Out of all of the art forms, ballet is typically one that is not controversial, and the American Ballet Theatre productions are usually rather traditional in nature. However, the recent production of Shakespeare’s Othello is a striking departure from the status quo.
The American Ballet Theatre cast a Brazilian dancer, Marcelo Gomes, in the lead role, and Gomes wears dark brown makeup to try to match his skin tone to the moor who describes sin as being “black as mine own face,” much to the chagrin of attendees.
Actor Robert Manning, Jr., penned a letter** to the American Theatre, Lincoln Center, and the Metropolitan Opera condemning the production; he left after the first act, felt it was a “Jim Crow production,” and “will never attend another ABT production and…will encourage anyone…to follow suit.”
Unfortunately, this is not the first time in recent history that a dancer has used dark brown makeup for the role of Othello; for example, in 2002, the San Francisco Ballet used dark makeup on Cyril Pierre. And in the American Ballet’s Theatre 2007 production, Gomes used the same dark brown makeup.
One would think the American Ballet Theatre would pay a bit more attention to this indignity, as one of their soloists, Misty Copeland (the first African American soloist in two decades), has been not only incredibly vocal about race and the importance of diversity in the ballet world, but has been seen everywhere from commercials for Dr. Pepper and Under Armour to the cover of Time magazine, which has helped to bring new audiences to see her perform.
Since Othello’s race is so central to the story, why not cast a dancer whose complexion more closely resembles what Shakespeare envisioned? It is not as though there is a dearth of dancers who could not bring the passion, grace, masculinity, and commanding qualities needed in this role; Desmond Richardson, Antonio Douthit-Boyd, and Vernard Gilmore are dancers who come to mind almost immediately.
The American Ballet Theatre missed an opportunity to cast a talented Black dancer in the role of Othello. The organization cannot encourage Copeland to raise the visibility of its ballet productions on one hand yet simultaneously ignore the legions of diverse audiences who are beginning to take note of ballet on the other. It is a grave disservice to fans of Shakespeare and ballet alike.
**Read Manning’s letter in it’s entirety below:
May 21, 2015
Robert Manning, Jr.
RE: Actor in “brown-face”
Dear American Ballet Theatre (ABT), Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center,
Being African-American and living in this country, I am often confronted with racial insensitivity in my every day life. I have even come to expect it in certain situations which is an unfortunate feeling to experience every day. But I never, and I mean never, thought I would experience this feeling at the ABT production of Othello at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City!
I am a professional actor and not only am I an experienced theatre performer, but also an experienced theatre goer. I am very open-minded. I love theatre of all genres and even recently relocated back to New York City from Los Angeles because of my love for theatre. I’m giving you this background so you understand that for me to express my level of disgust for your recent production of Othello will not be possible in this letter. Because of this, I hope you will sit down with me and attempt to explain to me, in person, why you believed it was a remotely good idea to not only cast Othello with a light-skinned Brazilian ballet dancer, BUT to also paint his face BROWN! I sat in that audience on Tuesday anticipating a lovely evening with my wife at the ballet. Othello is one of my favorite plays and I was looking forward to experiencing the ballet version. I was not looking forward to being insulted. I was not looking forward to a Jim Crow production of Othello in 2015. I left after the first act and I will never attend another ABT production for the rest of my life and I will encourage anyone I know to follow suit.
What genius thought your production of Othello should feature an actor that doesn’t look remotely African? Was there a point trying to be made I missed? And since this is not the first time you’ve done this, according to the New York Times 2007 review of your previous production that says that Marcelo Gomes is “painted a striking bronze with body makeup”; what genius thought this was a good idea AGAIN?! And please understand my problem with this casting choice. It says he’s a Moor in the text! It says he has “thick-lips”! “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!”
Arise! Arise and contact me so you can explain why you chose to do a production of Othello with an actor in “brown face.” And just in case you think dark brown makeup is less offensive than dark black makeup, it’s not. And who is in the production photo on your website?
Robert Manning, Jr.
Alvin Ailey Dancers Perform to Beyonce’s ‘Freedom’
Harry Belafonte once said, “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilization’s anchor. We are the compass for humanity’s conscience.”
This past year we’ve seen a multitude of artists from every field, be those gatekeepers of truth. In films like the upcoming, powerful “Birth Of A Nation,” or in music with Beyonce’s unapologetically black Lemonade album, to game-changing Broadway shows like Hamilton, Shuffle Along and Eclipsed, it’s no secret black artistry went to a whole new level.
So what do we do then when our nation is at its most intense, chaotic state? Like many, art is the first thought. Whether it be poetry, music, dance, spoken work, theater, photography -our art allows us to express ourselves wholeheartedly without restrictions.
At least that’s what Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company member and choreographer Sean Aaron Carmon and fellow Alvin Ailey dancers did. Last week they took social media by storm, with their powerful one-minute choreographed dance to Beyonce’s “Freedom.”
A dance the NYTimes deems as a protest dance, Carmon and Co. pour their hearts and souls into every synchronized movement they make, even in the improvised solos where dancers were given free reign to express whatever they were feeling.
Carmon told dancers “I don’t have to tell you a single thing about what you should do. We all know what’s going on in our country. We all have our visceral responses to it. I’m going to put the music on. Give me everything you have.”
They gave everything and then some.Check out the video below.
FREEDOM, FREEDOM, I CAN’T MOVE. FREEDOM, CUT ME LOOSE! FREEDOM, FREEDOM, WHERE ARE YOU?! CAUSE [WE] NEED FREEDOM, TOO! ・・・ Choreography by #ALVINAILEY dancer Sean Aaron Carmon @hookedonsean; featuring Ailey dancers @collintheshots2 @courtesy_ofhtwn @jagreen711 @yannicklebrun @constancestamatiou @thedanielharder @sfigg_udigg @jacquelinh @danfreaka @chlvrmntro @jerms83 @cherrysunblush Elisa Clark, Belen Pererya, Kanji Segawa and Fana Tesfagiorgis ・・・ Music by @beyonce feat. @kendricklamar
Misty Copeland to Dance in Disney’s The Nuctracker Film
American Ballet Theatre principle dancer Misty Copeland will join the cast of Disney’s live action film The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. She’ll portray the leading ballerina role in the only dance sequence in the movie.
Lasse Hallström directs the project, based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, also the basis for the Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ballet we all know and love.
Last summer, Copeland leaped onto the map when ABT promoted her to principle dancer, becoming the first Black woman in the 76-year history to hold the title.
Last Fall she made her Broadway debut in the Tony-nominated revival On the Town for select performances. This week, she prepares to dance Romeo & Juliet at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia.
It appears Copeland has a lot to look forward to within the next year. She launched her first dancewear line, Égal Dance. New Line has found screenwriter Gregory Howard (“Remember the Titans”) to adapt her memoir, “Life In Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina,” into a film. As reported by Deadline last year, she’s teamed up with writer Tracy Oliver to develop a Fox series set in the world of dance.
A documentary about her life, “A Ballerina’s Tale” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2015.