By Ann Glaviano
I recently read an article criticizing the use of the slur basic bitch (which, in its current mainstream iteration, connotes something like “Average Oblivious Middle-Class Female Consumer With Mall-Fashion Sensibility”) on the grounds that to position yourself against so-called basic bitches is to endorse “a male hierarchy of culture.” In other words, it’s problematic to dismiss “basic” interests — Loves Reading Cosmo, Drinks Skinnygirl Margaritas — because to trivialize those things means aligning yourself with a long history of What Women Like Is Always Frivolous And Low Culture.
A friend of mine pointed out that, although the phrase basic bitch is indeed fundamentally misogynistic, basic also contains, at its core, “the idea of being not just the willing receiver of that which is hollowly mass-produced but also the [primary] target.” He went on to explain that, in its earliest iterations, basic bitch was an anti-normative critique used by queer people of color in New York’s trans-femme scene. In this context, to critique something as basic is to call out its blithe reliance on the Default.
Generally speaking, the Default looks like this: Straight. White. Male. Not-poor. Gender-normy. Able-bodied. And although I personally would be happy to see the end of misogynistic slurs like basic bitch, I see a great deal of value in the critique of our reliance on the Default.
You’ve probably heard of Misty Copeland. She’s a soloist for American Ballet Theatre, and she’s made herself a household name, or what passes for one in the context of classical ballet, by campaigning for greater racial diversity among ballet companies. Specifically, her stated goal is “to become the first African-American principal dancer with ABT.”
Technically, ABT already met that goal back in 1997, when Desmond Richardson became their first African-American principal dancer. But Desmond Richardson is a man; seventeen years later, ABT still has not promoted a black woman to principal. They haven’t even had another black female soloist since Nora Kimball in the mid-80s. And ABT is not the outlier among ballet companies in terms of gross underrepresentation. Far from it. Susan Fales-Hill, a former ABT board member, compares the racial diversity of most ballet companies in 2014 to that of “an Alabama country club in 1952.”
Ballet’s race problem has, in fact, spurred the creation of new ballet companies. Arthur Mitchell, the first black male principal dancer at New York City Ballet, was motivated in 1969 to found the first black classical ballet company, Dance Theatre of Harlem. And after his star turn at ABT, Desmond Richardson went on to found Complexions Contemporary Ballet, whose stated mission is an “appreciation for the artistic & aesthetic appeal of the multicultural.”
Complexions performed this fall at NOCCA’s Lupin Hall, and I brought my boyfriend, a dance neophyte, with me to the show. Beforehand, I explained some of the historical context for the formation of an integrated company named “Complexions.” I told him that one of the (lame) excuses given, even today, for maintaining an all-white company is that it creates an appearance of uniformity on the stage, and to have, say, one or two dancers with darker skin appearing amidst the corps de ballet would distract somehow from the dancing. As we watched Complexions perform, however, we both marveled at the impact of watching a truly diverse company at work — which is to say that, far from serving as a distraction, the race of the dancers actually became irrelevant to our absorption of the dance.
It’s not that there’s never a reason to consider or call attention to the race of a performer. Some dance-makers intentionally exploit the race of their dancers to help draw out the themes of their work. Kyle Abraham’s “Pavement,” performed at the CAC last winter, is a good example of such a choreographic strategy. But this is quite a distinct practice from the wholesale exclusion of a race of people in the employment of a dance company because the directors believe their skin tone doesn’t fit with their “aesthetic.” This aesthetic, needless to say, clings desperately to the Default. (There are other common excuses for racial discrimination, like “black girls are too muscular” or “their feet aren’t as flexible” — and these excuses are equally bogus.) Anyone who suffers doubts regarding the potential beauty of real integration on the stage needs only to watch Complexions at work to see these excuses laid to waste.
New Orleans is a diverse city, and more than 60% of the population is black. Sometimes, in some ways, New Orleans is well integrated. This statement also applies, I think, to the dance community. Sometimes, in some ways, our community is well integrated. Sometimes we put up work with a diverse cast of dancers (e.g., the October performance of the Marigny Opera House Dance Company). Sometimes our dance classes are attended by a diverse range of students (e.g., the Friday-morning ballet class on offer at NOBA’s Chevron studio this fall). Sometimes not.
