ballet Black” he says. “Ballet Black is successful as a platform for BAME dancers and has great publicity. But most of the dancers in the company are Americans. Where are the homegrown British talents?”

For Elie, the next generation of dancers need visible role models. This is something that successful British-born ballet dancer Michelle Ballentyne agrees with. Although she credits her development as a dancer and her classical training to the private lessons she received from renowned master teacher Richard Glasstone MBE while a student at Laine Theatre Arts in Surrey, equally important were figures like Brenda Edwards, who Ballentyne says, was her only role model as a black ballerina.


DANCE DREAM: Michelle Ballentyne

Edwards’ success in becoming a dancer at the English National Ballet gave Ballentyne the courage to follow her own dreams of being a dancer.

Ballentyne moved into musical theatre and starred in hit shows such as Cats and Starlight Express before becoming a member of the Carol Straker Dance Company.

Reflecting on the lack of black British ballet dancers she believes that access is a key factor.

She says: “Ballet is not natural for the body. Training has to start from a reasonably young age when the body can still be manipulated. White middle class parents are able to afford this type of high quality training. This is what is keeping a lot of black people out.”

PERCEPTION

The English National Ballet School currently has 3 BAME students out of 78. Every year Delia Barker, director of the school, and her team are responsible for finding up to 26 talented and dedicated 16 year olds who, one day, could be elite dancers. She rejects the notion that not being from a financially secure white middle class family is a barrier to success.


TALENT SPOTTER: Delia Barker, director of the English National Ballet School

“We receive very few applications to audition from BAME girls” she says. “There is a perception that ballet is only for people who can afford it. I used to have the same perception before I worked in this industry. The bulk of our fundraising effort at the school is around supporting students to be able to access the course financially. Ballet is not elite for monetary reasons. It is elite in that it requires years of dedicated, high committed training.”

ACCESS

In an effort to expose and introduce the art of ballet to those who may not otherwise have access, ENB School operate 3 open access programs for 3 to 11 year olds. These programs are located in Chelsea, Putney and Richmond. The school is also looking at what open access programs they can make available when they move to Canning Town in 2018.

Says Barker: “They are called open access programs because they are open and accessible to everybody and as such we have to make them affordable. If a student shows aptitude they will be signposted in the right direction, just as they would do in any discipline. Having an open access program in Canning Town might encourage a more diverse range of young people exploring ballet, but I believe the diversity issue is more complicated than just money; cultural issues may play a part.”

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