«What if Edgar Degas’s ballerinas were black?»
Potentially, this is an Afrofuturist question. Afrofuturism is a field of enquiry that looks at the interrelation between imagination, technology and Africana-related themes. The term was devised by Mark Dery in 1994 (180) and has since then been linked to numerous projects that continue to expand (see, for example, Anderson and Jones, 2016). My claim is that Degas has been Afrofuturised when, in 2016, the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar published the article Misty Copeland and Degas: Art of Dance. Written by Stephen Mooallem, it also featured Ken Browar and Deborah Ory’ photographs of Misty Copeland posing as Degas’s ballerinas (images 1 and 4). The idea for the article and photographs came from an upcoming exhibition at MOMA, New York, on the French painter’s monotype series, Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty. The ‘strange new beauty’ was Misty Copeland, who entered history when, in 2015, she was promoted principal dancer at one of the most important ballet companies in the world, American Ballet Theatre, becoming the first African American to achieve that role.
The subtle association of the adjective ‘strange’ with Copeland’s blackness in the context of ballet can be seen as a way for the white establishment to negotiate with her accomplishments. The world of classical ballet is, in fact, a white world where a black ballerina is seen as a sort of alien creature, to use a recurring Afrofuturist trope. As we shall see, Copeland herself can be considered as an Afrufuturist artist, an aspect further amplified and enriched by these photographs. There are at least three questions emerging from Browar and Ory’ work: one centred on Degas’s dance paintings, another on the absence/presence of blacks in ballet and other contexts during his time and the third on the notion of ballet and photography as technologies. In this study, I intend to explore these questions using Afrofuturism as my main conceptual vector in triangulation with dance and cultural history, in themselves past-directed time-machines. Travelling back in time is important «to explain the present and to prophesise the future» (Gaga,  1995: 51), thus operating a «chronopolitical intervention» (Eshun, 2003: 292) that can actually collapse time to recode Western white imagery.
Degas’s ballerinas were white
Edgar Degas is not easy to decipher. He proclaimed to be a realist but was a member of the Impressionist group. He did not like the market «of the official Salons» (Armstrong,  2003: 23) but was a conservative. He was an elusive figure. He is regarded as the painter of dancers as he devoted a good part of his work to this theme. His obsession with ballerinas was probably the result of different factors, like his interest in movement, the human body and work. Unlike the Impressionists, he painted his dancers indoors in his studio or at the Opéra, drawing numerous sketches before the actual painting. His work was characterised by “unconventional compositions” (Kendall and Devonyar, 2011, 16) and “distorted” and “dislocated” bodies.
Brower and Ory’ photographs adapted four of his works: The Star (1876-77), which exemplifies his unusual points of view, in this case from above, The Dance Studio (1878), where the dancer characteristically adjusts her tutu, the Little Girl Aged Fourteen (1878-81), a sculpture portraying ballet’s loose fourth position and The Green Dancer (1879), where a raised leg in attitude, a kind of dislocated pose, contaminates the pose of the protagonist of the painting, in attitude as well. They are all representative of his style and his tendency to portray ballerinas onstage and, far more often, backstage and before, during or after a class. Reimagining Copeland as his dancers reveals one given for granted aspect, that his ballerinas were all white, reflecting a firm tradition within ballet history and aesthetics.
Black characters and performers
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there were black characters in ballet and black performers in other contexts. The black characters were usually performed by white dancers in blackface and included the servant Domingo in Paul et Virginie (1806), the slave in Excelsior (1881), the Golden Slave in Schéhérazade (1910) and the Moor in Petrushka (1911). With the term ‘blackface’, I mean the practice of painting one’s face and body black. Blackface should be inserted in the wider context of face and body painting which was and is widespread in various traditions and cultures. The phenomenon of the revered black Madonnas comes to mind. For example, according to some sources, the Loreto Madonna’s statue in Italy was initially white and became black due to candle smoke (Grimaldi, Sordi, 1995: 19). It was then left black-skinned probably “out of awe” (Warner,  2000: 274). Unlike the Loreto Madonna, blackface in North American minstrel shows was used to mock black people and constituted a racist “weapon” (Cockrell, 1997: 169) to define and marginalise them.
