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 African-American 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. Little 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. She got opportunities to use her exemplary classical training in Amsterdam, but eventually she missed America and returned to the States. She was offered a job at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and danced there for a few years, going on to character roles in operas.
Fifty years later, things haven’t gotten a whole lot better. Black dancers and choreographers are becoming more evident in modern dance and contemporary dance companies, but they have gained only a token presence in the big classical ballet troupes. A major step toward reform was undertaken by Dance Theater of Harlem, founded in 1969 by former New York City Ballet dancer Arthur Mitchell and noted teacher Karel Shook. The company was intended to showcase black dancers in a classical repertory. One of its stars, Virginia Johnson, took over the leadership in 2011 and reinstituted the company after an eight-year break.
“We’re still living with the Balanchine ideal,” says Johnson, tacitly acknowledging the fact that George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet never had a black female principal. Several black dancers would appear in the annual School of American Ballet performances, but the women usually didn’t make it into the parent company. Joan Myers Brown, founder of Philadanco, notes that male dancers were more likely to get hired than women. “When they have one, it’s usually a male,” she says. Brown doesn’t mention that Arthur Mitchell, the featured African-American dancer in Balanchine’s New York City Ballet from the mid-’50s to the mid-’60s, was often cast as exotics or aliens. Or to make a point, as in the erotic derangements of the pas de deux in Agon, where Mitchell partnered the white ballerina Diana Adams. He danced Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream. He performed featured roles in the rare jazz ballets in NYCB’s repertory. But although he made principal rank, Mitchell wasn’t featured in Balanchine’s most classical works.
For women, there was even less incentive while Balanchine was alive. The great choreographer maintained that “ballet is woman,” but that woman was assumed to be white, long legged, thin. One notable NYCB dancer of the 1970s, Debra Austin, never rose above soloist rank in the company, though she became a principal when she joined Pennsylvania Ballet after a period of dancing in Zurich. She’s now a ballet mistress for Carolina Ballet.
With only a glance at the current publicity-drenched phenomenon of Misty Copeland, the Black Ballerina film shoots down the myth that Copeland is unique in attaining the top rank in an American company. The Copeland phenomenon, as anyone who follows dance and/or culture knows, arose when she was named a principal at American Ballet Theatre in 2015. Copeland has made shrewd use of social media and marketing techniques to gain visibility for herself and other black ballet dancers. She has her own documentary, now on DVD (A Ballerina’s Tale, 2015), a romanticized story emphasizing her comebacks from serious injuries, with many formulaic shots of disembodied toe shoes and exhausting barre exercises. Two years after her elevation at ABT, Copeland is the star of two biographies and several youth books. She has a Barbie doll named after her. She will release a how-to book on the Ballerina Body this spring. Not to mention the athletically photographed calendars or the underwear commercials.
It’s not surprising that one of Copeland’s collaborators on her film was Deirdre Kelly, the author of Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and the Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection. Another whole essay could be written (and no doubt has been) on the combination of prurience, ambition, glamour, and sublimated romanticism that surrounds ballet dancers.
The claims to Copeland’s unique status provoked controversy and drew attention to the other black classical dancers in our history. The new National Museum of African American History and Culture acquired the toe shoes of Lauren Anderson, identifying her as the first black principal of an American company, Houston Ballet. Over the summer, this claim precipitated an argument in Debra Austin’s behalf, which then launched another controversy over what makes a Major American Ballet Company. Former Dance Theater of Harlem dancer Theresa Ruth Howard started a website, MOBB (curating the Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet), which has collected over 200 names on its “roll call” of black dancers and their companies.
Black Ballerina visits three young dancers with different stories. Bianca Fabré speaks with a heartbreaking combination of disillusionment and longing about a career that didn’t quite happen. She remembers being cast in the Nutcracker in high school. The white child with whom she alternated in the pivotal role of Clara didn’t want to share Fabré’s costume. She studied at the Joffrey School in New York, pushing herself as far as she could go. But she didn’t get past the corps de ballet. The alternatives weren’t for her. “I don’t want to do modern dance. I’d rather put on pointe shoes than be barefoot.” Eventually she gave up and returned to Atlanta. She became a flight attendant. Now she does waitressing between freelance commercial dancing and acting jobs. “Either it didn’t work or I just wasn’t trying hard enough,” she says tearfully.
