LONDON — As an African-American soloist with the UK’s Royal Ballet, Eric Underwood says he’s often asked why the ballet world isn’t very diverse.
It’s complicated, says Underwood. Race, income, social hierarchies, and other factors often conspire to create a situation that excludes people of color from the serious pursuit of dance.
“I think because you have to start training as a youngster, it’s the responsibility of parents or the responsibility of society to initiate children,” Underwood says. “A five-year-old would have a hard time coming up and saying, ‘Mom, I’d like to dance.’
Misty Copeland, who became American Ballet Theater’s first black principal dancer in 2015, spoke about the difficulties of having very few role models in ballet.
“I understand the importance of bringing more diversity to classical ballet…it’s that voice inside of me that I needed to bring out to represent so many people who came before me,” said Copeland. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Underwood and Copeland remain anomalies as people of color in ballet. Although their title status seems to indicate otherwise, the directors and artists say there remains a reluctance to drag the art of the 19th century – when white bodies and pale clothes were its image – into the present day.
Amy Fitterer, executive director of Dance/USA, says things are changing. She said her organization adopted core values on diversity several years ago, both internally and externally, including through an annual conference.
“We have a lot of ballet companies in our membership and they’ve been engaging in conversations about racial equality for many years,” she said. “I feel all encouraged over the last couple of years because the conversation has gone from trying to convince people there’s a problem, (to) now we’re seeing that the directors are really on board.”
She said some directors are doing everything they can to promote diversity, attending auditions for women of color, organized by the International Association of Blacks in Dance, and sharing information they have taken to promote diversity and if these actions worked.
“I don’t want to say it’s okay because it’s not,” she said. “We have a long way to go to racially diversify ballet companies, but they are making progress. Something has changed. Maybe it’s the reality that the demographics have changed in this country. The conversation is just getting real.”
According to Underwood, access to “incredibly expensive” lessons and the money to pay for them is a challenge for aspiring dancers in tough neighborhoods like the one he grew up in near Washington, DC.
Underwood, 32, who joined the Royal Ballet in 2006 and was promoted to soloist in 2008, grew up in Forestville, Md. He recently starred in the production Works of Woolf, inspired by the writings of Virginia Woolf, at the Royal Opera House in London.
But it debuted in an unlikely way and in an unlikely place. Underwood came to ballet at the age of 14 – very late for a professional dancer – after failing his lines at an acting audition to get into a local performing arts school. Determined not to return to his defeated mother, he walked into a nearby ballet class and asked to enroll. His talent was quickly revealed.
“I thought, ‘Well, I’ll try, I’ll try to be a dancer.’ Next thing I know, I’m at a ballet boarding school and that led me here to the Royal Ballet,” he said.
“I think if we could introduce ballet to different people from different backgrounds, you would have more professional dancers who are more diverse,” he said.
The Dance Theater of Harlem, one of the companies where Underwood got his start, was founded in 1969, shortly after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., by Arthur Mitchell, the first black principal dancer in a major company. – the New York City Ballet — and internationally renowned ballet master Karel Shook. Yet Virginia Johnson, the theatre’s current artistic director, says “the companies are still not as diverse as they should be”.
“Black people have been doing ballet since at least the mid-1930s,” Johnson said. “You see a strange dancer but you see very few main dancers.”
She said it was essential to reach out to young people and increase their access to classical ballet training. “It takes a good 10 years to create a ballet dancer,” she said.
Cassa Pancho, 38, founder of British company Ballet Black, says one way to do this is to expose more children to performances.
“Kids and teens need to see someone like them on stage to stay invested in ballet,” Pancho said.
She trained at the Royal Academy of Dance, judged the BBC Young Dancer competition and was honored by Queen Elizabeth II in 2013 for her services to classical ballet. Pancho set up his company in 2001 specifically to address the lack of black and Asian dancers in the UK, with an eye to the future.
“There is diversity in large companies, but it’s quite small. There are more dancers of color but what we need as a dance industry is to create more teachers and choreographers and directors and you won’t get that until the current dancers will not begin to retire. It’s an endless circle,” says Pancho.
A number of African-American dancers paved the way for Copeland, including Copeland’s mentor, Raven Wilkinson, who in 1955 became the first black dancer in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. There were also Janet Collins and her cousin, Carmen de Lavallade, the first black ballerinas of the Metropolitan Opera in the 1950s, and in the 1980s and 1990s, American Ballet soloist Nora Kimball and Lauren Anderson, principal dancer of the Houston Ballet.
Beyond Mitchell, among the African-American male dancers who reached great heights were Desmond Richardson, principal dancer of American Ballet Theater in the late 1970s and Albert Evans, director of New York City Ballet in the 1970s. 1990.
Underwood appreciates these pioneers. But he credits his mother as the main driver of his success.
“I was coming from a difficult situation, so for me dancing was a very clear ticket to change that. I felt pretty confident that I could do anything because my mom told me a lot, ‘you can be anything you want to be if you put your mind to it,’ Underwood said. put me in the lead and see where it leads.
wool works will be broadcast live in several theaters in the United States on March 14. For more information on the Dance Theater of Harlem, click here.