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Africanist Presence in Classical Ballet

How can one steer clear of falling into a place of single mindedness when viewing multi-dimensional art forms? It is crucial to understand the intricacies in the narratives of African individuals and see their perspective in relation to caucasian performance. Dance in general terms is referred to as the art of human movement. Understanding that there are several different ways of performing this art form, it is important to also learn about the different interpretations and narratives individuals have to offer in terms of expressing specific art forms. Dance is a rhetoric, a metaphorical voice for the voiceless. Choreographers and dancers alike share pieces that try to provide this idea of a voice for the voiceless. Today many platforms use dance as an aesthetic instrument for change, a way in which performing arts could start uncomfortable conversations surrounding socio-political issues and this is done by not conforming to the traditional nuances of a specific dance form. Researcher Anca Giurchescu in her article introduces the idea of learning to study dance in more than one perspective. This idea was used to draw parallels with the Eurocentric nature of ballet and how one must see and acknowledge the presence of other cultures. Diana Vernon introduces choreographer Dada Masilo, who is the embodiment of creating unique narratives through dance choreography, in her article “[name of article here]”. In the same manner, author Brenda Gottschild research will be introduced in order to understand how the Africanist presence is prevalent in today’s world of dance. Finally, writer Rohina Serah is introduced to provide supporting evidence to the ideas of author Brenda Gottschild. Unique interpretations of traditional dance forms are important in molding a rounded perspective of how socio-political issues play a significant role in an art form and this can be understood by seeing the ways in which different interpretations have changed the narratives of ballet, particularly in terms of Africanist presence.

One single strategy of understanding should not exist. Understanding different paradigms of it and how different cultures interpret different dances is necessary to study dance. Researcher Anca Giurchescu in her article states,

“…dance should be studied in two ways: one is situated on a syntactic level and is made up of all social events existing in a given community, that is, dance is studied as a living phenomenon, here and now; the other is situated on a paradigmatic level and is comprised of the philosophical/ideological, socio-political, economic and cultural systems which function in a given community” (Guirchescu, 2001).

This quote specifically discusses the idea that interpretations are important in terms of understanding. While art forms such as ballet can be very complex, they can also be limiting. This idea of ballet being limited stems from a lack of diversity in terms of performers and the way progress has been stagnant in the dance world. For example, not having Black ballet dancers perform traditional ballet pieces and not having ballet shoes for people of color until very recently [finish this sentence]. For this reason, choreographers try to tie in different cultural traditions in order to bring about a space to appreciate inclusivity, especially in terms of race, by bringing in traditional Africanist movements and Black dancers who bring these ideas to life.

In an attempt to open up the Eurocentric parameters that constrain ballet, choreographers like South African Dada Masilo try to tie in cultural tradition by the marrying of the two concepts of African traditions and predominantly caucasian classical ballet. Masilo essentially reimagines classic masterpieces in the dance cannon to address societal ills such as class, gender and homophobia through an African lens. The unconventional interpretations of ballet classics she portrays tend to stir controversy in interesting ways. Dada Masilo, who is the embodiment of creating unique narratives through dance choreography, explains, “my approach is to show that contemporary African dance and ballet can co-exist, it is about finding innovative ways of fusing the two. I believe that we need to collapse the barriers that exist between them because they are a restriction and as dancers, we don’t need restrictions” (Vernon, 2016). Masilo has staged Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake and Carmen. All these performances have focused on very specific issues with detailed themes. For example, in Giselle, the setting was in rural South Africa and Masilo uses African rituals and ceremonies to portray the themes of betrayal, heartbreak and grief which is present in the classic tale. Similarly, in Swan Lake, Masilo uses sections of Tchaikovsky’s original music while also using music from American composer Steve Reich and the Estonian Classic Composer Arvo Part. This is done in order to clearly welcome the audience into a realm of contrast and juxtaposition. To further the contrast, dancers in Masilo’s pieces are barefoot, some are naked and the plot itself changes in order to revolve around the subject of AIDS and homophobia (Vernon, 2016). Dada Masilo thrives off of creating pieces that address taboos and ones that do not conform to traditional classical ballet. She essentially defies the strict codes of Western stereotypes of beauty while getting her audiences to analyze pieces with deep meanings. Masilo pushes the restrictive boundaries by challenging prejudice and this is why it is important to see different narratives in ballet.

Ballet embodies several features of poise, perfection, beauty, and pristineness - these features have been historically encoded as whiteness. Ballet’s aristocratic origins and associations with opera have meant that the dance form remains wedded to a Euro-classical ethos. For this reason, it is as though ballet and whiteness are inseparable. According to Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, the Africanist presence has manifested itself into American dance form, specifically ballet. This is why she uses ballet as a European reference when talking about the five principles of African dance in American dance (Gottschild, 1996). The five principles are “Embracing the Conflict” which discusses the beauty of contrast and opposites in dance, “Polycentrism/Polyrhythm” which discusses movement being able to stem from two origins. For example, what your legs are doing can be different to what your hands are simultaneously. “High-Affect Juxtaposition” discusses the use of attitude and moods in movement and how contrasting moods can overlap and create juxtaposition. “Ephebism” discusses the variety of attributes present in a dance such as flexibility and attack which consists of speed, sharpness and force. The final principle is “The Aesthetic of the Cool” which discusses the behavior and expressions of a dancer that keeps their composure calm and be able to be lucid in their movement. Rohina Serah states, “in ballet, the uninflected, rod-straight spine is the organizing principle from which all movement flows and to which it must return. In contrast, Africanist dance animates the body with relatively democratic equality,” (Serah, 2020). Gottschild argues that the European standards suggest that Black dance is considered to be uncontrolled and undisciplined, this has then allowed ballet to normalize racial and gender stereotypes as accepted. It is narratives like this that encourage choreographers such as Dada Masilo to shed some light on how both concepts can co-exist. The same way there are white ballet dancers, there can also be Black ballet dancers as well as elements of African dance in ballet further advocating the importance of having unique interpretations and evolvement when conveying different narratives of ballet.

In conclusion, it is important to look at ballet with an evolving lens and focus on understanding the concepts behind learning to appreciate narratives that are unconventional. Interpretations of different cultures are important in the process of finding perspective; choreographers such as Dada Masilo create a space for this process to take place. Coupling art forms and allowing ideas to co-exist are a critical part of performance. Complex narratives and interpretations are what make up good performance, sot we must choose to embrace them.

Works Cited:

Giurchescu, A. (2001). The Power of Dance and Its Social and Political Uses. Yearbook for Traditional Music, 33, 109–121.

Gottschild, Brenda D. (1996). Digging: the Africanist Presence in American Performance.

Praeger Publishers


Tehani Chandrasena

Mount Holyoke College Sophomore

Instagram @tehaaani

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