Black Utah ballerinas help shape new policies to welcome dancers of color into the ‘white ballet world’

Racism and exclusion are woven into the traditions of the art form, acknowledges Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute.

(Photo courtesy of Jazz Khai Bynum) Jazz Khai Bynum is a member of Ballet West II.

Katlyn Addison was about 5 years old and moments away from her turn at a ballet competition.

“My mom kissed me and said, ‘Good luck,” remembers Addison, now a first soloist with Ballet West. “This was a big deal, doing a ballet solo. And I practiced this dance so many times.”

But just then, “some mother said to me, ‘You don’t deserve to be here. You don’t belong here.’”

Addison went onstage and froze — just stood there. Then she ran away, “bawling my eyes out. … I just cried and I was hurt and devastated.”

The obvious insinuation from the white mother was that the little Black girl didn’t belong in ballet.

Racism and exclusion are woven into the traditions of ballet, acknowledges Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute. Its roots are in 15th- to 19th-century Europe, and the ballets of the time — many still performed today — had a “Eurocentric … almost fetishistic outlook on other cultures and other races and ethnicities,” he said.

That “othering” esthetic persists today with hairstyles and tights and toe shoes that assume ballet dancers are Caucasian — part of the traditions and attitudes that have “definitely” kept people of color out, Addison said.

But in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in May and the surge of national protests that followed, Sklute decided he wanted to directly confront racism in ballet. Addison and other dancers have shared their experiences to help shape new inclusive policies, adopted by Ballet West and other companies nationwide.

When performances resume after the coronavirus shutdown of live events, Ballet West will no longer use makeup to lighten dancers’ skin or make them appear to be an ethnicity other than their own. Dancers will wear tights and toe shoes that match their skin color.

(Photo courtesy of Tabarri Hamilton/Katlyn Addison) Katlyn Addison is a first soloist with Ballet West.

Addison wants to “keep the tradition and the esthetic part of this beautiful, pure art form,” she said. “But it doesn’t have to be one skin pigment to create that esthetic line or beauty that we’re envisioning in a classical ballerina.”

‘Our audience isn’t ready’

When Addison was growing up in Canada, she said, “pink tights and pink shoes were my uniform.”

The traditional ballet wear was aimed at making dancers appear “seamless” — which worked when all the dancers were white.

“As I got older, I was seeing that my uniform, if it matched my skin, my esthetic line would look better,” Addison said.

After the white mother’s comment to her as a child, Addison always had family members in both wings backstage to protect her.

”I’m very fortunate I had that support,” she said, “so even though growing up I had nobody that looked like me, it didn’t discourage me.”

But others continued to notice she was different than their image of a ballerina.

Once, when she was auditioning for a company, “the artistic director pulled me aside and she said, ‘Katlyn, you’re a stunning dancer, but our audience isn’t ready for a dancer that looks like you.’ And I was 16 years old.”

(Photo courtesy of Jazz Khai Bynum) Jazz Khai Bynum is a member of Ballet West II.

Comments like that discourage Black and brown dancers, who “end up losing their motivation — their drive to be part of this world — because it’s intimidating and scary for them,” said Jazz Khai Bynum, a dancer in the Ballet West II corps.

She knows what that’s like. For much of her childhood and youth in New Jersey, she was the only Black dancer in her classes, she said, which only hardened her resolve.

“It was, like, ‘OK, I’m not seeing myself in this space. We’re not being portrayed properly,” Bynum said. “I’m going to do the work to be the best I can be and put myself in these spaces and change the normal. Change the narrative of what people are seeing.”

When Sklute asked Ballet West dancers what needed to change, Addison and Bynum were ready.

Bynum had “always wanted to infiltrate myself into this quote-unquote ‘white ballet world,’” she said, “and make it inclusive for dancers that come up behind me.”

She replied to Sklute with a “very long and detailed email about the things that I thought should change,” she said. “Being able to wear brown tights, more inclusivity and acknowledging how our hair needs to be taken into consideration differently, depending on what we’re born with.”

‘An awakening for me’

Sklute and Ballet West have been striving for years to become more inclusive. Several years ago, Sklute cast a young woman of Middle Eastern descent as Clara in “The Nutcracker.”

“And I actually got a phone call from somebody who told me, ‘Everyone knows Clara is white,’” he said. He pointed out to the caller that “The Nutcracker” is a fantasy, “and moving forward, I have made a commitment to interracial casting. … If we’re going to survive as an art form, we’ve got to reevaluate all these things.”

Ballet West also was among the first ballet companies to make changes to “The Nutcracker,” modifying the Chinese dance in 2013 to remove the inherent racism. And Sklute also oversaw modifications in 2019 to “Le Chant du Rossignol,” another ballet with offensive Asian stereotypes.

