Ballet and race: black or white?

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Christian Holder takes a jump in Animus (choreographed by Gerald Arpino), with the Joffrey ballet in 1969

The year is 1976 and American choreographer Agnes de Mille is rehearsing her first significant work Rodeo with the Joffrey Ballet in New York. As Miss de Mille calls up each pairing it becomes clear to dancer Christian Holder that his name will not be called. Another day, another Vignette. No Christian.

“Immediately you know”, he imparts 40 years later in his home in west London. “I went to Mr Joffrey and said ‘Miss de Mille has no intention of letting me do the piece. This is a waste of time.’ I put it to him that she obviously doesn’t condone integration on the range.” The next day ballet master Paul Sutherland finally called Christian’s name and politely informed him he needn’t come back: ‘Miss de Mille doesn’t think you’re right for the part.’

Only last week Royal Ballet dancer Eric Underwood penned an article for The Guardian where he admitted: ‘Only as a ballet dancer did I even notice I was black – before that I was just Eric.’ Christian pumps his arm in the air and replies “YES!” Two dancers, 50 years of separation and yet the issue of being a black dancer in a professional ballet company is exactly that: an issue. The question, however, is rarely asked: why is this still an issue?

“It’s racism. I mean, I don’t think it’s malicious. It’s not that. Separate but equal. Same thing in America. I don’t even think it’s a conscious decision, it’s just the way it has been and the way it probably always will be.” Then comes the contextualisation: “If you bring in an American black person you can say, we are using black people, but when the project is over that black person is going to go back and they’re not going to be competitors for a piece of the pie.”

For one Christian Holder, however, the story would be a different one. He seized a piece of the pie at the age of 15, awarded a rare scholarship by Martha Graham – her influence compared to the influence Picasso had on the modern visual arts – and her company. Robert Joffrey, founder of the Joffrey Ballet, wasn’t far behind and after seeing Christian perform, invited him to become his apprentice. A year across the pond soon became thirteen.

“In America at that time Arthur Mitchell was already established [arguably America’s most famous American-African ballet dancer] so we knew that the door was a little bit ajar. No one could tell me I wasn’t Chita Rivera! [the Hispanic actress and dancer who was made a Broadway star when she played Anita in West Side Story] I wore a hole in three carpets in my bedroom doing the dance to ‘America’. No inhibitions at all.”

Uninhibited Christian, born in Trinidad, came to the UK when he was two to join his father Boscoe Holder – himself Trinidad and Tobago’s leading contemporary artist – and mother Sheila. His introduction to dance would also be his first introduction to the issue of race and integration in the UK: “My debut was for the Queens coronation in 1953 on a barge with my father’s company called Boscoe’s Caribbean Dancers. We represented the colonies.”

In later years, while Britain would be overshadowed by Enoch Powell, Christian found himself in New York in 1964, the year of the Harlem Riot. Was it a tough scene in the States? “No, I was in a bubble” he admits. “There was a pocket of time in New York when people did call you brother and they meant it. People you didn’t know…and they meant it. And then after ’68 for some reason, the black people kept it but then it was, “yo bro”.  But I wasn’t their brother. It wasn’t the same.”

As with Eric Underwood, Christian was always Christian…until he opened his mouth. “They just couldn’t deal with the fact that it was a black person speaking mainstream English. It always had to be a black version of something.” Approached by the US press for the first time, there was another surprise in store: “They served their community and I didn’t know that. I didn’t grow up in south side Chicago. I’d never heard of The Defender. It didn’t occur to me. It turns out that they’re not interested in me, for my personal merits, because I’m a good dancer. They’re interested in me because I’m a black dancer. I used to find that offensive.

A couple of years ago Carlos Acosta, the Cuban Principal Guest Artist at the Royal Ballet, gave a Q&A at The Victoria & Albert Museum where he spoke about Ballet Black, a professional ballet company for international dancers of black and Asian descent. But while their self-professed aim is to make ballet more culturally diverse, Carlos suggested its very invention only contributed further to ballet’s segregation.

“Of course and Arthur Mitchell did that too. The fabulous statement he made that enabled me to have my career was that he was just a dancer with New York City Ballet. Arthur was the lucky one.  A couple of dancers refused to dance with him. There were sponsors who put up resistance. I guess he could be called ‘the token’ and that shattered that all-white veneer. When he started his ballet company he made it Dance Theatre of Harlem. Ballet was no longer segregated but that’s what he chose to do.”

In the UK at the moment, the lack of a black British presence within ballet is an uncomfortable truth. It’s also a familiar one, as Christian knows all too  well. “This is the same thing my father went through. Because if black dancers know they’re not going to get hired, if they know that’s not a possibility for them then why are they going to put themselves through the rigours of ballet class?”

Always when we talk about racial issues within ballet, the word ‘uniformity’ inevitably pops up. The aesthetic has always been tutus in symmetry. Sixty neat, white swans all in a row. As Eric Underwood put it via The Guardian: “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.”

“I mean yeah, OK, Swan Lake and classical romantic ballet I can see that” Christian replies.”In the Corps you have 32 pink things so you don’t want to see 32 beige, brown, pink, pink…But if you’re a soloist or if you’re a principal those people don’t come up through, because if you want to be a principal you have to go through the corps.”

Which presents ballet with a Catch-22 dilemma, and one that they seem unable (or unwilling) to tackle head-on. Can ballet reject its own symmetrical aesthetic in favour of racial diversity on the stage?

Moreover, do nuanced racial stigmas occur unnoticed behind closed doors? Christian can only go by past experiences, but it would seem that throughout his career he has felt it fractionally: a glimpse, a look, a brush of something that could so easily be missed but, if caught, is never quite forgotten. That split second. A blink of an eye and it’s gone: “I got an interview with the National Theatre and I had my presentation. He gave me a 45 minute meeting. I showed up – sometimes you can catch it but I couldn’t catch it at all – about the tenth sentence in the conversation: “So where’s the accent from?” I said, well here. If I had been your colour and come in he wouldn’t have said it.”

Which leads us to the same question: where are we at and where are we headed? The answers don’t seem clear: not to the ballet world, to Eric or even Carlos. For Christian, his answer is clear.

“I think at this stage in the game you have to know in your heart that it’s something you want and where you, in your soul, want to dance. Because there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a fabulous black dancer in a black company – that’s great. Segregated experience? I didn’t grow up that way. I grew up as a British person. I didn’t see Christian as black.”

With gratitude to Christian Holder for sharing both his time, tea and home with London Ballet Blog.

RELATED LINKS:
To find out more about Christian Holder’s career, click here.
To read Eric Underwood’s Guardian article, click here.

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