Ballet West dancers soon will be wearing tights and shoes that more closely resemble their own skin color — an effort to push back against a white bias in the ballet world going back decades.
“I believe a more diverse and inclusive organization is a stronger Ballet West,” Adam Sklute, Ballet West’s artistic director, said in a statement issued by the troupe Thursday. “It is time we hold a mirror to ourselves and examine how our art form — and how Ballet West — can do better in dismantling systems that do not foster equity, and to institutionalize structures that do.”
The Salt Lake City-based troupe announced a series of policy changes to make Ballet West’s studio and stage “more welcoming to dancers of color.” These changes are:
• Ballet West will no longer allow makeup that indicates a race or ethnicity other than the dancer’s own.
• The troupe will no longer use historic “paling” body makeup for women in works — “Swan Lake” and “Giselle” are mentioned — whose major roles are traditionally depicted as pale white.
• The company will provide tights and shoe straps that more closely match the dancer’s skin tone.
• And the company will dye pointe shoes and canvas flat shoes to match the dancer’s skin tone.
The changes come after a three-month audit, conducted by Sklute and involving the troupe’s dancers, costume designers, makeup artists and wardrobe staff.
It’s not the first time Ballet West has addressed racist depictions in classic ballet. In 2013, the company reworked the Chinese dance segment of its Christmas staple, “The Nutcracker,” to do away with stereotyped costumes and movements.
Ballet West also is posting on its YouTube channel a series of panel discussions, “Dismantling Racism in Classical Ballet,” which look at the challenges artists of color have faced in ballet and what can be done to make ballet more inclusive and representative. The panels are moderated by Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor, an associate professor of history at Smith College and an expert on 19th century American history and race.
Among those interviewed is Evelyn Cisneros-Legate, the first Hispanic dancer to become a principal ballerina at San Francisco Ballet. In September, Cisneros-Legate was named the new director of Ballet West Academy’s four campuses.
Sklute said presenting the panels can “create a space for these important conversations to be had. The stories being told are fascinating, sometimes unsettling, but always inspiring. By stepping back to listen, I learn so much and become hopeful for the future of our industry.”
Sklute vows the policy changes announced are “just the beginning. Ballet West will remain proactive, striving for greater equity and inclusion.”
Ballet West aims to start its 2020-21 season on Nov. 6, with the production “Nine Sinatra Songs” at the Capitol Theatre.