Some of his colleagues argue that certain ballet classics should no longer be performed, he said, but he does not agree. “I’m not going to do away with ‘Swan Lake,’ I’m not going to do away with ‘Sleeping Beauty,’” he said. “We have to reevaluate how we present them, in my opinion.”

And ballet is “actually behind some of the other performing arts,” Sklute said, pointing to multiracial casting in theater and opera.

It was Ballet West’s 2018 production of George Ballanchine’s “Jewels” that opened his eyes to the exclusion inherent in traditional ballet hairstyles.

“Jewels” combines three works, and Bynum was cast in the corps de ballet of all three.

As artistic director, Sklute decides how the dancers wear their hair, and he called for a low bun in the first work, a high bun in the second and a French twist in the third. Bynum eventually came forward and told him that, with 15-minute intermissions, those fast hairstyle changes were simply impossible for her.

“That blew my mind,” he admits. “It seems so minor, but it’s huge.”

Such expectations are “a restriction because most people of color have a different hair texture than somebody who’s Caucasian,” Addison said. “And there’s the feeling — I don’t fit in here. I don’t look like that.”

Sklute said he had never given it a thought. “That was an awakening for me,” he said.

A call to action

After Floyd was killed by police in May, Sklute said, he knew he had to do something. He started talking with friends in the dance department at the University of Southern California and the Houston Ballet.

Then they organized Zoom meetings with more friends and other artistic directors, he said, determined to “turn the lens on ourselves, and [we] really started reevaluating our practices, our way of working, our concepts of what we thought was proper in terms of how we dealt with race and racial equity.”

They acknowledged “unconscious bias” and “microaggressions” within their organizations, and 16 artistic directors at major ballet and dance companies across the country eventually signed on to a manifesto of sorts.

It declares their commitment to “overhaul” ballet and build “broader diversity and greater equity … create equal access and opportunity for all young artists” and make sure “aspiring young artists of all colors and race feel welcomed into the art form.”

As Sklute talked to his dancers about specific changes needed, “some of them had very positive things to say about what Ballet West was doing, some of them had some very critical things to say,” he said. “But all of it was constructive.”

Sklute has recruited minorities; about a dozen of the 50 or so dancers in Ballet West and Ballet West II are people of color.

“It is very interesting that we have the company that we have in this particular state,” Bynum said with a laugh. “Especially because Salt Lake City itself is not the most diverse city.”

“It’s not like we have a lot [of dancers of color], but we have way more than even companies in bigger cities,” Addison said. “Adam has made it a priority to make his company look like the world. Not like Salt Lake, not like Utah, but the world.”

Sklute, she added, “has an inclusive heart and a vision for what he wants this organization to be. So over time, it will change.”

Bynum sees her own activism inside ballet as an extension of her activism outside the dance world. She took part in a number of protests in Salt Lake City over the summer, and she and another member of Ballet West, Chelsea Keefer, performed at some of them.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ballet West dancers Chelsea Keefer and Jazz Bynum perform a special dance on State Street in Salt Lake City, during the Dance Dance Revolution protest for racial equality, on Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020.

“It was nice to be able to protest with dancing. And to be able to do that in a space that is fighting for equality and respect,” Bynum said. “Which is what we’re looking for in the dance world, but also very much fighting for in the real world.”

The response from other protesters was “very touching,” she said. “I had quite a few people come to me after we performed who were teary eyed or just very moved by our performance.”

Just the beginning

Sklute and the dancers acknowledge there’s still a lot of work to be done. Bynum said she’s looking forward to the day when all ballet companies cast Black and brown dancers as “the princesses instead of the evil queen and the more character roles. Those are great roles, but that’s not all that dancers are capable of.”

Bynum and Addison both said they’re cautiously optimistic about the changes that Ballet West and other companies have announced. “It’s nice to know that if we move on from here,” Bynum said, “there will be other places that are inclusive and understanding of our experiences.”

(Photo courtesy of Katlyn Addison) Katlyn Addison is a first soloist with Ballet West.

Still, Addison said, “only time will tell if these companies are actually planning on making the changes or they’re just saying it for now. Actions speak louder than words, right?”

Sklute acknowledged it will take time to remake Ballet West — not just on stage, but behind the scenes and in the seats. “It’s not only the staff and the dancers within the organization, but it’s also the audience,” Addison said.

Part of the push for inclusiveness and representation is to attract new audiences. If Black and brown people don’t see themselves represented onstage, it makes it hard for ballet companies to get them to buy tickets. And Bynum is convinced that people will “gravitate” toward companies that are inclusive.

“I think we just have such a massive younger generation of people to connect to,” Bynum said. “But that generation is very woke and very much trying to push toward complete inclusivity and complete equality. They’re not really tolerating segregation anymore in the world.”

Sklute said he believes “more organizations are waking up to the fact that, if our art form is going to survive, we have to make sure that we are more inclusive in how we represent people. And in presenting art that people of all walks of life, of all ethnicities, want to see.”