Getting to The Nutcracker's Land of Sweets, together
Kiyon Gaines doesn’t fit the mold of a ballet dancer. He’s compact and muscular, not long and lean like the stereotypical danseur, the French term for a male dancer. He’s also African American in an art form that is overwhelmingly white.
Much like the American Ballet Theatre’s first-ever African American principal dancer Misty Copeland who was recruited to participate in ballet classes through a Boys and Girls Club program, ballet found Gaines, not the other way around. While studying tap and jazz during his youth near Baltimore, a teacher said he needed more softness and finesse and recommended ballet to help with that.
Looking back, Gaines says, “It wasn’t something I was supposed to do.” But, with tenacity and what became a love for ballet and performing, he did it anyway, in spite of criticism that he didn’t have the right body.
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s founding artistic directors Francia Russell and Kent Stowell hired Gaines for their company in 2001, and he was later promoted to soloist. He danced many roles in PNB’s former Stowell/Sendak Nutcracker over the course of his 14 years with the company. His dance career concluded in June, following three surgeries in four years, just before the rollout of a dramatically new Nutcracker. It opens Friday.
Though Gaines retired from performing and misses it very much, he’s found a new role for himself in the field. He’s giving back to the art form by instructing children and young adults in ballet technique as an instructor at PNB School. He’s also serving as one of four instructors for PNB’s DanceChance program. The program provides ballet training free of charge to promising third grade students from 22 local schools that have a large percentage of students on free/reduced-rate lunches.
A national discussion about diversity in ballet is no surprise, really; if anything, it's long overdue and something that Seattle has tried to energize at times for many years. If ballet is to thrive, it will have to reach younger, more diverse audiences. As happens in the business world, the introduction of new talent is also likely to produce more successful and inspiring art.
Just a few months ago, Misty Copeland surmounted both racial and economic obstacles in being named ABT’s first black principal dancer. (Principals are a ballet company’s highest-ranking dancers and as such, dance the lead roles in classical ballets.) Copeland’s fame and directness in talking about what her challenges entailed — the need for monetary assistance during her early training and overt racism she encountered while at ABT — has amplified and spread the conversation into mainstream culture.
She recognizes her importance as a role model for young girls of color who are training and working toward ballet careers at major American companies. In her autobiography, Copeland writes that she dedicated her first performance as the lead in Firebird — and the first-ever performance by a black ABT ballerina in that role — to today’s aspiring young ballerinas of color. She writes five times in the prologue, “This is for the little brown girls.“
The discussion about diversity prompted an article in The New York Times last month, “Push for Diversity in Ballet Turns to Training the Next Generation.” The Times focused on New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, the two major ballet companies located in New York, which are now catching up with other professional companies, such as Pacific Northwest Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, in terms of diversity initiatives. Diversity has been part of ballet’s agenda for over 20 years, at least in some parts of the country and in some major companies outside of New York.
New York Times dance critic Gia Kourlas wrote a month ago, “The two major New York companies have realized that change starts with the schools. If it takes 10 years to make a dancer – and you can’t waste a minute – diversifying ballet must begin with children. Both Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and the School of American Ballet, the training ground for City Ballet, have initiated programs to spot and recruit young minority dancers.”
The realization that change starts with the schools came much earlier to PNB School founding director, Francia Russell, who started its DanceChance program in 1994. One of DanceChance’s goals is to cultivate a diverse company and school.
DanceChance students have the opportunity to audition for PNB’s Nutcracker, just like other PNB School students. This year, 17 DanceChance students and four upper-level students who “graduated” from the program will perform in PNB’s new Balanchine Nutcracker. This production, dubbed a new holiday tradition for Seattle, has sets and costumes created specifically for it by Ian Falconer. It was an undertaking that was four years in the making.
The first DanceChance graduate to join PNB’s company was Eric Hipolito, who recently moved on to another company after seven years. Earlier this year, Angeli Mamon, of Mexican descent, was the first female DanceChance graduate to join the company as an apprentice. Mamon will be performing multiple roles in the new Nutcracker, including that of a mother, a grandmother and the Columbine doll in the first act’s party scene and in the second act, as part of the corps in the Waltz of the Flowers.
DanceChance provided Mamon with more than just dance training. In ballet, she found something she was good at, and her PNB instructors encouraged her to stick with it. “They saw something in me,” she says. She liked the positive attention she received, which propelled her to continue and develop into the young professional dancer she is today.
On a Saturday earlier this month, I watched Gaines teach a class of Level II boys that included DanceChance participants. It’s impossible to tell who’s who, since they all wear the same “uniform,” a white leotard, black tights, and white socks and ballet slippers. As part of studying technique, they’re also learning ballet vocabulary, which is in French. A couple hundred years or so before Tchaikovsky composed the Nutcracker for Russia’s Imperial Ballet, ballet began in the court of Louis XIV in France. It is most certainly a European tradition that embraced grace and elegance and wasn’t available to the masses. In fact, it was through ballet that perhaps the most famous classical dancer of the last century, Rudolf Nureyev, pulled himself out of poverty in Russia.
From my vantage point as a dance historian, it’s that history of elitism, malignly abetted in this country by racism, that today’s diversity initiatives are attempting to alleviate. In order to move the art form forward into the 21st century, ballet’s leaders are realizing that the aesthetic needs to evolve as well. Ballet is slowly moving toward a new aesthetic that says diversity among the ranks of ballerinas and danseurs is welcome and wanted. Any ballerina can be the next Sugar Plum Fairy as long as she can get her jeté (a leap) high enough into the air and perfectly executed.
Here, in Seattle, we’re lucky to have Kiyon Gaines, who didn’t give up. He’s helping to lead a charge that is opening ballet to talented children of all ethnicities who are eager to learn. In this way, the Land of Sweets is beginning to resemble the real world too.