In the above-mentioned ballets, which came from three different intertwined schools (the French, the Italian and the Russian), we can notice a pattern where blacks embody subaltern subjects. In them, there was probably not the same type of mockery we find in minstrel shows, but there was a stereotypical perspective. In Paul et Virginie there was a «favourable approach to blacks» (Chazin-Bennahum, 2005: 143), but the climax in Domingo’s role was «his pas with a mirror» and image 2 suggests that he looked at his reflected face with naïve surprise. Furthermore, this and the other black characters in the ballet were seen as too black by the Parisian audience and «a shade of brown» replaced black for their body paint in subsequent productions.
In these instances, blackface reinstated the absence of black dancers, who probably did not have any access to ballet and turned them into ghostly creatures, as thin as skin, present in the storyline but absent in the flesh. Blackface is still used today, in spite of its discriminatory connotation and of black dancers’ actual availability to interpret the roles . Copeland’s interpretation of Degas’s ballerinas unveils this enduring practice and reclaims black dancers’ presence in the flesh, building an alternative inclusive history for them.
Copeland’s act also looks for the presence of black performers in nineteenth century Paris, opening another parallel time portal. Perhaps, at the beginning of the century, the most famous was Sara Baartman, better known as the Hottentot Venus. This epithet exemplifies the contradictory and racist tension she was caught in, as ‘hottentot’ derogatorily referred to «the clicking, jerking quality of Khoisan speech» , Khoisan being the term designating her cultural South African group, while ‘Venus’ to the Roman goddess of love and beauty. Born in South Africa in the 1770s, she was probably obliged to travel to Europe to earn money by exposing herself to the public, due to her large buttocks. When in 1815 she died in Paris, her body was dissected and remade «in a plaster cast» (Crais, Scully, 2009: 2), displayed at the 1937 International Exhibition and only returned to South Africa in 2002 where she received «a state burial». Baartman’s case was used to ‘explain’ «the inferiority of the Hottentot and people with dark skins» (Crais, Scully, 2009: 3) and raises the question as to what extent did colonialism contribute to perpetrate the lack of black dancers in ballet and shape its technique and aesthetics.
Other black performers included Jeanne Duval, Charles Baudelaire’s Haitian muse and mistress, The Zulus, a group of representatives of the African Zulu people who performed at the Folies Bergère in 1879, and the African Cuban clown Chocolat. The presence of these people outside ballet attests to a sharp racial division between popular entertainment, like the music-hall, and the more high-class world of ballet, at least at the Paris Opéra. Copeland’s act infiltrates this separation, letting the two dimensions collide and short-circuit.
Ballet and photographic technology
Whether referring to science fiction or hip hop, the use of technology is particularly significant in Afrofuturism. Its “miss-use” (Delany in Dery, 1994: 193) is one of its declinations. What do we mean with the term ‘technology’? And where do we find it in the present study? There are countless definitions of technology, some in relation to its use of tools, others to scientific knowledge. The Merriam-Webster defines it as «the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area». The word comes from the Greek ‘technologia’, which means «systematic treatment of an art, from technē art, skill». In this sense, we can consider ballet as a technology of the body in motion, given also the fact that the word ‘technique’, as in ballet technique, shares the same root. Next in line is photography, which was at its initial stages during Degas’s time, who was inspired by and experimented with it.
Ballet technique is a powerfully visual technique (Thomas, 2003: 98) with a complex vocabulary and theoretical framework that includes the use of some tools, like the barre and, for women, pointe shoes. It is based on five feet positions, all characterised by legs «turned out at the hip» (Homans, 2010: 23), one of its great inventions. In the first position the heels touch each other, it is a sort of point of departure position, while the other four prepare «the body to move» (Homans, 2010: 23) in different directions, «front, side or back». The arms, in the so-called port de bras, are mapped as well and the relation between limbs «scrupulously defined» (Homans, 2010: 24). Ballet is a technology of geometrical lines, «the most dominant and recognisable theatre dance form in the west» (Thomas 2003: 95). Its technique developed between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in France, where «monarchical power» (Thomas, 2003: 95) was glorified. Pointe work for women was incorporated in the nineteenth century when the white ballerina raised to stardom. The technique changed, different methods were developed (the Cecchetti, the Vaganova etc.) as the dancers’ bodies and the audience’s perception of them changed. Still it has maintained an aristocratic allure which, in a way, has banned blacks from its realm.
