Boston Ballet Company stumbles over issue of race
Augustus Van Heerden was dressed like a prince. He had just finished dancing the third act of the Boston Ballet's new production of "Swan Lake" at the Saturday matinee when the company's new co-artistic director, Violette Verdy, took him aside. The dancers scheduled for the evening performance were unable to dance. Could he fill in? It was the first week, an important performance: Major critics would be in the audience.Skip to next paragraph
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A principal dancer with the company since 1974, used to dancing lead roles, he was pleased -- until he learned after the matinee that the decision had been hastily reversed. The reversal was painful -- all the more so because Mr. Van Heerden, a South African, is black.
Is the Boston ballet, now moving into the big leagues of American dance companies, tainted by racism?
Or is 19th-century "story ballet" -- born in the courts of nobility and known as "ballet blanche" because of its white costumes -- simply not an adequate vehicle for 20th- century black dancers?
Or is the whole thing, as one longtime observer of the company feels, simply "a tempest in a teapot?"
In his bow-fronted living room here on a tree-lined South End street, Mr. Van Heerden agonizes over these questions. The reason: He has just announced his resignation.
The question of race -- particularly acute in Boston, where the schools remain under a court-ordered desegration plan -- has brought this issue into a flurry of comment in dance circles around the nation. In an exclusive interview June 3 with the Monitor, the tall, gentlemanly dancer explained his concerns.
"Certain things have happened, and the only conclusion I can draw is that it has something to do with race," he said. One of them was the "Swan Lake" incident. Others.
under Pierre Lacotte of the Paris Opera, he and another dancer of minority race were removed from leading roles for what many agree were racist considerations: that their body types and color did not fit the audiences' conception of the parts. His response: "I felt humiliated."
* In the company's own production of "The Nutcracker," he was not allowed to dance opening night before the critics -- after first being told he could.
* For the company's London tour of "Swan Lake" with Rudolph Nureyev this summer, he was passed over in favor on Donn Edwards, a white dancer.
* Shortly before he resigned, he learned that he was "first cast" for next fall's production of "Cinderella." "I was delighted," he recalled. "But a week later I was changed to second cast," he said, adding, "I didn't ask any questions and I didn't get any explanation."
Company officials point out that of 43 ballets this year, "Gus" danced leading roles in 31 -- more than any other principal dancer. They feel he is overly sensitive -- especially in the wake of a tumultuous incident earlier this year when the company first planned and then canceled a trip to South Africa featuring Mr. Van Heerden. "On the whole, the Boston Ballet is one of the most integrated companies in the country," says spokesman Jim Copple.