I feel sorry for those stupid enough to believe that ballet is racist or transphobic

6 August 2022

9:00 AM

6 August 2022

9:00 AM

Sick though one may be of the way that the poison dart of ‘woke’ is lazily flung at what is a real and complex set of problems, I fear that it’s deservedly winging its way towards Leeds’s Northern School of Contemporary Dance. Last month it announced that it would no longer require a competence in ballet for its auditions on the grounds that it is ‘an essentially elitist form’ built around ‘white European ideas and body shapes that are often alienating’. Stifle your groans for a moment, and let me unwrap this and offer some context.

First of all, it is not uncommon for schools specialising in contemporary dance to make ballet class optional. There are several other respectable and effective systems of technique – Martha Graham, Laban, jazz and tap, for example – that follow principles eschewing the turned-out feet and concepts of graceful line on which ballet is grounded.

But by common consent a ballet class offers the most rigorous and empowering training to which a dancer can aspire. It is the gold standard: a good ballet dancer can adapt his or her body to any other style, benefitting from levels of cardiovascular fitness and muscular flexibility, balance and precision, that demonstrably surpass those attained by professional athletes and sportsmen. It’s a regime as tough as hell, and not without its potential drawbacks (badly taught or monitored, it can harm knees and hips in particular), but a dance school that does not offer ballet is quite simply denying its students the chance to reach their highest physical potential.

Yes, one could justifiably take the view that ballet is an art form established by white, largely male European elites – so is virtually all the art, literature and philosophy that has given millions of people joy, inspiration and wisdom for the past 2,000 years, and presumably even the fiercest of Northern School of Contemporary Dance’s governors wouldn’t want to ditch the entirety of the western tradition. But as they predictably bang on about ‘decolonising the curriculum’ and ‘unconscious bias’, have they paused to consider the extraordinary role in national morale played by Sadler’s Wells Ballet during the second world war? Or the mass appeal of ballet movies such as The Red Shoes, The Turning Point, Billy Elliot or Black Swan? Or the huge international success of productions such as Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake and Akram Khan’s Giselle that extend and question ballet’s classical language without priggishly denigrating it?

Ballet has long been a carrière ouverte aux talents. Over the post-war period, black and brown ballet dancers have been making their way into the profession – too slowly perhaps, but at a pace on a par with most major sporting and artistic fields. African-American Arthur Mitchell was a great star of Balanchine’s New York City Ballet in the 1950s who went on to establish the Dance Theatre of Harlem; Alvin Ailey, Bill T. Jones and Judith Jamison followed in his wake.

Today in Britain Trinidadian Cassa Pancho leads the splendid Ballet Black; three of the Royal Ballet’s current stars, Francesca Hayward, Marcelino Sambé and Joseph Sissens, have African or Caribbean origins, and Ryoichi Hirano, Fumi Kaneko and Akane Takada are Japanese. As for the Northern School of Contemporary Dance’s notion that ballet upholds ‘strongly gendered roots’ and fails to welcome transgendered people, I can only say that if that is what it thinks, it can’t be aware of the androgyny of Vaslav Nijinsky, let alone the radically subversive sexual ambiguities of Nijinska’s Les Biches or Balanchine’s Agon. Here ballet was the pioneer.

In sum, one feels rather sorry for the Northern School of Contemporary Dance. By demoting ballet, it is simply demonstrating that it is small-minded, ill-informed and myopically parochial. It’s Leeds’s loss – talent will undoubtedly migrate to Manchester’s Northern Ballet School or Birmingham’s Elmhurst Ballet School, where the horizons are broader.

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