Visions of Ballet
MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
A bit later in the program, how one woman got through divorce and made it to a new happily ever after.
But first, if you are the parent of a little girl, you've probably notice this. Music starts, little girls twirl. It seems that wanting to be a ballerina is part of every little girl's genetic make up, including yours truly. So why, as African-American girls advance in every occupation from diplomacy to astrophysics to basketball, are there still so few black ballerinas?
As a recent New York Times Arts cover story pointed out, less than a handful have ever made it to the top ranks of a major company. We have two African- American ballet divas to talk about this. Joining us from our member station in Rochester, New York, Aesha Ash, she is a dancer in the Alonzo King LINES company. She started her career with the New York City Ballet. Also with us is Virginia Johnson, a former prima ballerina in the Dance Theatre of Harlem. She is in out New York bureau. Ladies, thank you so much for being with us.
AESHA ASH: Thank you.
VIRGINIA JOHNSON: Thanks for inviting me.
MARTIN: Aesha, were you one of those little girls who always wanted to be a ballerina?
ASH: A ballerina, no. Actually, my start was with the jazz and tap, and basically everything under the sun except ballet.
MARTIN: So how were you exposed to it? How were you exposed to the classical ballet?
ASH: It was actually a teacher that came into the studio that I was taking, and she said that if I wanted to strengthen these other forms of dance that, you know, the classical training is where I should really put my focus.
MARTIN: Now, you were with the New York City Ballet...
Unidentified Woman: We got to figure our way into that (unintelligible)...
MARTIN: ...which has never has a black female principal. That's also where you trained. When you were training there, you were part of a school there, did you notice that there were no African-American women in the top roles or the top ranks?
ASH: Absolutely. And I would say, you know, I gave up the other forms of dance and really pursued ballet partly for that reason. I just wanted to change the idea, I think, that people have of black women and to show that we can be successful in companies, you know, such as New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre, and that classical ballet is something that we can do and that we can be seen as (unintelligible) ethereal and soft, and that that's possible for black female dancers.
MARTIN: You've had many featured roles, but you never made out of the corps. Is that why you wound up leaving?
ASH: I wound up leaving for very complicated reasons. It definitely was a challenge for me since the beginning of my training. In the article, you know, Ms. Johnson had mentioned that to be a minority, to feel different, you know you're the only black girl in your class and that's a challenge. To constantly look around and see that you're different than the others, you do feel negated. So there was just - that caused some challenge in myself, and also having to feel that I always had to be better than to be noticed.
So I continue - I constantly pushed myself that way. And after a while, I mean, it does become very exhausting. But I also, you know, to know that I went through many personal tragedies in my own life that wore me down mentally and physically, and it got to a point where I just needed a break.
MARTIN: I know that your father died at one point and that was very challenging for you, so do you think that had you not had the additional strain of feeling that you had to be twice as good to compete in that world that you might have been able to sustain your career there, or do you just think - does that just happen to all dancers at some point, that they hit roadblocks?
ASH: We all, you know, hit roadblocks and get exhausted and start questioning, okay, what's next after dance. I think, you know, you asked me if had I not felt like I had to better than, would I have continued even after the tragedy that - the tragic death of my father. But I think that it's vice versa as well, you know. Had that not have happened to my father, I still would have been there fighting and pushing.
MARTIN: Virginia Johnson, you are a legend in this world. You know, many years with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. In fact, I think that you were a part of the company's first performance.
JOHNSON: Absolutely, yes. I am a founding member.
MARTIN: A founding member and many, many principal roles in, you know, "Giselle" and "A Street Car Named Desire." How does it feel for you to hear this, you know, years later, Aesha's story?
JOHNSON: My experience was very different as a young dancer coming up. But I think I did face that moment where I had to realize, oh, I am a black dancer, and where am I going to dance? You know, the wonderful dancer Raven Wilkinson who performed with American Ballet Theatre in the '50s and ended up having a fantastic career in Europe because she was black, I met her once. I remember standing in the wings watching her dance at a performance that the Capitol Ballet was doing in Washington. And she was the epitome of a ballerina to me. Everything that she did was perfect.
Yes, she had dark skin. That was a thing that kept her from having a career here in America. But she did have a career in Europe, and I think there was a possibility that, well, maybe I should do that. But, as I say, I was fortunate. Dance Theatre of Harlem came along just at the right time and I was able to build a career there.
MARTIN: But Dance Theatre of Harlem is on hiatus now. They haven't performed as a company. They are still running a school but haven't performed as a company since 2004, I believe. So does this mean that there are no opportunities for woman of color, particularly darker-skinned woman to perform?
JOHNSON: No. I don't think so at all. And I think that one of the things that has happened is that companies across the country, smaller companies - more regional companies, companies in smaller cities, companies with younger artistic directors - are looking for black dancers, actually. People call me up and say can you recommend somebody to audition for my company. They want their companies to reflect the communities that they're performing for.
