Though Oregon Ballet Theatre has a strong legacy of diversity, the art form of classical ballet has historically lacked racial and ethnic differences in its ranks. OBT company dancer Brian Bennett shares his experiences and ideas for the future with Artslandia readers.

Company dancer Brian Bennett gracefully communes with nature in the courtyard of The Hotel Zags. Photo by Jennifer Alyse.

WHEN I WAS A KID, there was no cultural precedent in classical ballet when it came to the black community. My family, peer groups, and neighbors didn’t do ballet. Back then, it was normal for white six-year-olds to start dance or piano classes, but most people’s preconceived notion was that their kids would play a sport. I found my love for dance when I was young, exploring jazz, tap, and hip-hop and was attracted to ballet initially because of the freedom it gave me to express emotions and ideas with my body.

As a person of color, the ideas explored in classical ballet can feel foreign. All of our cultural ancestors stressed the importance of the arts. Still, given the time and place that many of the classics emerged, people of color weren’t involved in influencing the narrative of classical ballet. Though there are parallels in the plot lines to folklore in a variety of cultures, it was hard to find myself and the ideals I learned growing up as a black male reflected onstage. There was a disconnect from black culture.

I started my ballet training in high school at Baltimore School for the Arts. It was incredibly diverse, and having all those cultures represented in the halls was inspiring and comforting. So many different people were working toward the same goal of creating art. The kids there made the most of what they had, persevered when they weren’t expected to. I still stay in contact. My peers are doing things we always imagined — that we weren’t expected to succeed pushed so many of us to strive. I enjoy watching them grow and celebrating their success. It gives me hope.

When I first began training in ballet, I wasn’t making a statement, but I felt a sense of pride in sticking out. I wanted to do my part to break the stigma of being “other.” It was hard to immerse myself into the ballet culture and etiquette. It was challenging to adapt and communicate, surrounded by cultures that were different from my own. It’s easy to be open about exploring your own cultural influences when you’re around people who are similar to you, but it’s a bit harder to do it with confidence when no one fully understands where you come from. For example, I find a ton of influence from soul, funk, and hip-hop. Even now, sometimes, using those influences as reference points to relate to the work I do in the ballet studio seems like it is out of place, but it is not. This was and is sometimes still discouraging. On the bright side, I’ve learned that the dilemma of finding mutual understanding isn’t limited to my experience, and dancers can always fall back on the love of dance to communicate through differences.

The ballet world became less diverse as I got deeper into the profession, but always being one of three people of color in the room eventually desensitized me from feeling alone. It’s a great opportunity to add influences into the melting pot of references that make ballet so great. It gave me the confidence to be myself even when I wasn’t around people like me. Along the way, I discovered that there were actually many opportunities for people of color to train in ballet. Still, though the training is available, it’s hard for kids to take advantage of it because of the lack of exposure in the community.

Brian Bennett in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®.
Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

When I chose to pursue a career in ballet, I was skeptical about how far I could go within it, which in turn made me doubt whether I’d made the right decision. Initially, my choice of Oregon Ballet Theatre made me feel like I was going against what was expected of me — to join Alvin Ailey, Dance Theatre of Harlem (which is a fantastic ballet company), or one of the other companies that hire primarily black dancers. In the end, though, I’m happy with my decision — OBT has an extremely versatile repertoire and a solid outreach program. Organizations are trying to broaden the cultural spectrum in some way or another. Not all black people are economically challenged, so discounted tickets aren’t necessarily the best way to convince audiences to attend the ballet or to draw kids to study dance.

Community engagement and outreach programs solve the exposure problem and inspire children, so that’s how OBT reaches out to diverse communities.

My company’s efforts have reached more than 35,000 kids, parents, and providers in the greater Portland area. Teaching in Schools, the student series, allows children interested in ballet to see their peers create art onstage. OBT brings in so many kids of all cultures to the studios twice a week where they can learn about ballet, see and experience it themselves.

But there is still room to improve. I’ve come to see that we should be careful about segregating the art form just because it’s still more common for white people. As a society, we place a great deal of pressure on cultural relevance. In my mind, classical ballet is relevant to people of color because we appreciate and value the art and the magic of dance on a stage. It provides an escape from reality and inspires bodies of all shapes and sizes. Ballet is just as relevant to people of color as the Mona Lisa. I want to go against the stereotype that puts ballet on an untouchable pedestal for people of color. I want people to understand that ballet is an art of the people for the people. You don’t have to be a certain type to practice, understand, or enjoy it. Even in classical ballet, there are opportunities to show your own personality through your work. I need to be a role model in that way.

The ballet world has to change and adapt, too. Music has evolved; talent has evolved; attention spans have altered. It doesn’t have to be the historically black organizations inspiring people of color. Local companies do their part to inspire and create new art every week. They could expand their repertoire to be more relevant to their audiences, especially to young people of color.

Discussions with the communities surrounding a ballet company would help people to understand the art, what it does for the dancers and audiences, and how it’s an invaluable resource on the same level as the programs like the Boys & Girls Club. They need to see themselves reflected onstage to imagine themselves telling stories with their bodies. Community demonstrations for older kids could highlight the athletics of ballet, the strength it requires.

I look forward to change, to seeing every shade reflected onstage. Those who feel the same should take the initiative to figure out what local organizations are doing to break barriers to access for all and support them.

Oregon Ballet Presents The Sleeping Beauty February 15 – 23, 2020

The expansive, nature-filled courtyard at The Hotel Zags contains the living wall shown in the above photo, elegant lounge areas, and cozy firepits for the ultimate urban escape. Guests who like to mix in a little adventure with their chill will love the Gear Shed’s vast array of loaner bikes, boards, outdoor equipment, lawn games, and cameras. For the indoorsy types, the selection of recreational equipment includes Wii, Xbox, and Nintendo gaming consoles. It’s a little slice of heaven in Downtown Portland.