First published on Ballet.co
The founding last month of Ballet Black in England, has to led the following thoughts about classical ballet in France and the colour bar.
Think about the things that you feel very strongly about. You will no doubt observe that you do not feel equally strongly about all. There is a hierarchy. For example, although you may be one of the country’s great chocoholics, you will perhaps be able to see chocolate for what it is, a minor addiction, rather than as a profound matter for debate.
When one feels strongly about something, one wants to learn as much about it as one can, the better to defend it. And one wants to express that to others, to involve others, especially those who perhaps knew nothing of your interest before. Is it not exciting to see a friend or acquaintance, who thought ballet was rubbish, discover a whole new art form ?
My point is that when one is dedicated to something, the more one loves it, the more one wishes to share it with others. I think that we are all agreed, that outside Russia, in the Western world generally, ballet is no longer of the remotest interest to the population. It has become a pastime for a narrow circle within the educated elite.
It is therefore among the threatened species. Who will stand up and fight for something they know nothing about ? Who will insist with Governments for the funding, the facilities ? And who will give the artists the sense that they are doing something worthwhile?
In a review of a visit to the Paris Opera Ballet some months back, Ann Williams wrote on this Website that there was something "curiously lacking" at all the performances, something she could not quite put her finger on. That curious lack, as I see it, is that the artists are dancing in a vacuum. They are dancing for the State, for the Authorities, for the Opera Management, for Brigitte Lefèvre, and for their professors. Woe betide him, who makes a mistake ! With rare exceptions, there is a yawning gulf between the public, and the performers.
According to the Opera’s own statistics, out of a country of sixty million people, rather less than three thousand regularly attend performances of the ballet and opera combined. The French word for a theatrical performance is a "spectacle": a thing you look at, not something you do. Sets, costumes, lovely women...
One cannot "tiptoe round" that ice-cold, police-agent character of French official culture: the only viable option is to change it in a fundamental way. A flanking manoeuvre is required. What I mean is this.
France is the Brazil of Europe. The first thing that strikes a visitor to Paris is the exuberant racial mix he encounters on the streets. He will not know that most of the Africans and North Africans he sees live, or rather vegetate, when they are not working at sub-standard wages, either in Ghettos like the Goutte d’Or, or in what are, quite literally, Bantustans. Built in the 1970s over an hour’s train journey from the centre of every major town, the Bantustans are fetid tower blocks that the French call "rabbit hutches". Before they were put up, the living conditions of immigrants often resembled those in a concentration camp. I would suggest that readers who doubt that, see a 1997 documentary film entitled by Yamina Benguigui, entitled Mémoire d’Immigrés.
France is a country of Apartheid. Individuals born in Africa or North Africa, whose parents or grandparents were, or who profess the Muslim faith, are not considered to be truly French. They "cannot be trusted". But, if we are to go by the latest statistics provided by La Documentation française, roughly eight percent of the population officially profess the Muslim faith in France, i.e. something like 4.2 million, out of a total population of sixty million. Religion aside, individuals of African and North African origin or of so-called "mixed" race, represent, at this point, well over ten percent of the population overall, and probably more like fifteen percent, although here, no precise statistics are available.
Open the thousand-strong binding of the Bottin Administratif, the Year Book of France’s mandarins. Flick to the Foreign Ministry, the Defence Ministry, the Culture Ministry, at cabinet level, at Directorate level. Try to find a Muslim name, an Arab-sounding name, or an African name. Do keep trying.
In the 18-to-25 age cohort, even officialdom would admit that roughly half the youth of North African and African origin is, de facto, unemployed, unless one calls delivering an occasional pizza, or unloading an occasional piece of furniture, a proper job. In France’s Bantustans, just as in South Africa, dealing in dope and weapons has become the sole avenue of advancement. Apart from the "shoot’em on sight" law-and-order crowd, the dominant attitude amongst the Mandarins is that of Mitterrand’s protégé Jacques Lang, formerly Culture, now Education Minister. In the 1980’s, Lang set up Graffiti Ateliers (sic) in the Bantustans. These are the people who have been throwing money hand over fist at Modern Dance, and are now promoting Hip Hop and Break Dance Studios for the "darkies" in the Bantustans.