By beginning to enter this exclusive world, black ballet dancers have broken its uniformity-based aesthetics. It was a difficult path, because it dealt with the way black people were seen, devalued and considered unsuitable for ballet. As bell hooks points out, «racial integration in a social context where white supremacist systems are intact undermines marginal spaces of resistance by promoting the assumption that social equality can be attained without changes in the culture’s attitudes about blackness and black people» (Hooks, 1992: 10)
One of the first black dancers who engaged with ballet is probably Josephine Baker (image 3), who from 1925 to at least 1935, danced it following a parodic approach (Harris, 2008). Not long after her experimentation, Janet Collins auditioned with success for Léonide Massine’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, but was asked to paint her face white and was encouraged to refuse the offer (Lewin, Collins, 2011: 21). In the 1950s, Raven Wilkinson, who would become Copeland’s mentor, became a member of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, but faced discrimination when touring the South part of the United States (Wilkinson in Langlois, 2007: 25). Throughout the decades others followed, Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded in 1969 and visible spaces began to be created for black ballet dancers in national and international, integrated and all black companies.
However, the colour line still remains a barrier, «there was always this notion, this fear that if we had dancers [of] many different kinds of skin complexion in a row together, they would visually cancel each other out, jar or contradict with each other» . That is why black ballet dancers look like Afrofuturist aliens in this world. Talking about Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Greg Tate states that «the whole intellectual landscape of the novel, which deals with the condition of being alien and alienated, speaks, in a sense, to the way in which being black in America is a science fiction experience» (Tate in Dery, 1994, 208). In this sense, the traumatic collective experience of slavery for Africans and African Americans can be read as an alien abduction, «how much more alien do you think it gets?» . Blacks were seen as inferior subjects and cast as alien Others as did those ballet dancers who initially attempted to enter the world of ballet.
Copeland was the only black dancer in the corps de ballet at American Ballet Theatre and came from a poor background. Unlike many of her peers, «I felt very much alone» (Copeland, Jones, 2014: 155). She was also more curvaceous in regard to the ballerina standard body type, «then there is me, with my full breasts, muscular limbs, and a curve to my hips» (Copeland, Jones, 2014: 162). According to Deirdre Kelly, the trend for this kind of ballerina image began with choreographer George Balanchine  and Ramsay Burt, referring to the work of Susan Bordo, has noted that «it is at times when women have been challenging men in the public sphere and competing with them for jobs in the world of work – in the 1890s, 1920s and from the mid-1960s to the present – that slenderness has become a fashion norm» (Burt, 1998: 78-79). A more curvaceous body would trouble this aesthetics. That is also why by entering the ballet world, Copeland misuses precisely its conceptual aesthetics, injecting it with further energy when posing as one of Degas’s ballerinas, because she shifts the question from twenty-first century United States to the very time and place that shaped ballet as we know it today, nineteenth century Paris.
The second technological misuse has to do with the other medium that made this act possible, that is photography. Photographs are «a rectangle of time» (Tancredi,  2017: 8) and, on this occasion, they are a technologically advanced medium through which the past and the present coexist. Browar and Ory’ photographs trigger two main reflections: one dealing with the relationship between art and photography, the other with photographic adaptation. The first question has been widely debated, often posing one against the other and defining photography as «the ghost of painting» (Clarke, 1997: 19). Peter Galassi criticises this assumption, emphasising a line of continuity between the two, «photography was not a bastard left by science on the doorstep of art, but a legitimate child of the Western pictorial tradition» (Galassi,  in Hershberger 2014, 215). In this sense, «the invention of linear perspective» in Renaissance art represents the point of origin of photography. In Browar and Ory’ photographs, there is more than continuity as the subject and point of view are the same as Degas’s paintings, with differences in the medium and the represented subject. Furthermore, photography has played a fundamental role in the reproduction and fruition of art as it has allowed a large public access to it in books, posters, postcards or online. Few people have probably seen Degas’s The Star live, but many of them have seen it in photographs. During Degas’s time photography was at an early stage of its development and black-and-white photographs were the main resulting mode. Photography influenced Degas in paintings like Dancer Posing for a Photograph (1875) and he himself experimented with the medium. However, photography was only beginning to compete with artists like him in portraying movement, «the inability of early photographers to document figures in action, for example, may have prompted some of Degas’s ambitious attempts to draw ballerinas hovering on pointe» (Kendall, Devonyar, 2011: 16).