Ashley Murphy was invited to join Dance Theater of Harlem by Arthur Mitchell the year before the company went on hiatus. Then she became a member of the reanimated company under Virginia Johnson. Murphy exemplifies what might be thought of as a transitional stage in ballet’s integration. While the Black Ballerina film was in production, DTH made its comeback in New York. Murphy got great notices, but the repertory included few classical ballets. She was let go in 2014 when Johnson downsized the company. In the film she’s upbeat but realistic; she says: “Our society is moving at a very slow pace when it comes to color.” Another year and, at 31, Murphy was hired by Septime Webre, then director of Washington Ballet (now headed by former ABT principal Julie Kent), where she dances classical and contemporary roles.
Two male ballet company directors have very different things to say about the prospects for integration. Roy Kaiser, emeritus director of Pennsylvania Ballet, is doubtful that anything more than tokenism can be achieved. But Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux of Charlotte [North Carolina] Ballet takes an activist role. Bonnefoux and his wife, Patricia McBride, stellar alumni of New York City Ballet, both teach in the company school. Bonnefoux says it’s important that a ballet company reflect the diversity of American culture. He’s made a three-year commitment with Virginia Johnson to take two dancers from the Dance Theater of Harlem school into Charlotte Ballet’s second company. “We have to make some changes, and so if part of that evolution is not more diversity in the dancers population, I don’t think ballet is going to be successful. The future of ballet is at stake,” he says.
Bonnefoux and Johnson agree that, in Johnson’s words, “Ballet is an exclusive art form.” Only a small percentage of those auditioning make it into any ballet company, and of those, even fewer are black. Charlotte dancer Amanda Smith speaks about her reluctance to audition: “Maybe there were barriers in my own mind. I don’t feel like I look like the girl next to me. . . . I’m never gonna be able to be a soloist or a principal. It can really consume your mind.” Johnson affirms Dance Theater of Harlem’s mission: “to transform lives through art for young people in Harlem, to give young people a chance to grow into artists, to have careers as ballet dancers. And also enable the public to look at this art form in a different way.”
Even for idealists, the fairy-tale princess ballerina is a vanishing prototype. Though ballet companies continue to do the Nutcracker and the occasional Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty, the nineteenth-century ballets, and the technical standards they exact, appear less and less on ballet company seasons. Fusion forms that project a frenetic energy, with a miscellany of styles and a minimum of compositional or narrative detail, take up increasing amounts of the repertory. They make different demands and offer different satisfactions for the dancers and the audience. DTH itself has always had a mixed repertory, incorporating ballets that mix classical with modern dance and other techniques. Now, it seems, with the possible exception of a few classical pieces, its rep is heavily weighted with contemporary and modern-dance choreographies. At times, DTH has looked a lot like the modern dance company of Alvin Ailey.
Big ballet is an expensive and perhaps politically retrograde practice. The modern ballet woman exemplifies strength and agility. She gets thrown around by domineering partners and sometimes gets a chance to retaliate. She wears a tiny shred of a dress, or dressed-up practice clothes, instead of a tutu and tiara. Her body image can be muscular rather than delicate, with flexible turnout and a high leg extension. She doesn’t have an effusive personality; she’s there to express the choreographer’s movement and a minimum of character. The audience responds to her ability to turn and jump and endure, not to her mastery of complicated enchaînements we can barely detect. A lot has gone over the dam to make this happen—-postmodern dance among other things. The princess ballerina ideal seems to belong to a much younger age than ours.
Dance makes the transition to fantasy once it’s relieved of the confines of the stage. In June the filmmaker Mitchell Rose released Exquisite Corps, which links 42 dancer-choreographers into one dance. The participants contributed their own work to the five and a half minute film, and in the process they created a virtual dance company that exists in cinema-space for this event. The film begins with Bebe Miller sitting in an armchair. She gets up and starts a relaxed heel-toe step dance, with a pivot and some easy arm gestures. In a few seconds, David Dorfman continues her movement, building up into a high-intensity tantrum and a fall onto his back; he’s on what may be a beach, across what may be a river from an industrial structure. Victoria Marks recovers from Dorfman’s fall and goes on; she’s in a driveway, and a car is pulling up slowly behind her. Kyle Abraham takes up her turns, adds a bit of break dance; he’s next to what looks like a motel pool. Only half a minute has passed.
After that a parade of dancers passes by, each solo telling a little bit about the performer and each one set in a distinctive space of his or her own choosing. Ann Carlson swings on parallel bars in a playground; a group of children sitting on the ground watch her guardedly. Larry Keigwin twirls in front of a brownstone; a skateboarder spurts down the stoop, missing Keigwin, and zooms out into the street. Faye Driscoll bursts into an apartment, makes her way down a hallway, crams a slice of pizza into her mouth, and arabesques in front of a computer screen; a dog follows her in, hoping for dinner. Daniel Ezralow gyrates and keels over into a pool; the camera follows him under water.