There's a tremendous desire to open up the idea of what ballet is. You know, some people are very concerned about what (unintelligible) going to look like if you've got three black dancers.
Those ballerinas belong to the 19th century, they belong the 20th century. What is the ballet in the 21st going to look like? My concern is not so much - and I don't want you to think that I'm not worried about this - I'm really worried that there are not enough young black females, more than males, who are studying ballet, who are entering this very, very difficult discipline, learning the skills that are required, learning the strength and the discipline and the self-assurance to withstand this environment so that we can have more dancers and more companies across the country.
MARTIN: Why would that be?
JOHNSON: You know, ballet is definitely a middle-class art form. You know, it's very expensive. It's very expensive to pay for those shoes. It's very expensive to take all those classes. It's a very dedicated kind of I've got to put all of my eggs in one basket kind of life. And middle-class parents want their daughters to be doctors and lawyers and have nice houses and great cars and have a regular life.
So I think that there's a feeling that you're going to be a starving artist. Whereas that was once something that people aspired to be, now you just, you know, there's a better life out there. I think there are lots of young people who are studying ballet who realize that the profession of dance is much more rigorous than they want to actually participate in.
MARTIN: I'm told that something like 40 percent of all the professional classical ballet dancers working in the United States now were trained overseas. Virginia, I know you edit a ballet world magazine now called Pointe. Is that true? Is a very large number of our classical dancers, are they international?
JOHNSON: Actually, that was a quote about American Ballet Theatre. And, you know, ballet, the arts in general, of course, overseas are much more appreciated, much more respected, particularly ballet. We're getting a lot of dancers in South America, where to be an artist, to be a principal dancer, is a high honor. I was just in Cuba in October for the International Dance Festival. In Cuba, the ballet dancers make more than the doctors. They're a respected part of the community. That's the profession people look up to. That's just not the case here.
MARTIN: Virginia, can we talk a little bit more about this - the hang-up. I mean, you know, we have an African-American woman who is secretary of state, for heaven's sake. You know, we've had African-American women astronauts. It just seems as though that these - is there something about the aesthetics of ballet that makes the audience? Is it the audience that are resistant? Are they resistant? Are artistic directors resistant?
JOHNSON: When you think of the number of people who are studying ballet in this country, the number of very excellent dancers who are looking for jobs in this country and the number of jobs that are available, the odds are, in fact, hugely against you to get into a company, no matter what color you are. They need somebody who's going to fit into a particular aesthetic, and there are different aesthetics for different companies.
But you know what? We're not monolithic. We are not one body. We are not one spirit. We are not one kind of person. I think that there are dancers out there who can step into those companies, but we need to open our minds to do it.
MARTIN: Virginia, can I ask you this? For folks who say, you know, there's lots of pressing things going on in the world, why should I care about this? What would you say?
JOHNSON: I think that the arts, and ballet in particular, is about humanity. I think it's about what you can make of yourself, how you can transform yourself into something that is pure beauty and pure joy and pure delight.
MARTIN: Aesha, how do you sustain yourself after you, you know, you've had this disappointing experience, I think it's fair to say, in New York City Ballet. That's what you've...
ASH: Michel, let me just...
JOHNSON: I'm sorry...
ASH: ...go ahead.
JOHNSON: Let me interrupt you for a second. Because I think that there is a hierarchy here. And I think that, you know, Aesha was just in New York, dancing with Alonzo King's LINES ballet. And if you could see her dance now, you would have a different question for her. I think that you have an expectation, and we all do have an expectation, that all these companies are the highest level that you can go to.
But for a dancer - and I hope I'm not putting words in Aesha's mouth - for a dancer, it is to address the art form and to realize yourself within the art form. I think it's a mistake for us to continue to go, why don't these companies have this thing; instead of saying, what is happening in ballet that people are not relating to it in the way that they need to. And they're not relating to it in a way that they need to because they don't see the people in it. We need to find a way to bring the people out.
ASH: I agree with that 100 percent. I think we live in a society that values diversity now. And I think by including others not only can the audience relate to you, but it's also - I mean, it's just enriching what you already have. You know, I think we need to that in order for ballet to continue thriving as an art form in this day and age. I mean, we're not living in a time that we were 200 years ago.
MARTIN: Thank you so much. Virginia Johnson, editor of Point magazine in New York, a former prima ballerina with the Dance Theater of Harlem. She joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you so much.
JOHNSON: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
MARTIN: We were also joined by Aesha Ash, a principal dancer with Alonzo King's LINES Company. She joined us from member station WXXI in Rochester, New York. Thank you so much for joining us. And good luck to you and continued success.
ASH: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: We asked the New York City Ballet if they wanted to respond to the issues raised in our conversation, but they did not respond to us by airtime. And just ahead, a Mother's Day story of joy and pain.
JENNIFER LONGMIRE: For my mom, the year that she became a mother was also the year that she became a widow. My father died when she was five months pregnant.
MARTIN: Coming up next on TELL ME MORE. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.