The Born-Again Balletomane's Blog

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The consequences of vagueness May 6, 2012

Ah, another new ballet film.  This time it seems to be a documentary about kids at some ballet competition (for reference, the film is called “First Position”).  Some of the kids in the film are little kids, age 11 or so.  The writer of the review I read seemed to think that the competition would lead to contracts with companies for these kids.  Um…no.  Scholarships, perhaps.  

Outside of the stupidity of the reviewer’s remark…well, there is another stupid issue that came up, not only in this review (and apparently in the documentary), but elsewhere: racism.

This documentary covers the 2010 Youth America Grand Prix.  As far as I know, this competition didn’t exist back in my day.  But now, apparently, it’s huge.

It’s so big that YouTube is littered with videos of the competition.  One of them that I saw the other day was of an American Ballet Theater soloist who happens to be black.  She also has an extremely athletic build.  Her legs are frankly muscular, as are her arms.

Most of those commenting thought she was perfectly lovely (I do too).  And then there was the person with the Russian name.

Legs is not good,” the person with the Russian name sniped, and that’s all she wrote.  Right away I knew what this person was referring to: those frank muscles.  Russians do not like to see them on ballerinas.  Some will tell you that it indicates bad training.  I don’t think this is always so; sometimes you just are the way you are.  And this lady has muscles.

I’m also wondering if Russians do not like to see black ballerinas, but I have no proof of that except that there aren’t any in their companies.  This particular ballerina has mentioned that she has run into typecasting at ABT because of her skin color, so it could be that Americans aren’t much more tolerant.

But then again, all black ballerinas don’t have tough-looking muscles, do they?  Just this one.

So then we have the question of whether this lady is not getting the role of the fragile Giselle (and I don’t know that she hasn’t) because she has these muscles or because she is black. It may well be unanswerable, given our current way of discussing the issue.

So that brings us back to the documentary.  The reviewer said that in the competition there was a “muscular black girl with impetigo” (what has a skin infection to do with anything? — anyway, I believe the writer meant “vitiligo”) whose “adoptive Jewish parents (why was that necessary?) often hear that black girls aren’t built for ballet.”  The young lady’s story is actually quite touching; hope you can watch it on this link.

But crikey, it’s those muscles again.

To be blunt, U.S.-bred ballerinas are not, by a long shot, all muscular.  But they do tend to show more muscle than do the Russians.  They also seem to be somewhat less skeletal than the Russians, which may answer a few questions about why they look a bit different.

I think we need to decide right now whether this is a problem or not, before we paste the label on one race and decide to exclude them entirely.

To put it simply, perhaps the problem is skin color, not muscles. In my view, rejecting a ballerina for a certain role because of her natural physique (for instance, she’d just look silly as Giselle) is okay. Of course, there are ballerinas who can push their way past such limitations, much as Obraztsova did as Odette/Odile, for which she had apparently been labeled “too short.”  Allowances must be made for such extraordinary individuals.

But skin color should have nothing to do with it. If it does, we need to have an open and blunt discussion about racism, and not bury it under a mountain of vagueness.