Bebe Miller’s step dance is doubled by a drumbeat, later joined by a cello and two accordions. The score, by Robert Een, follows through the whole film. Occasionally the dancers add their own accompaniment. Joe Goode sings mournfully, “I will be an exquisite corpse.” Meredith Monk sings and dances one of her own wordless songs, and Deborah Hay quietly begins to chant. The film’s title, Exquisite Corps, is a pun on the old parlor game of The Exquisite Corpse—an additive string of informational bits to which each participant in the room contributes, knowing only the last part of the previous player’s information.
The author of this tiny but revealing film, Mitchell Rose, started out to be an electrical engineer, then switched to dance and choreography. His plan for the film was first to enlist his participants. He invited dancers he’d known during his years of dancing in New York before he joined the dance faculty at Ohio State University. Many more individuals than the ultimate cast were approached, but some didn’t choose to participate. Rose might have wished for a more diverse cast, but the eventual group does include Bebe Miller, Kyle Abraham, David Rousseve, Eiko Otake, and Sidra Bell. He admits the cast is somewhat limited to offbeat types associated with “downtown” dance, but the ages range from youngish, mid-career folks like Kate Weare, Faye Driscoll, and Brian Brooks, to seniors like Monk and Hay, as well as those of roughly Rose’s generation like Miller, Dorfman, and Marks. Each dancer began his or her 7–10 seconds of choreography with a move replicating the moves before. The only stipulation, besides the time limit, was to wear a red shirt. The project took two years to complete, partly because it had to be done serially. Every participant had to see the end of the dance that had accumulated before his or her own contribution.
Rose says he had learned a lot from his previous film, Globe Trot. This four-and-a-half minute extravaganza, released in 2014, includes some 50 filmmakers and performers representing 23 countries. Rose imagined a grand international collaboration he would achieve by means of crowdsourcing. He solicited participants through social media, film festivals, and dance organizations, but the contributors didn’t need to be dancers. Rose believes you can get people to do complicated things remotely. He asked his colleague at OSU, Bebe Miller, for material that anyone could do in two seconds. She choreographed a two-minute dance that got parceled out in five-count segments.
Globe Trot was made in what Rose calls hypermatch cutting, a process he traces back to Buster Keaton. In the 1924 film Sherlock Jr., Keaton plays a movie projectionist who dreams he’s chasing a man who’s stolen his girlfriend. Keaton comes out the door of the house, sits on a bench, lands on a sidewalk on a crowded street in a blink. Then he’s running on a mountaintop. About to fall over a cliff, he lurches back into a lion’s den. He pulls away, topples into a crater in the desert, then he’s on a rock in mid-ocean. He dives into the water and plunges into a snowbank. To create this effect, the film editor matches one shot with another in the same pose but a different situation. Mitchell Rose adapted this idea in a couple of his earlier films and for the digital adventures of Globe Trot. It wasn’t simple.
The process involved “instructional collaboration,” as he explains in a video about making Globe Trot. It’s like being in a plane in which the pilot has died in flight, Rose comments dryly, and a layman will have to land it, prompted from the ground. A picture of a terrified individual in a cockpit appears here on the video. Once he lined up his subjects for Globe Trot, Rose posted a manual on his extraordinary website with explicit instructions for the prospective filmmakers. The user-friendly site includes video of Bebe Miller and a demonstrator teaching the dance phrase by phrase with counts. Rose gives detailed information to the filmmakers about choosing the dancers and the setting and filming the sequence. The film- makers were to teach an assigned phrase from Miller’s dance—preferably to a non-dancer—or they could get someone to assist them with teaching the phrase. Framing was important, so that each segment of the dance would line up with the others, and Rose provided additional instructions as to the distances and proportions the filmmakers should observe. The contributors sent in their entries—-they were encouraged to make four or five versions of their segment. Rose tweaked and corresponded back and forth with them to come up with the perfect match.
The completed Globe Trot opens in a walking street, somewhere in Europe, I’d guess. It continues in a dizzying travelogue, across famous places and anonymous villages, each shot with a single dancer doing a single phrase or a couple of counts of a phrase. What the performers do is not extraordinary, but the locations are, and the idea that they’re all doing one dance. Rose quotes Bebe Miller’s reaction to the completed film: “I love people.” And, he adds, he thinks the message of Globe Trot is that people, all over the world, are equal. Call it cyber-utopia.
 Videos of Austin in Balanchine’s Ballo della Regina at NYCB and Peter Martins’ La Sylphide at Pennsylvania Ballet are at: http://mobballet.org/index.php/2016/08/14/debra-austin-video/.