Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Lea Marshall: Who--and what--reinvigorates ballet?

Dance writer and educator Lea Marshall
(photo: courtesy of Lea Marshall)

Guest contributor Lea Marshall responds to New York Times dance writer Roslyn Sulcas's conversation with three contemporary ballet choreographers--Justin Peck, Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon (April 20, 2017).


Open Letter to The New York Times
on the Memorable Occasion of 
“A Conversation With Three Choreographers 
Who Are Reinvigorating Ballet.”

by guest contributor Lea Marshall

Monday morning, when I opened my weekly ArtsJournal emailed roundup of dance articles from around the web, I knew better than to click on the title above. I knew better, but I clicked anyway. And then I posted the piece on Facebook with the comment, “Huh. Three white men. Imagine.”

The image alone was enough.  You wouldn’t even have to read the piece to understand whose voices are most valued in ballet today, according to the Times. There they are, all in a row: Justin Peck, Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon--three white men.

Under my Facebook post, a friend asked: “Lea, not being into the dance scene like you, and acknowledging the racist and sexist nature of the article, if you had written this article, who would you have included?”

In response, I realized I wanted to dismantle the whole premise of the article and start over. Editors, the problem lies not just with ballet, but with you.

If we’re presented with this question--“Which choreographers have reinvigorated ballet?”--and the answer we come up with is “These three white male choreographers,” we must re-examine the question. What does it mean to “reinvigorate ballet”? Obviously, in this equation it doesn’t mean taking dramatic steps toward diversity, or critically thinking about ballet’s de facto position at the “top” of our white, western, racist, sexist, popular cultural understanding of what dance is. Rather, it appears that in this context to “reinvigorate” means to make dances that seem fresh and appeal to the tired eye of the Eurocentric or Balanchine-worshiping balletomane.

Of course these choreographers make great work. But the context for that work demands examination and discussion. Sulcas actually asks the men why more women don’t hold “major choreographer” status in ballet. For the most part, their answers are laughably inadequate.

So, let’s change the whole question so that the answer includes Dance Theatre of Harlem; includes Misty Copeland, Michaela DePrince, Yuan Yuan Tan; includes American Ballet Theatre's Project Plié’s goal to diversify American ballet companies; includes Ballez (performance, company, class and community, that invites everyone to witness and celebrate the history and performances of lesbian, queer and transgender people). New York Times, you can do so much better.

Throughout the day after the piece appeared, a great flurry arose that focused in large part on the choreographers’ responses to that question about women. But the problem, as I’d hope we all realize, extends far past the privileged men; it’s with the system that privileges them, including the Times.

There’s an easy fix for this article, as a start. Change the headline to: “Privileged Positions: Three White Male Choreographers Get Extra Credit in Ballet.”


Lea Marshall is Associate Chair of the Department of Dance and Choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University, as well as a dance writer, critic and poet. She writes for Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher and Richmond’s Style Weekly.

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