In regard to the second reflection, it is important to highlight that adaptations entail «always a double process of interpreting and then creating something new» (Hutecheon, 2006: 20). And this process makes adaptations what they are, «repetition with variation» (Hutcheon, 2006: 4). The Afrofuturist adaptation misusing turn in Browar and Ory’ photographs is the combination of Degas’s painting style with an African American subject. The Star is an example. As it happens with other Degas’s paintings, the dancer’s white tutu is “barely distinguishable” from the (Armstrong,  2003: 54) tone of the dancer’s skin, while in Browar and Ory’ reinterpretation Copeland’s skin tone is placed in contrast with her tutu and is further underlined by the white corsages she wears on her wrists, a fashion touch we do not find in Degas’s painting. Moreover, there is a subtle contrast between Copeland’s neat figure and the blurred background that recalls Degas’s painting style. It looks like an elegant photomontage.
A discourse apart deserves Browar and Ory’s photographic adaptation (image 4) of Degas’s sculpture Little Girl Aged Fourteen (1878-81). First, it is not the photograph of a painting (in itself another flat surface) but of a three-dimensional object. Second, its playing with light and chromatic differences operates an Afrofuturist conundrum. Degas’s statue of Marie van Goethem, one of Paris Opéra’s ‘petit rats’, that is the young pupils studying at the school, created a scandal when it was first presented to the public for the chosen subject, its realism and its composition (Kendall and Devonyar, 2011, 72). Browar and Ory opted for a profile perspective, thus highlighting the pose structure, with Copleand in a loose fourth position, one of the above-mentioned fundamental five feet positions in ballet, and her arms stretching at her back. Originally, Degas’s statue was made of wax but was then recast in bronze in more than twenty copies after his death. In the Harper’s Bazaar’s article it is not specified to which copy the statue in the photograph refers to. It looks like the one owned by the Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA. A lot can be said about Browar and Ory’ adaptation, like the fact that Copeland, a fully grown woman, poses as a girl aged fourteen.
However, it is again the chromatic question that puzzles the viewer. If, on the one hand, Copeland’s legs are almost of the same colour as those of the statue, on the other hand, her face and shoulders are much lighter, thus posing the conundrum: what if black people were whiter than white people? It is a paradox that also refigures the way we look at bronze statues where a dark-coloured material is used to represent the human figure. Degas’s model was white but became black because of the use of bronze, Copeland is black but became white because of photographic light. This opens up two further questions: one dealing with the different shades of skin tone pertaining to people of African descent and the other with a ‘what if’ narrative focusing on the above-mentioned conundrum. The first is a complex and at times taboo issue  that emerges, for example, in Wilkinson’s case. She was a light-skinned black ballerina and could pass for white, even though when asked she would say she was black (Wilkinson in Langlois, 2007: 25). The second recalls Adrian Igoni Barrett’s Kafkian 2015 novel Blackass, where one morning a black man wakes up white-skinned, except for his rear end. This radical change opens up an unusual perspective on what it feels like for a black man to be white in Nigeria. In the light of what has been written, it is important to keep repeating the initial question, keep Afrofuturising Degas and ballet to redefine the past and present and «imagine possible futures» (Dery, 1994: 180). And so, what if Degas’s ballerinas were black?
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Rosella Simonari, PhD, is a scholar specialised in dance and cultural history, literary, gender and postcolonial studies. In 2012 she gained her PhD at the University of Essex, UK, with a research project on Letter to the World, a choreography Martha Graham created on Emily Dickinson. In 2015 she published a revised version in Italian, titled, Letter to the World: Martha Graham danza Emily Dickinson. In 2008-2009 she took part to an international debate on the literary notion of the New Italian Epic writing two essays, one on writer Babsi Jones and the other on gender. She has taught the Dance and mime course at the University of Macerata, Italy, for four years (2003-2007). Since 2006 she has contributed to the redescovery of dancer painter Alberto Spadolini on whom she is writing a book. She has published peer-reviewed essays on Martha Graham and Carmen. She has presented papers at conferences in Italy, the UK, Spain, The Netherlands and the USA. She has collaborated with ballet-dance magazine for about ten years (2001-2011) and with Leggere Donna (2001-2015) for almost fifteen years. Her research interest is the relationship between dance and culture, dance and literature (specifically dance adaptation). Her blogs on dance are: www.adancehistory.blogspot.com and www.storiadelladanza.blogspot.com.