Ballet dancers applauded last October when Freed of London began selling pointe shoes in brown and bronze in addition to the "European pink" shoes they have sold since 1929. ("Brown point shoes arrive, 200 years after white ones," noted the headline in the New York Times on November 4; "Largest supplier of pointe shoes finally recognizes that not all dancers are white," snarked Jezebel two days later.) While the shade of a shoe seems a small affair for history to turn upon, for many dancers, the gesture was momentous and overdue.
"This isn't about shoes, this is about who belongs in ballet and who doesn't," Virginia Johnson, artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, whose dancers have long dyed their shoes and tights to match their skin, said to the NYT. Though pioneering Black ballerinas such as Janet Collins and Raven Wilkinson gained renown by the 1950s, prominent Black ballet dancers have remained few and far between in an art that dates back at least four centuries. And while Misty Copeland, the first African American female principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, may be the most visible ballerina of our generation, she has described her frustration with a profession that idealizes "skin the colour of a peeled apple, with a prepubescent body."
Inspired by these and other Black women seduced by the magic and cruelty of ballet, Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre artistic director Tim Rhoze and writing partner Stephen Fedo conceived Black Ballerina, the story of two dancers, Olivia in the 1950s and Adrienne in the present day, determined to succeed in an art form seemingly designed to exclude them. Both characters are played by Evanston native Kara Roseborough, Rhoze's daughter, who has pursued ballet with a passion since the age of three, and who is one of the women who inspired Rhoze's interest in the subject.
"As a Black woman in the ballet world, I'm not the default ballet dancer by definition. I am Black, I am tall," says Roseborough, a recent graduate of the University of Utah and a former dancer with Charleston City Ballet. Told by a teacher that she would "break the color line" in a classical company and ignored by costumers who refused to adjust designs to match a different skin tone, Roseborough describes relations that have evolved at a glacial pace since Collins, the first Black ballerina to successfully audition for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, refused to accept the job because the company required her to paint her face white. "Ballet isn't just a European art form anymore," says Roseborough. "It's a global art form. The stories being told are outdated."
Adds Rhoze, "There are many challenges for anyone who is Brown or Black in this world and in this country. So many young Black ballerinas are determined to knock down that thick wall, and I admire each and every one." v