Pacific Northwest Ballet Strives Under the Long Shadow of Classics — Notably, Racism

by Riis Williams 

(This article was originally published by Real Change and has been reprinted under an agreement.) 

With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, many organizations have announced their alliance with it. But for Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet, upholding a commitment to racial inclusivity goes beyond just a Facebook post. It requires taking a hard look at the history of ballet and its Eurocentric origins.

Normally this time of year, on the heels of completing their performance season, the company would be hard at work participating in summer events and preparing for upcoming fall performances. But this year, with PNB’s studios closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, its dancers and faculty members are taking their time at home to seriously rethink the repertoire they perform, the cities they travel to, and the people they hire.

Time to think

“Who are we looking to for choreography? Where are we finding our dancers? How can we diversify our audiences?” are some of the questions executive director Ellen Walker is asking her PNB colleagues. While she has high hopes for the organization’s ability to provide a diverse environment for its students and faculty, she recognizes that PNB today falls severely short when it comes to racial representation.

“Our company is about one-third non-Caucasian. We have only one other Black faculty member of the PNB school, in addition to Kiyon Ross, who is our director of company operations and a guest teacher. This is an area in need of major improvement,” Walker said.

Ballet originated during the Italian renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries and eventually spread to France as a modest, aristocratic performance art. But by the 19th century, the image of the “ballerina” in her pink tutu and pointe shoes dominated the art form, as dancers were instructed to produce the graceful and elegant movements that are seen on stages today.

Today, ballet is full of gender, race, and body preconceptions that derive from this European foundation. As the fight against institutionalized racism strengthens, the pressure to break down these stereotypes and eliminate the structures that have constrained dancers and choreographers for generations intensifies.

“There are definitely things that teachers say to kids of color, little microaggressions, that can cause children to quit ballet,” said Amanda Morgan, the company’s only Black dancer. “They are just over it and their relationship with ballet has been severed.”

Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancers Dammiel Cruz and Amanda Morgan with company dancers in Christopher Wheeldon’s Carousel (A Dance). (Photo: Lindsay Thomas)

Morgan grew up in Tacoma and is the daughter of a Dominican mother and Puerto Rican father. “My mom always wanted to be involved in the arts but didn’t have access to it growing up in the Bronx. When I was born, she saw that I was very active and always dancing and put me in a dance studio near our apartment at two and a half years old,” she recounted.

Morgan joined the PNB school at age 15, having trained during the previous summer with the School of American Ballet in New York City. “I would be in New York all the time to see family. During one Christmas, I went to see ‘The Nutcracker’ at New York City Ballet,” Morgan said. “I remember the sugar plum fairy messed up and I thought, ‘I’m going to be a professional dancer and I’ll be better than her.’”

After working her way up through the PNB school, Morgan was invited to participate in the professional division program and eventually joined the company as an apprentice in 2016. She has been a member of the corps de ballet (the company’s ensemble) for three years and is currently one of few Black members of the PNB community.

“There’d maybe be another Black girl in another level or two, and some Latin and South Asian girls, but there definitely weren’t multiple people of color in each class,” Morgan said. “Once I entered the PD [professional division] program, there were two of us. As I rose through the company, it just became less and less diverse.”

Walker described this trend as an “upside down funnel,” in which multiple students of color begin as ballet students, and few make it as professionals. “Not all kids end up wanting to be professional dancers, but all kids should be welcomed to do so and should see people who emulate them in the school and in the company,” Walker said.

In 2015, the creation of their Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) plan became a central priority of the organization after Walker and Peter Boal, the company’s artistic director, participated in a summer-long city of Seattle workshop called “Turning Commitment into Action.”

“We had conversations about systemic and institutional racism and concepts of microaggression — all of these really important elements that organizations like ours have, intentionally or not, kept people of color out,” Walker said.

For the past five years, PNB has continued to update the EDI by communicating with its school’s families, dancers, and faculty to discover what works, what doesn’t and how they can improve. The PNB summer audition tour locations, for instance, were adjusted. “Our faculty members usually go to long-established locations to look for dancers for our summer program, such as other professional or large ballet schools and companies.

“We decided to change or add locations, such as Baltimore School of the Arts in Maryland and Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center in Washington, so that more young dancers of color would have the opportunity to audition,” Walker said.

But following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis in late May, amid the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, PNB leaders have felt a greater sense of urgency to achieve real progress in dismantling the structures that make ballet exclusive, both within PNB and in the greater performing arts community.

“Anything that we were doing that was more academic and based in training and discussion must be moved to real action that we take as a company. We have taken a lot of steps, but we are not nearly diverse enough,” Walker said. “We have to be honest about the mistakes we’ve made, and so we’re continuing to take this time to really check ourselves and invite trusted partners to check us, too.”

