The ballet has traditionally been viewed as entertainment for the upper echelon, which has usually meant older, white, and affluent, an elusive group that wasn’t very accepting of anyone that didn’t tick those boxes. Ballet has often come under fire for not being up to the cultural times and wanting to cling so tightly to tradition, no matter how tone-deaf in the current environment. Every holiday season ballet companies across the world have to decide if they will continue to play into racist Asian stereotypes found in one of The Nutcracker’s second act numbers. 2018 found English National Ballet dancer, Precious Adams, facing backlash for electing to go with hosiery that matched her brown complexion in lieu of the regulation pink ones that definitely did not. Most alarming of all may be ballet’s continued use of blackface in certain productions instead of hiring actual dancers of color.
While they still have a ways to go, they have certainly made great strides as well in becoming more inclusive. In 2015, Misty Copeland became the first African American Female Principal Dancer with the American Ballet Theatre in its 75-year history. Ballet has been implemented into football programs, both professional and amateur, to help athletes improve their focus and flexibility. Just last year, the New York City Ballet cast Charlotte Nebres, as the first black actor to be Marie in their production of The Nutcracker. Hiplet, a fusion of ballet and hip hop which is certainly influenced by Alvin Ailey (which started in 1958 as a group of seven young, Black dancers and has turned into a massively popular modern dance group of 32), has grown in popularity providing kids who aren’t quite into classical ballet and the storied layers of Euro classism that accompany it, with the opportunity to dance to music that doesn’t make them feel like they need to wear a corset and powdered wig to enjoy the art (Playboi Carti Pirouette anyone?). Ballet is evolving.
The current closures of most theaters until 2021 has left the ballet world with no choice but to make the virtual grande jeté in order to continue to provide performances for ballet lovers and provide an outlet for dancers in their prime to still showcase their talents to audiences. If you’ve ever had even the smallest curiosity for a ballet experience, but couldn’t quite convince yourself to head to the theater, luckily you’ve been awarded the opportunity to still enjoy. Virtual ballets afford the possibility to explore an art form that you may not typically find yourself indulging in at a very reasonable rate of free. While the performances are different than what you would typically see live, they still offer a unique experience that’s a welcome reprieve from yet another TikTok dance challenge. Although, those are fun too.
The performances that have appeared online showcase the breadth of diversity that makes up the current ballet scene. There are dancers of all complexions and backgrounds performing across the globe. Some of the performances are punctuated with social messages such as the New York City Ballet’s “Ces Noms que Nous Portons” (or “These Names That We Bear”) which “aims to celebrate our queerness and our color in a way that hopefully stresses its importance, its fragility, and its strength. We dance, and create dances, for those who have yet to see themselves on a stage”. While others exist simply as a work of mesmerizing art taking on classic favorites like the BBC’s Bathtub Swan Lake revealing that the ballet can be more than just stuffy tutus and tights. Virtual ballets have even brought dancers who don’t usually have the opportunity to dance together due to distance on to a virtual stage where they get to challenge themselves by performing within a new medium and audiences get to reap the beautiful results.
The true beauty of the virtual ballet is the access it provides to future dancers. Once upon a time, many would never be able to know the feeling of dressing up in your evening’s finest, heading to the theater, inhaling the rustic air of decades of metamorphic performances punctuated by thunderous applause at a job well done as you grasp your Playbill and settle into your plush seat heart palpitating in anticipation for a truly enchanting experience. While the full “night at the ballet experience” can’t be replicated at home, the ease of seeing a performance opens a whole new world. To be a young POC or queer kid and finally see someone like you dancing on a major stage has a bigger impact than most can imagine. People relate to experiences where they can also visualize themselves and moments with people that look like them. It’s hard to see yourself in spaces where no one looks like you and even harder to see yourself in a space that you’ve never even seen or have been able to easily access. Virtual ballet breaks down some of the exclusive barriers making the future of the art even more exciting as newer, younger, and more diverse audiences are exposed to its wonders completely unraveling the dated belief of being an artform only the older elite enjoy.
Dancing has always been used as a form of healing and relief. The pieces that are emerging online reflect the current times with themes varying from frustration over equality injustices to uncertainty about the future to optimism that things will indeed get better and one day everyone can just dance (to quote one Stefani Germanotta, “just dance, gonna be okay, d-d-d-dance, dance, dance, j-j-just dance”). Dance is therapeutic even if it’s experienced vicariously. The pieces are yet another example of the innovative storytelling that has emerged in the last few months as artists look for new ways to produce content. Whether you’re performing or watching, one thing is for sure: you will be transformed.