Misty Copeland, Eric Underwood Featured in Ballet Diversity Articles

American Ballet Theatre announced today the introduction of Project Plié, a program to increase racial diversity in ballet companies in the U.S. The program works through partnerships with regional ballet companies and Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Through these partnerships, ABT will offer scholarships to promising dancers of color. “In launching Project Plié, American Ballet Theatre aims to take an important step toward helping the classical ballet profession better reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of our country’s population,” said Rachel Moore, CEO of American Ballet Theatre. “This initiative can assist ballet students from diverse backgrounds in reaching their full potential by providing them with the support and active engagement of teachers, mentors and current professional dancers. We sincerely believe that diversifying the art form at its training level will strengthen and broaden the pipeline of future artists and help ensure ballet’s continued relevance and excellence in the 21st century.”

At Boys and Girls Clubs, children of high potential will be eligible for scholarships for a year of study with an ABT-certified teacher in the area. In addition, ABT is cultivating its relationships with regional ballet companies to share information of diversity programs, job opportunities, and emerging talent.

The Wall Street Journal had an article today on the program and featured Misty Copeland, one of the most prominent African American dancers today. Copeland was discovered at a Boys and Girls Club in California. Although she started late by ballet standards at age 13, she earned a spot at ABT’s second company by age 18. I have always enjoyed watching Misty dance, with her great style and elegance. Here are two photos of Misty from Le Corsaire in 2010 and Sleeping Beauty last June.

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Misty Copeland in Le Corsaire, May 2010

The WSJ site also has a podcast with dance writer Pia Catton. She says that ethnic diversity among men is much greater than women in ballet. She puts forward two possible reasons: (1) men can start later than women-girls must learn difficult pointe work that takes years to develop, and (2) the scarcity among prospective male dancers. I haven’t done any systematic surveys, but I wonder about her initial assertion about greater diversity among male ballet dancers; I can think of only a few African American dancers at ABT and New York City Ballet. At The Royal Ballet, Carlos Acosta and Eric Underwood come to mind.


Misty Copeland and Blaine Hoven, Sleeping Beauty, July 2013

Last Sunday, The Guardian featured Underwood in Ballet’s Problem with Non-White Performers. Underwood is from Washington D.C. and danced at ABT until arriving at The Royal Ballet in 2006. He describes what it is like being one of the few black dancers in ballet:

“Right from the start of my career, I’ve noticed a lack of ethnic people in ballet. In a corps de ballet, especially for women, the idea is to be identical: you’re trying to move the same and not call attention to yourself. For someone who isn’t white, that’s difficult. You’re left with a choice: you have to either become so great a dancer that you’re not left in a chorus or a line, or embrace your beauty and hope others do, too – seeing it as beautiful, even if the symmetry is disturbed.”

The Royal Ballet has a program that seems similar to ABT’s program that Underwood participates in:

“Through the Royal Ballet’s Chance to Dance initiative, I go out to schools in Lambeth, in Loughborough Junction – into neighbourhoods where Londoners don’t have ballet – to assess whether children have the necessary physical attributes. I meet their parents, introduce them to ballet, and show them my dancing so I can say: “This is what a dancer is and it’s OK for you to try to become that.” And maybe even start a prize for young underprivileged dancers.”