This summer’s announcement that Misty Copeland, a charismatic dancer of the American Ballet Theatre, would become the first black principal ballerina in the company’s history was met with cheers. With the applause came lamentations of how long it has taken for non-white dancers to receive the recognition they deserve. The first mainstream American production of “Swan Lake” to star two black dancers was only staged in April, with Copeland and Brooklyn Mack of the Washington Ballet in the lead.
Yet it would be incorrect not to acknowledge that things have been marching more quickly towards inclusiveness and diversity today. Copeland makes her debut atop ABT’s roster this month along with her colleague, Stella Abrera, who was also promoted and will be the first Filipino-American principal dancer with ABT. Company ranks have broadened, like the rest of the country, to include many more hyphenated identities. Sultry, powerful dancers from Latin America or lithe artists from Asia also add elements of different qualities and style to their movements, so that the steps in ballets themselves have become more subtly nuanced with these influences, too.
Ballet audiences, however, remain a solidly homogenous group. In 2012, 80 percent were white, two-thirds were female, and more came from families earning $150,000 a year — that’s more than attendees of any other arts performances except the symphony — hardly figures suggestive of a democratic art. Meanwhile, Hispanic and black audiences are attending other dance performances in greater numbers than before. Next to the vivacity of hip-hop or jazz, ballet may seem an odd choice to back as dance that could represent the country well.
But it is not too ambitious to say that ballet can represent something of America in singular ways. Ballet seems to be having a bit of a cultural moment today. Documentaries about the rigors of balletic life have proliferated. (Among all those shots of lisping teenagers professing their desire to join a dream troupe, or lingering on bandaged toes and exhausted bodies of professionals after a long day of rehearsal, an appealing sense of the meritocratic values Americans cherish emerges.) Dancing ballet is even a repeated trope in Taylor Swift videos.
More importantly, it is a time of structural as well as artistic experimentation for American ballet. For that, there is reason to be bullish. Take, for example, “Les Bosquets,” a 2014 ballet about riots that took place in the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil and other black Muslim neighborhoods in 2005, when bubbling tensions over race and identity in France exploded into unrest onto the streets. In the ballet, the character of Ladj Ly, a black filmmaker jooks (a form of hip-hop) opposite a ballerina, an outsider to the world of the banlieue.
A featurette on the making of a filmic version that premiered this year opens with the waning light of an evening and a silhouetted figure dancing against the shabby yet cheerful façade of Les Bosquets housing projects. It is Lil Buck, the American street-dancer who plays Ladj Ly, moving with rippling, almost implausible fluidity. He narrates the scene. “I love this place because this place reminds me of home,” he says. The neighborhood “reminds me of Memphis… I feel welcomed here.” The story is French, but the ballet is not — the New York City Ballet commissioned it. In 2015, the themes of “Les Bosquets” are uncomfortably American, too.
There is a reason to find it striking. It offers something important for audiences, dancers and critics to remember or to realize: Ballet can be much more relevant and ambitious that just a new staging of “Swan Lake.” American ballet has the capacity to live as an art that can reflect this country in the 21st century.
Indeed, NYCB was the first company to set out to define an “American” look for ballet, and for years after its founding in 1948, it could be held up as cultural emissary. A former dancer, the renowned Edward Villella, would later recall his astonishment at receiving standing ovations in Moscow at the height of the Cold War. The company could represent America “better than ice boxes and electric bathtubs,” said George Balanchine, NYCB’s Russian-born founder. His ballets captured the country’s “cold, crystalline, luminous” spirit, he said.
That description may yet be apt, but it’s also too narrow. America is warmer, alloyed, perhaps possessed of a more self-conscious sheen today. Its high arts can no longer be summed up so neatly, and must convey a much broader range of stories and moods. Today, ballet makers are taking their cues from the more natural elements of American culture. Music is making use of blended genres. The score for “Les Bosquets,” for example, features rapper Pharrell, film composer Hans Zimmer and Woodkid, an experimental pop musician, among others. The most exciting American choreographers are a welcomingly varied bunch, from 62-year-old Alonzo King, the scion of a line of prominent civil rights activists, to Justin Peck, a prodigy at NYCB who is only 27.
And because ballet technique is fundamental and translatable to any style of dance, it is, as the Washington Ballet’s director Septime Webre puts it, “a fluent, pliable language, not just a form” of dance. What matters now is making that language accessible, intelligible, pertinent to telling us about ourselves.
Alas, ballet suffers from its image as something prim, sclerotic, faintly foreign and dear. Until recently, companies did far too little to change this perception. A study conducted on behalf of the Pacific Northwest Ballet earlier this year found that many young arts-goers — generally a more diverse group than their senior counterparts — cited expense as a deterrent to seeing a ballet. The biggest hurdle, however, was that most did not think it would be “for someone like them[selves].”
But intelligent directors today are producing dances that reflect the country’s history and society; discounted tickets are making shows more accessible for young audiences. Now is a rare time when the issue of diversity of repertoires, narratives, and company compositions has converged, says Webre, and that will make ballet feel more American, whether it is a classic or new production. For that, there is reason to think that now is a good time for new audiences to embrace it.