Project Plié: Bringing Color To Ballet's Corps

If you've ever attended a ballet performance, you may have noticed the lack of diversity on stage. But a new initiative, Project Plié aims to bring some color to the art form. Guest host Celeste Headlee learns more from dancer Misty Copeland and American Ballet Theater CEO Rachel Moore.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we take a closer look at iconic public service ad campaigns like Smokey Bear and McGruff the Crime Dog. And while everyone knows the good causes they promote, do we know if they actually work? We'll hear more about that just ahead. First, though, we talk about a new initiative that's taking a leap to bring diversity to the world of ballet.

(SOUNDBITE OF "SWAN LAKE")

HEADLEE: That's music from "Swan Lake" by Tchaikovsky, the iconic ballet. Many people think of that ballet and you can close your eyes and sort of picture the dancers on stage, right? All dressed as swans, beautiful, pale dancers in their white feathers and lily white costumes. But where do you fit a black dancer into that picture? Most often, you don't.

Ballet is a step behind many other arts in showcasing racial diversity. Now, though, the American Ballet Theatre is trying to change that, and they're launching what they call Project Plie. Misty Copeland is an advisor for Project Plie. She's also an award-winning ballerina and soloist with the American Ballet Theatre. And Rachel Moore is the CEO of ABT. They both join me now. Welcome.

RACHEL MOORE: Hello.

MISTY COPELAND: Hi.

HEADLEE: So, Rachel Moore, how exactly does Project Plie aim to bring in more dancers of color?

MOORE: Well, the goal is to diversify America's ballet companies through broadening the pipeline to the companies by training dancers of color who are extremely talented around the country and broadening the number of potential dancers so that when auditions happen for companies, there's a greater number of competitive dancers for the field.

HEADLEE: Let me bring this to you, Misty. You yourself didn't start dancing until age 13. That seems young to everybody else, but not for a dancer. Obviously, you have insight into why people in diverse communities aren't thinking of ballet or classical dance as a career field or as - even as a hobby.

COPELAND: I think it's difficult for a young dancer to want to venture into something where they feel like they don't belong or they don't see themselves. And that was an issue for me. I think once I became a professional that I realized I was by myself as the only black woman in the court of ballet for about 10 years. So I think that just being out there and having the opportunity to speak to younger dancers and to speak to young children who are in underprivileged communities and to hear them say, seeing you gives me hope. Or even if they don't really know it and it's just in their subconscious that they have a connection by seeing someone who looks similar to them, will hopefully make them feel like they can be a part of it.

HEADLEE: How bad is this problem, Misty? I mean, I go to classical ballet. This is something I'm very much aware of, but for those who aren't, how rare are brown and black ballerinas?

COPELAND: They're extremely rare when you go into the more elite companies and the top tiers at The Royal Ballet, Paris Opera, Bolshoi, New York City Ballet. It's harder when you get to those top levels to see dancers of color. And again, as Rachel was saying, if you don't have a large number to choose from, the chances of one being selected are, you know, even lower. So, you know, again, we have to start at the bottom, and that's so much of what this initiative is going to do.

We have to get them from an early age so they have the strong training from the beginning to then be weeded out from there, instead of having one dancer who's phenomenal that we hope makes it into one of those companies.

HEADLEE: Rachel, I hope maybe I can put to you questions that other dancers have posed, and maybe you could answer them for me. For example, a few dancers have said that there's simply a traditionalist resistance to dancers of color, i.e. that those who support ballet are used to seeing the pale, white dancers dancing "Giselle" or dancing "Swan Lake" and they don't want change. Is that true?

MOORE: I think that there was a history of that. I think that the world is changing, and I think that when you look at, for instance, legitimate theater, they have been highly successful at colorblind casting. And over and over again when I talk to people in the arts, performing arts, they say, it's the artist that the audience relates to, not the color of their skin. So if an artist is really compelling on stage, the other stuff doesn't matter. It's about their ability to connect with the audience and allow them to see the world in a different way through the art.

HEADLEE: And yet, Misty, as we've been discussing, it is very rare for someone to get a job with one of the leading companies if you are a dancer of color. Even Latinos have a difficult time if their skin is darker. I read in your biography that you did a nutcracker, but it was the black version of "The Nutcracker," right? And Alvin Ailey hires many dances of colors, but that's a separate troupe. So what are the chances? When you speak to young dancers, isn't there a certain reality here that, as competitive as it is for ballerinas, it's even more so if you have darker skin?

COPELAND: Right. I mean, this is something that I've been fighting to kind of get across to not just these young minority dancers, but to their parents - that it has to start somewhere. And even if I don't see it in my lifetime, having put in the effort is all I can do and share with other people that we can't just sit back and complain about it, but we all have to bring forth an effort for there to be change, and we have to start from the bottom if that's what it takes. And, you know, even being a dancer of color in a company - it still is a big leap, I think, to get that leading part for them to then see you as just an artist, as an audience member - but to take that leap to actually get the role of Giselle or Odette-Odile in "Swan Lake," I think is still a bit of a hurdle. And I don't know what - I don't know if it's just because it hasn't been done, and, you know, we're waiting for it to happen, for it to kind of break that ice. My hopes are that once the opportunity is given, then the audience will see the person for the artist they are and not the color of their skin.

HEADLEE: And I wonder what kind of conversations you have with younger people. There is a perception, especially among young people, that classical ballet is not part of the African-American tradition.

COPELAND: I disagree with it. You know, I think that it's just that most African-Americans don't really know the history or the heritage of them in classical ballet. And there have been African-Americans a part of classical ballet from the beginning. I think it's just that they aren't exposed to it, and they don't have the knowledge to know that we are very much a part of it, and we do belong.

I think it just takes them seeing it and hearing it and learning more. And that's so much a part of what I think my path is, is to bring along the history of other African-Americans that have come before me who many don't know, who have broken barriers before me. I'm not the first, but I'm happy to have a voice and to share my experiences and struggles and bring them all along with me. But we do have a history in classical ballet.

HEADLEE: Rachel, I read a comment that you made in which you mentioned the changing demographics of the country and said that if the American Ballet Theatre doesn't reflect the diversity of the country, you'll be obsolete. I wonder what represents success for you with Project Plie. Would you want to see a company which quite literally in its proportions reflects the demographics of the United States?

MOORE: I think that would be terrific. An American ballet company should look like America, and there's no reason why it couldn't look like America.

HEADLEE: That's Rachel Moore, CEO of the American Ballet Theatre, and Misty Copeland, a soloist with the ABT and an advisor to ABT's Project Plie. They both joined us from our bureau in New York. Thanks to both of you, and good luck.

MOORE: Thank you.

COPELAND: Thank you.

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