It's Still Harder for Black Ballerinas

The dance world and "ballet purists," a term reminiscent of the Harry Potter purebloods, need to ask themselves what exactly about Misty Copeland's 32 fouettés makes them so upset. (If you missed her thoughtful response/the general controversy, you can catch it here. If you are unfamiliar with this dance move, you can read more about and watch a video in Alastair McCauley's NYT article here.)

There is a long list of talented ballerinas who avoided or failed to complete the 32 fouettés in Swan Lake, including Anna Pavlova, Alexandra Danilova, Alicia Markova, Maya Plisetskaya, Sara Mearns and Margot Fonteyn. Alaistar McCauley says "I remember one ballerina falling flat on her backside around turn No. 14 and several who stopped (or switched to another step) after about 20." 

Those that do manage to complete them all rarely do so well: they can't keep up with the music, are not able to stay in one spot, or have poor form as they start to get fatigued. If you are thinking "but I see 11 year olds doing all these fouettes on instagram!", don't forget that you are seeing it totally out of context- they likely have not just completed an entire ballet and it's probably their fifth attempt in a row that is posted. 

Ballet purists like to focus on the sacred tradition of certain choreography with a kind fervor not seen in many other dance styles. However, the choreography of Swan Lake isn't as traditional as they like to portray it. The original premiere was in 1877, but the choreography has since been lost. It is the revised 1895 version, choreographed by Petipa and Ivanov, which is now the basis for most modern productions. Emphasis on the based on- nearly every choreographer who has restaged it since then has made modifications to the ballet's scenario, some a lot more than others (Nuriyev changed it to a more homoerotic interpretation, Matthew Bourne recast the corps as all male, and Dada Masilo remixed classical and African dance styles in her interpretation).  

So why is everyone so focused on Misty Copeland at the moment? I fear Misty Copeland pushes the ballet norms, and people love to take down someone who stands in the spotlight. As Misty Copeland rightfully points out, we need to instead focus on what she brings to the role, and the ballet world at large. Black women are typically held to higher standards and scrutiny across all fields, their success often diminished. Let's not do the same to her. I've seen Misty Copeland dance four times now, and every time she has blown me away. It's not gone unnoticed that the demographics of the audience are way different when she's performing- there is a wider diversity of ages and races around me. People are coming to see her version of Odile/Odette because of what she means to them and what she brings to the role, not because they want to sit and count out how many turns she fits in or wait with baited breath for her to stumble. 




Val OliphantComment