Last weekend, American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland and Washington Ballet dancer Brooklyn Mack performed in Washington Ballet’s production of Swan Lake. For the first time in an American production, only 138 years after Swan Lake’s world premiere and 75 years after the ballet premiered on American stages, a major American ballet company featured black dancers as the leading couple.
I was not there, but it was not for lack of trying.
I heard about this historical performance about a month before the opening night and set about making plans to go. Swan Lake is a favorite, and I’ve spent years watching world-class ballerinas tackle it. Most of the time, they were lovely, dynamic, dedicated, and technically everything I aspired to be. They were also white. Every production of Swan Lake I have ever seen has been filled with row after row of white dancers. It didn’t make the ballet any less beautiful. It did, however, keep it distant, and I would watch these productions the same way a small child looks up at the birds in the sky and dreams of sprouting wings.
While one would think that casting decisions are based on dance ability, sometimes it is a matter of looks. Washington Ballet’s artistic director, Septime Webre, approaches the issue of “looks” a little differently: The ensemble on stage is reflective of the city where it is found. The ethereal sameness required by corps de ballet dancers is demonstrated not by how the dancers look, but how the dancers move as individuals and as a group. By removing race as a factor in casting, Webre can highlight movement and movement quality. Furthermore, by diversifying the dancers on stage, the company is also able to diversify and increase the audiences who came to watch them.
Out of the seven performances of Swan Lake, Copeland and Mack performed two. (Alternating the dancers is a common practice; at about three hours long, it is a demanding ballet.) By the time news of the performance even reached me, those two performances were completely sold out. It is worth noting that a week before opening night there were still tickets available for the other nights’ performances.
Dancing through an open door
Many reviewers agree that Copeland’s characterization of the two swans needs development, but now that this particular door has been opened, hopefully she, and other brown dancers, will have many more opportunities to bring individual nuance and layers to these roles. Ticket sales prove that audiences will pay to encourage such growth. While you can make an argument for body types and European-based ballet traditions — though you might be scorned and ridiculed for doing so — you cannot argue with sold-out theaters.
Today’s American audiences appear to be just as hungry for diversity as they are for ballet. Those who do not act quickly may find themselves on the wrong side of the theater doors and, more importantly, on the wrong side of history.