Deirdre Kelly

The Colour of Ballet


I am being interviewed by a documentary film crew from New York at TIFF 2014 tomorrow about African-American ballerina Misty Copeland, and I am sure I will be asked about the lack of blacks in ballet. I have pondered this question before, notably in the following article, which got some people thinking and others so riled they cancelled their subscription to my newspaper, The Globe and Mail. I thought to reprint it, to see what has changed, and what has stayed regrettably the same, since I first wrote the words 14 years ago:

It’s time to raise the barre LAME-DUCK BALLET? Blame whomever you want for the National Ballet’s deficit troubles, but things would be different if it could see beyond its nose.
Dance Critic

Toronto — The tutus are in a knot again at the National Ballet of Canada — but the trouble may be more profound than all the bickering makes it appear. Like Eaton’s, the National Ballet has lost touch with the people. Its problems are more sociological than esthetic.

This week the company announced that it is yet again in the hole, having accrued a $1-million deficit for the performing year that ended June 30. The accumulated debt for Canada’s largest classical dance company now stands at a whopping (and unprecedented) $3.8-million. The National’s executive is blaming it on troubled times for ballet. Critics of the organization say poor management is at fault, and wonder how much money the company is willing to lose to block ousted ballerina Kimberly Glasco’s request for reinstatement.

The real reason for the company’s declining fortunes may be much deeper: The National Ballet is sadly out of step with its time and place. Instead of presenting works that reflect the cultural diversity of urban Canada, it concentrates mostly on works from other centuries and other countries with little or no connection to Canada at all.

One of the reasons artistic director James Kudelka was hired in 1996 was to ensure that the National develop an identity all its own. But what has he done so far to satisfy that mandate? Let’s see . . . expensive remakes of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, the latter set in Czarist Russia, the former unfolding in an ancient court in a distant land. Last season, he restaged The Fairy’s Kiss for the company, a ballet whose classical vocabulary borrowed heavily from Marius Petipa, a 19th century Russian choreographer.

In between, Kudelka has brought to the National Ballet a clutch of contemporary ballets — The Four Seasons, Musings, Desir and Cruel World among them. In some instances the freshness of the choreography, a merging of classical and contemporary idioms, has given hope that Kudelka is forging a uniquely Canadian dance style. But these works have still failed to stop the National from hemorrhaging both revenues and audiences. So what is really going on?

Instead of pursuing his goal of redoing the Tchaikovsky canon (this week, Kudelka suggested that The Sleeping Beauty will be his next full-length project) perhaps the company’s chief choreographer should be thinking of creating or commissioning works that reflect the real Canada.

Think about it. Nights at the ballet could feature work inspired by East Indian or Native Canadian culture. The country’s craze for social dances like swing and tango and salsa might also fuel new creations that meld the classical steps of old with a sensibility that is more of today.

Other choreographers have embraced their times with abundant success, and they are among the few dance artists of the 20th century to have been labeled geniuses. They include George Balanchine, the late, great choreographer and artistic director of New York City Ballet, who revitalized academic dance by introducing to it the jazz steps and popular dances he witnessed on his forays into the black nightclubs of Harlem.

Mats Ek of Sweden, a choreographer who is still very much alive and kicking, takes the classics and boldly reworks them so that they are both relevant and interesting to today’s audiences. His Giselle takes place in a psychiatric ward; his The Sleeping Beauty is set among junkies; and his Carmen (which the Lyons Opera Ballet brings to Toronto next month) is a cigar-chomping feminista.

If the National Ballet were to revise its repertoire to attract new audiences it would also have to go one step further — altering the complexion of its dancers. With a few exceptions, the National Ballet is a sea of white limbs and faces. There are occasions (the National’s current Western Canada tour being one of them) when colour does tinge the ballet blanc, but rarely. And in general, those who go to the ballet are reflected in the narrow racial makeup presented on stage. So no wonder audiences for the company are thinning. Canada is no longer the exclusive European club it was when the company was founded nearly 50 years ago.

More people would likely go to the National if what they saw there reflected something of their own reality. When the National Dance Theatre of Jamaica recently performed in Toronto and Ottawa, the venues where they played were sold out. At Toronto’s Ryerson Theatre, the demographic composition was more than 95 per cent black. You almost never see large numbers from the city’s black community at the National. What does the National have to offer them?

But again they are out in droves when the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey Dance Company visit. These are troupes that feature blacks among their ranks and whose choreography, while rooted in traditional disciplines like ballet and modern dance, makes room for a range of influences from the African diaspora.

The National Ballet would do well to follow suit. It is obvious the ship is sinking. Box-office revenue is down, audiences are staying away (even for The Nutcracker, a former cash cow) and patrons are either cancelling their subscriptions or reducing their contributions because they no longer feel the National Ballet is serving the needs of the community. The company, rather than heeding criticisms, goes on the defensive. Even though it has lost money over the last three years, during an economic boom, it wants to say that everything is fine. We lost money, said Kudelka this week, but we had some great reviews.

Another cultural institution that found itself floundering years ago was the Canadian Opera Company. But instead of going to great lengths to protect the status quo, the COC took a hard look at itself and decided to initiate some changes. It went into the community and hired some of the sharpest talents in our midst to turn their skills to the opera. The next thing you know, the COC is one of the most succesful arts organizations around.

Like the National Ballet it peddles an ancient art form. But the crucial difference is that the COC is drawing its audiences from a much wider cross-section of society. It surges forward while the ballet company lags behind. If serious changes are not made soon, the National Ballet is in danger of becoming an expensive irrelevance.

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