The Brooklyn Museum is wrapping up its mid-career retrospective of artist Kehinde Wiley — which means 14 years of work and something like 60 paintings.
It’s been drawing a diverse and large crowd, partly because Wiley’s work has been featured on the TV show Empire, and partly because he is a well-known and, in some ways, controversial figure in the art world. Wiley takes contemporary figures — oftentimes young black men and women — and places them in old European art traditions: Oil paintings, portraits, stained glass and even bronze sculpture.
Wiley tells NPR’s Audie Cornish that the first time he stepped into a museum as a child, it was incredibly intimidating. “Great big paintings, history, gilded frames, a sense of power, a sense of majesty,” he says. “It was alienating but it was fabulous at the same time, because I was trying to learn how to paint. And here you had images where people had spent hundreds of years trying to figure out how to coax reality into form, and here it was.”
Photo credits: (Top) Katherine Wetzel/Virginia Museum of Fine Arts/Copyright Kehinde Wiley (Left) Jason Wyche/Courtesy of Sean Kelly/Copyright Kehinde Wiley (Right) Courtesy of Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris/Copyright Kehinde Wiley (Bottom) Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum/Copyright Kehinde Wiley
How far is too far?
At one of Manhattan’s most elite ballet schools, wafer-thin ballerinas pull their hair into sleek buns and lace their pointe shoes high, waiting for their chance to shine. But beneath the pretty, polished surface, these girls are hiding some terrible secrets and telling some twisted lies.
Privileged Bette is tiny and beautiful–like a ballerina in a music box. But living forever in the shadow of her ballet-star sister and under the weight of family expectations brings out a dangerous edge in her.
Perfectionist June can turn a flawless fouette and diligently keeps her weight below 100 pounds. But she’s never landed a lead role. Tired of always being the understudy, this year she’ll settle for nothing but the best–even if she must resort to some less-than-perfect means to get there.
And new girl Gigi isn’t your traditional ballerina. A free-spirited California girl, she’s not used to the fierce competition. Still, that doesn’t stop her from outperforming every dancer in the school. But even she is hiding a ticking time bomb, and the very act of dancing just might expose her secrets to everyone.
Being a prima isn’t all satin and lace; sometimes you have to play dirty. With the competition growing fiercer with every performance, and harmless pranks growing ever darker, it’s only a matter of time before one small spark ignites … and even the best get burned.
“Brown bodies look different on stage and Asian faces can sometimes be distracting in classical ballet productions.”
While I was an academic teacher at a pre-professional ballet academy, I asked the other teachers in our shared office about why there weren’t any black and Latin@ dancers at the academy, and about how the Asian dancers fit in during the holiday and spring performances. After being at the school for a few months, I was secretly dismayed by the lack of varied diversity at the school, and by the social dynamics. Dance is such a vital part of many communities, so I wasn’t sure why it wasn’t reflected in the student body. I had a few Jewish girls, an Argentinian girl, a Hawaiian boy, as well as a group of girls and boys from Korea, a Taiwanese girl, and one boy and one girl from Japan.
The ballet historian at the time gave me a quick lesson on how diversity in ballet worked. Or, in actuality, how it didn’t work. She started with the quote above, and boiled it down to the Russian aesthetic: a desired body type, a long silhouette, a certain muscle-fat ratio, proper technique, flexibility, the look of one’s face and more. She used stereotypes about lean Asian bodies to explain their entry point into the art form, and how Asian ballerinas couldn’t be denied due to their small frames and discipline-oriented cultural backgrounds. She also referenced the phrase ballet blanc several times.
A quick search of the term ballet blanc will give you definitions such as ballets danced in the romantic styling of the 19th century, referring to ballerinas wearing all white, and considered to be the pure classical form of ballet.
The great classical ballets – the ones we all sort of know a little bit about because they’ve seeped into popular consciousness – are those that magnify white fairies, white sylphs, white swans, white wilis, and white shades. The term develops a deeper meaning and moves from a discussion of costumes and stage aesthetics to actual bodies. From Giselle to Swan Lake to La Sylphide, the image of a ballerina is marked with whiteness and exclusivity.
However, I wasn’t satisfied with her answer. So I asked a few of my students. One mentioned a talented black girl who had attended the school and left after a few “stressful” incidents and issues with ballet teachers. I didn’t get any more details, but it piqued my curiosity enough to think about how race plays out in the pre-professional ballet world.
I also thought about what it might be like for an Asian dancer, whose body and technique and stereotypically perceived compliance might please the ballet gods, but how those dancers still had uphill battles when it came to being cast as leads in traditionally ballet blanc productions. After all, for all their desired qualities, they still don’t fit that old school ballet russe aesthetic.
The seeds for the characters in Tiny Pretty Things started to bud. I thought about what it might’ve been like to be that lonely black girl or the overlooked Asian girl at a cut throat ballet conservatory. I danced for several years in the suburbs of MD, and Sona danced in New Jersey, so we’d experienced the feeling of being the only “other” sort of girls in a ballet class. Brown arms, brown legs, brown faces on stage and photographed, never quite fitting in.
Thankfully, just as Tiny Pretty Things is hitting shelves, we’re starting to see change, with rising stars like Misty Copeland, Hee Seo and Michaela DePrince changing the face of modern ballet. As in publishing, diversity is still the exception, rather than the rule – and there’s a long road ahead. But as more and more dancers of color step into those toe shoes, they give the next generation of petit rats hope that they, too, can follow in those hallowed footsteps.
Want to read more about diversity in the ballet world?
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Dhonielle Clayton spent most of her childhood under her grandmother’s table with a stack of books. She hails from the Washington, D.C. suburbs on the Maryland side. She earned an MA in Children’s Literature from Hollins University and an MFA in Writing for Children at the New School. She taught secondary school for several years. Now, she is a librarian at Harlem Village Academies and co-founder of CAKE Literary, a creative kitchen whipping up decadent — and decidedly diverse — literary confections for middle grade, young adult, and women’s fiction readers. Her YA fantasy series THE BELLES is coming soon from Disney/Hyperion. Twitter: @brownbookworm
Sona Charaipotra is a journalist published by the New York Times, People, ABC News, Cosmopolitan and other major national media. A collector of presumably useless degrees, she double-majored in journalism and American Studies at Rutgers before getting her masters in screenwriting from New York University (where her thesis project was developed for the screen by MTV Films) and her MFA from the New School. When she’s not hanging out with her writer husband and two chatter-boxy kids, she can be found poking plot holes in teen shows like The Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars. Call it research: a strong believer that three-act structure can work in fiction, Sona puts her outline-obsession to good use as the co-founder of CAKE Literary, a boutique book development company with a decidedly diverse bent. Tiny Pretty Things hits shelves May 26. Twitter: @sona_c
Tiny Pretty Things is available for purchase here.