PNB posted an “Anti-Racism Action Plan” on their website to affirm the organization’s commitment to racial justice and its plans to further incorporate the voices of minorities in its community, to “[b]uild upon our commitment to diversifying our organization by engaging more Black and Brown dancers, students, teachers, choreographers, contributors, musicians, and artists while recognizing we are stronger with diverse voices represented throughout our institution,” and to “further engage and employ experts outside of our staff to help inform PNB’s equity work.”

Behind the scenes

For dancers like Amanda Morgan, words go only so far. After spending the past eight years with PNB, the organization is like her second home — a place of safety, growth and acceptance. But since stepping foot through its doors, Morgan hasn’t ceased to acknowledge its many flaws. Asked about her reaction to the organization’s Anti-Racism Action Plan, she told Real Change that its formation required some extra pressure.

“I appreciate them, but I really had to push them to get these words out faster. There was a lot of hesitation, and I was very angry,” Morgan said.

The company has been having a lot of conversations about “diversifying” for five years now. One of the biggest changes Morgan has seen involves PNB’s seasonal repertoire selection, in which one production must be choreographed by a woman. “But honestly, why have only one when there’s six reps in a season?” Morgan said. “If we are trying to represent our audiences and the people in our community, shouldn’t it be half and half?”

Walker said that choosing performances for each season is a little more complicated than that if the company wants to stay afloat financially.

“About 90 percent of our audience comes to us through ‘The Nutcracker’ or one of those big iconic works that has a lot of broad appeal and familiarity,” Walker said. “We know that familiarity is the biggest driver for attendance. ‘Swan Lake,’ ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ are stories that are all really critical to supporting big organizations like ours.”

There’s no doubt, according to Walker, that the classic blockbusters, most of which were choreographed by white men, earn the most revenue for the organization. To plan each season, they balance the familiar ballets with new works that offer opportunities to emerging choreographers.

Dancing canon

“The Nutcracker,” in particular, is a seasonal necessity for the holiday festivities of many audience members and ballet lovers. But the beloved story, which is centered around a young girl who travels to a fantastical land of sweets and an array of dancers depicting holiday treats, is packed full of racial stereotypes. In some productions, dancers depicting Chinese characters friskily enter the stage wearing black wigs and costumes designed to resemble traditional Chinese robes.

Boal, the PNB artistic director, said that altering choreography and production details for a ballet as iconic as “The Nutcracker” can be a lengthy process. Maintaining much of the original choreography is essential, and any changes require approval from the Balanchine Trust, which owns their particular version of “The Nutcracker.”

“We are exploring plans to make some changes that honor the choreography, but find representation that moves away from racial stereotypes,” Boal told Real Change by email.

Walker described Boal’s efforts as “quietly persistent” and “thoughtfully aware.” She emphasized that changes to eliminate racial undertones from “The Nutcracker” are “always in conversation.”

Morgan thinks ballet companies are too much about money. “Black artists and people of color are making brilliant shows with very little money,” she said. “I refuse to believe that we can’t make work that is more relevant.”

Morgan has therefore taken it upon herself to design and produce pieces with modern relevance through the use of videography and dance. “I started thinking about creating The Seattle Project in December of 2018. I’d been thinking about involving film and dance and live performance in the outdoors since I was about 17,” she revealed. 

Her main goal has been to find artists of varying backgrounds and talents who are willing to collaborate and make videos. As she showcased her creations on the project’s Instagram page, she was able to develop more relationships with local artists. The Seattle Project had its first official show at Northwest Film Forum in February. 

“Sixty to 70 people came on this random Thursday night — way more than I anticipated. There was so much diversity in the audience, too. Young people, old people, people of color. It inspired me to continue to diversify my cast and the people I work with. Going forward, I want to find a way to give dancers of color and queer dancers the opportunity to be seen,” she said.

Her experiment begs the question: Is ballet that diverges from its original Eurocentric form and style still classical ballet? Both Morgan and Walker believe so.

“Real appreciation for the traditions and foundation of ballet also acknowledges its constant evolution, and the product of this evolving art form needs to have room for everyone,” Walker said. “I see us as a community asset and see us as a part of an arts and culture ecosystem. … And for it to be a really healthy ecosystem, we have to be inclusive.”

Morgan agrees, but insists that much work remains both within PNB and the greater dance community to break down ballet’s exclusive culture. “I don’t think that we should get rid of its history altogether. I love classical ballet,” she said. “But I dance to get a connection with the audience, and while I think traditional ballet is beautiful, I have not yet been given a narrative that represents me.

“So, I’ll believe their words when I see more directors of color, queer choreographers, and students of color from all over the world who are being nurtured and represented.”

Riis Williams has been a lifelong Washingtonian and is a third-year University of Washington student, studying global health and environmental studies, seeking a career in journalism. She has also been a lifelong dancer and performer, intertwining her interests here.

Featured image: Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancers Amanda Morgan and Sarah Pasch with company dancers in Diamonds, choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. (Photo: Angela Sterling)