The ballet studio that I call home right now has a relatively small population of advanced high-school students, and all but two of those students are white. (Why? There are lots of possible reasons, including the fact that, at present, two public high schools and a nonprofit organization offer advanced, tuition-free ballet instruction and serve a large number of black students.) What’s particularly interesting to me about the lack of diversity at this studio is that, on the studio’s marketing materials, the one advanced black student is often prominently featured. The cynical side of me thinks this is a form of tokenism. On the other hand, this student has been cast previously as Clara in their production of The Nutcracker, and she’s since served as a soloist and line leader (a featured position and one of responsibility that assumes the dancer can remember choreography with confidence, understand musical cues, and model steps correctly for the dancers behind her) in the more advanced Nutcracker dances. Far from being exploited in marketing materials and otherwise ignored, she is regularly complimented and called upon in class to demonstrate steps as a model for the younger dancers. And I wonder what it signifies to have the white directors of a mostly white studio behave as though they stand to benefit from showcasing (even inaccurately) the diversity of their educational space. Tokenism, maybe. But given the persistent rejection of racial diversity in classical ballet, it seems to me that to wishfully promote the image of your ballet studio as racially integrated is both a commonsense business strategy in a city like New Orleans and also a powerful break from the Default.
Though this year’s Complexions performance demonstrated the triumphant results of their radical stance “that dance should be about removing boundaries, not reinforcing them” in regard to racial diversity, it fell short for me in its relentless promotion of heteronormativity. Because, in addition to ballet’s race problem, the form also suffers from a gender problem. Alistair Macauley explains it nicely:
When a woman steps onto pointe in arabesque, she can at once become something other than a woman: she can become a work of ideal geometry. That’s thrilling, and I’ve loved it ever since I first saw ballet. But this is something about which – living in a world that has been reshaped by the struggle for gender equality — we should also all feel a certain ambiguity. Ballet is a sexist art. In fact, I often say that it is the sexist art — the one and only art that’s based upon the dichotomy between male and female. He is not permitted to step on pointe (except occasionally as a comic or character effect). She is not permitted to promenade him or support him in pirouettes. I must admit that I love ballet as an art of chivalry, and I enjoy the fact that its sexism is to the woman’s advantage rather than the man’s. But I regret that the chivalry is really only one-way. Too often the sexism and acrobatics of ballet can be just mindless, and without any serious connection to the way we live today.
Now, I understand that classical ballet is a codified form following specific traditions and, for the most part, preoccupied with the preservation of dance works that are over one hundred years old. These works will forever represent gender and sexuality within a tightly limited scope and the primary issues to be considered (that should be considered) concern why, when, and in what context we continue to stage them.
But in contemporary ballet, the representations of gender and sexuality become another matter altogether. The dance-makers are absolutely free to portray human relationships in their full and glorious array. The pas de deux can comprise men supporting women, women supporting men, men supporting men, women supporting women. There is no requirement or need to adhere to the Default. Indeed, when you consider the ceaselessly heteronormative world-building enacted by classical ballet, it seems that contemporary ballet-makers would jump at the chance to correct this vision – to build worlds on the stage that connect authentically, as Macauley says, with “the way we live today.”
Sadly, such a connection never materialized in the Complexions performance. Every opportunity for partnering relied on the traditional male-female pairings. The company executed these moments (of which there were many) with elegance, precision, and an obsessive attention to musicality. But by the second intermission, I had turned to my boyfriend to confess that the lack of variety in the partnering was starting to grate on me. I was surprised and disappointed that this limitation persisted from the beginning of the show to the end.
If contemporary ballet is permitted the freedom to break with traditional heteronormative expectations, it follows that dance-makers working within contemporary and modern dance forms — developed in the twentieth century as a response to and rejection of ballet’s codified movements and narrative structures — would be even more likely to break out of this Default mode. I eagerly attended October’s premiere of the Marigny Opera House Dance Company — self-styled as a modern dance company — only to leave frustrated, once again, by an evening of dance played pathologically straight. Not only was all the partnering male-female, but with only one exception — one lift in one duet in Maya Taylor’s “Selcouth Liaison” — the men lifted the women. The women — all strong, capable, skilled dancers — were virtually never permitted to lift the men.
I call this kind of dance-making “pathologically straight” because when it’s considered in light of the lived experiences and sensibilities of the performers and dance-makers, the insistence on heterosexual, heteronormative dynamics on the stage becomes alarming, if not downright farcical. Certainly queer and/or non-gender-normative directors, choreographers, and performers — of which we have many — are entitled to enact heteronormative relationships on the stage if such an exploration interests them. But when this dynamic — the Default — is enacted to the exclusion of any other — without the benefit of the rich variety that these artists know and embrace in their offstage lives — it strikes me as a potent opportunity unnecessarily lost.
The history of concert dance is in many respects a sad and troubling story, but we have no reason to perpetuate these problems in our contemporary companies and our contemporary works. And frankly, as a dancer, dance-maker, and dance lover: I’m bored by the basic. It makes me restless for more — for the onstage representation of an expansive worldview, one that comes closer to touching the enormous range of our offstage reality. And that reality is: We are not all white. We are not all straight. We are not all able-bodied. We do not all live in comfort and financial stability. Our expressions of gender are multitudinous. We are so much more than what is offered by Default. And this human range is what I’m hoping — craving — to see honored and explored in our artistic practices.