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.

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.

But several members of the company note that racial considerations have colored recent casting decisions. One member close to the artistic staff also expressed doubts about the quality of Van Heerden's dancing. But Violette Verdy , explaining the individual incidents as motivated more by schedule than by race , told the Monitor that "we look at each dancer as unique. . . . Gus have been given maximum leading-man responsibilities within the company," she said, adding that he has been "improving with every performance. . . . Anything that would make Gus realize that he could still come back would be a great help," she said.

His technique is also applauded by dancer Anamarie Sarazin, who says that "he has a very sensitive, elegant, and subtle approach." As the local representative for the dancers' union, she says she has had no formal complaints about racism.

But as the company consciously turns more toward 19th-century story ballet (opening both "Cinderella" and "Giselle" next fall), Van Heerden wonders whether there would be "room for people like me at the top of the company to be treated fairly."

Behind his carefully chosen words lies a much larger question: Is 19 th-century ballet itself inherently racist?

Stephanie Moy, the Chinese dancer who claims she could not appear in "La Sylphide" because Mr. Lacotte "had a problem where blacks and orientals were concerned," says racism is not inherent in that ballet -- because at the time it was choreographed a century ago it excluded no one. There simply were no black and Asian dancers trained in classical ballet.

However, observers note that story ballet is a great show of 19th century was rigidly hierarchical, with dancers ranked by type -- the premier danseur lean with a classical line, the demi-caractere dancer shorter.

But many feel that these considerations, together with the romantic esthetic of symmetry, can have racist overtones in the 20th centry, when there are minority dancers to exclude.

If a black prince were to dance on opening night, says one observer close to the Pennsylvania Ballet, "There might be a little tentativeness, because you're taking a step not taken before." This person recalled that a well- known Russian ballerina, choreographing one of the classics on the Pennsylvania Ballet, asked a black ballerina to powder herself so as not to distrub the elements of homogeneity. "At what point do you draw the line on artistic consideration?" said this observer.

One New York ballet choreographer says flatly that the black body type is not suitable for ballet. "A company makes a sweeping generalization about short people," he said. "Ballet is not democratic," he said, adding, "There's no such thing as 'unfair' in ballet."

"There are many of us who have been abused, some more than others," says Miss Sarazin, a charter member of the company who got few roles this year, noting that "It has nothing to do with our color."

Van Heerden's decision to quit comes after a tense year at the Boston Ballet. With new artistic management -- Violette Verdy is now co-artistic director, and two years ago Bruce Wells was hired as resident choreographer -- there have been casting changes.

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