What Martin Luther King, or Malcolm X would have had to say about Jack Lang and his "let’em eat the dregs of culture" Minstrel Show might not have been suitable for a family audience. What this country needs, is a civil rights movement, and we are not about to get one. That is where the responsibility of us so-called "intellectuals" comes in. Can we not at least act in those areas where we have some influence, if not power ?
Have you ever seen anyone break out crying over Hip Hop, or Break Dance ? I think not, whereas people continue to dedicate their lives to improving their own, and others, technique in classical ballet. They dream about it at night. They spend all their waking hours trying to solve a certain technical, or artistic difficulty. They worry over certain roles for decades, long after they can no longer dance those roles themselves. They move others to tears, even at the remembrance of their inspirational leadership. Why should so many be deprived of what we, the privileged, feel so strongly about ?
Personally, I think it a terrible thing that in a great country like the United States, Arthur Mitchell had no option but to go off and create the Dance Theatre of Harlem, because, de facto, there was no work for the less-than-white among us, no matter what the law says.
Take the Paris Opera School, one area that surely, it would be easy to change ? Is the proportion of North African and African immigrants’ sons in the Paris Opera School and Theatre 10% ? Is it 7% ? Or 5% Or 3, or even 0.5% ? The question begs the answer. Which is no, no, and no.
The Opera School today draws from a narrow recruiting base indeed. (I might add that at the time of writing, there is but one dancer of North African, actually Berber origin, in the POB, the étoile Kader Belarbi). It takes about ninety minutes to get from the nearest Bantustan to the Opéra Garnier. And ninety minutes to return. Psychologically, the Opéra is more remote than the moon. Even on the off-chance a parent out there might have heard of the Ballet, or of the School, the idea of sending a child from the Bantustans to audition for Claude Bessy is more frightening than having him join the space programme.
For a child to engage in such an arduous career, classical ballet must have appeared at some point to someone in his family, as an ideal, otherwise the parents will not make the effort to get him to class, buy him the gear, and so forth. The conditions under which those adults work - to the extent they do have work – leave them with neither the money, nor the free energy. Although well-meaning, the programmes proposed by the Association de Rayonnement de l’Opéra, or by the Opéra’s own limited equivalent of the Royal Ballet’s "Chance to Dance" scheme, cannot really succeed unless the School’s recruitment policy be radically changed.
Claude Bessy is about to retire, some would say, none too soon. My own feeling about her 25-year reign is that, with few exceptions, the result has been armies of Little Goodie Two-Shoes on stage. Skilful, yes indeedie, but otherwise in the infant Judy Garland mould. Dare one hope that her successor, who is I believe, Elisabeth Platel, will see it as a matter of her own personal responsibility to make the Opera School represent the country’s racial composition, and to create an environment that will stimulate the imagination and creativity of very different children, including those from the most depressed backgrounds ?
The Opera School, which before the War had been seen by the working classes as a means of social advancement, has in recent decades become, like the Ecole Nationale d’Administration and the Ecole Polytechnique, a plush, intensely-boring club for the Happy Few.
Although the School is actually a State-run institution, and tuition is free, keeping up with one’s upper-middle class peers is not. Extra private lessons, a wide-spread practice, are anything but free. And the boarding school closes down every weekend. This means that every student must have lodgings in Paris for the weekend, or he cannot join the school. That, for purely financial reasons, straightaway excludes most of the population. Transplanting one or two impossibly beautiful and gifted African gazelles will not suffice, as the Little Lord Faunt Le Roys will ride roughshod over them.
I see it as a mission for the School’s new Director to go into the ghettos, recruiting "unusual" children and youths into the school. Lord and Lady Faunt Le Roy will be revolted by such a policy. They will be in a lather about theft from the rooms, fell diseases, and, most especially, making friends one cannot invite to Normandy for the weekend. They may have to pull Anne-Camille and Aurélien-André out, and pack them off to study elsewhere, who knows, perhaps to England...
Is it all worth the effort ? If you think classical ballet has a future, yes.
First published on Ballet.co