Arts & Culture

Pioneering dancer proves her point(e)

Carolina Ballet ballet master Debra Austin, center, watches her class for form and movement while teaching a five week summer intensive class of ballet students Friday, July 8, 2016 at the Carolina Ballet's Altlantic Avenue, Raleigh studios. Austin was the first African-American female to dance as a prinicipal for a major ballet company. Now retired, Austin, 60, has been the ballet master for the Carolina Ballet for the past 18 years.
Carolina Ballet ballet master Debra Austin, center, watches her class for form and movement while teaching a five week summer intensive class of ballet students Friday, July 8, 2016 at the Carolina Ballet's Altlantic Avenue, Raleigh studios. Austin was the first African-American female to dance as a prinicipal for a major ballet company. Now retired, Austin, 60, has been the ballet master for the Carolina Ballet for the past 18 years. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Debra Austin of the Carolina Ballet was the first African-American woman to become a principal dancer with a major American ballet company, but it won’t be her beribboned slippers on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opens in Washington, D.C., in September.

Instead, the museum has the pointe shoes of Lauren Anderson, who became a principal dancer for the Houston Ballet eight years after Austin achieved the title at the Pennsylvania Ballet.

The story of how Anderson’s shoes are getting the spotlight – and why, for a while, the museum thought Anderson held claim to Austin’s distinction – is proof of the tenacity of an error once it hits the internet, and an indicator of how hard it can be for African-Americans to have their history accurately told.

It’s important, one dance historian and former ballerina with the Dance Theatre of Harlem says, “Because African-American history is American history.”

The mix-up came to Austin’s attention last week, when she saw social media posts celebrating the museum’s acquisition of Anderson’s shoes and calling Anderson the first black principal ballerina for a major U.S. company.

The problem was, “It’s just not true,” said Austin, now 60. “And you can’t just erase history.”

Black dancers first joined American ballet companies in the 1950s, even though many patrons believed African-Americans were not “suited” for such dance because they appeared “too strong” for the delicate image of ballet, and because their skin color made them stand out among the otherwise white dance corps. Some black troupe members of that era have said they were asked to dust themselves with white powder to help them blend in. Audiences were sometimes hostile.

Things were a little better in the early ’60s, when Austin began dancing at age 8. She won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet in New York at 12. At 16, she was handpicked by George Balanchine to join the New York City Ballet and at 19 became its first African-American female dancer. She left New York to dance in the Zurich Ballet in Switzerland.

She returned to the U.S. and, in 1982, was hired by Robert “Ricky” Weiss, then artistic director of the Pennsylvania Ballet, to be a principal dancer for the company, a designated position with higher pay and more responsibility than dancing principal roles in certain productions. She danced in “Swan Lake,” “Coppélia,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Giselle.” A 1985 New York Times review of her sylph in “La Sylphide” said Austin was “delightfully buoyant, wreathed in a special radiance.”

She retired in 1990. In 1997, Weiss founded the Carolina Ballet in Raleigh. He hired Austin as a ballet master for the company.

The same year Austin retired as a dancer, Lauren Anderson was promoted at the Houston Ballet, becoming that company’s first African-American female principal. She had joined the company in 1983, and danced there until she retired in 2006. Since 2007, she has been in the Houston Ballet’s education department, teaching classes at its Ben Stevenson Academy and at area schools. She is now 51.

In May 2007, in a story about the still remarkable lack of diversity in American ballet, The New York Times incorrectly described Anderson as “the first – and until recently, only – black woman promoted to the rank of principal at a major American company.” The story makes no mention of Austin.

In October 2007, Anderson was interviewed for an oral history project about her life as a ballerina. In a transcript of the interview available through the Houston Public Library Digital Archives, the interviewer asks Anderson, “So, you were the first principal for a major ballet company?”

Anderson answers, “No. I was the first principal dancer in the Houston Ballet.”

The interviewer asks, “The first African-American female principal dancer in the Houston Ballet?” and Anderson says, “That is what I was.”

But the archives’ summary of the 70-minute recording misstates Anderson’s role, first describing her correctly as a principal dancer for the Houston Ballet but adding that she was the first African-American to hold such a position in a major company.

History not preserved

Once the error was out there, it took on a life. It was repeated by Houston media and in dance and black-history forums online. It showed up again this year, in February, when a writer for Independent Television Service posted a followup to a documentary public television had aired, “A Ballerina’s Tale,” about Misty Copeland, who in 2015 became the first African-American principal female dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. In the piece, writer Craig Phillips offered short profiles of six other groundbreaking African-American dancers throughout history, including Anderson. He did not mention Austin.

“You have to understand the landscape,” starting with the amorphous definition of a “major” ballet company, said Theresa Ruth Howard of New York, a former ballerina with the Dance Theatre of Harlem who has written about the field for Dance Magazine and other publications.

In different time periods and in different people’s judgment, ballet companies might be measured by the number of dancers they have, the dollar amount of their endowment, the type of works they perform, the elaborateness of their sets and costumes, the amount of touring they can do, the size audience they command.

“Some people might say that the Pennsylvania Ballet was not a major company,” Howard said, though under Weiss, it was generally regarded as a sister of the New York City Ballet. Others, Howard said, might say that the Houston Ballet was not a major company at that time.

The history of black dancers – like the history of black craftsmen in early America, or of black musicians, athletes, intellectuals and those skilled in myriad other fields – was not recorded and preserved in the same way as their white counterparts’. Even now, she says, writers looking back at the history of dance often ignore the work of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, launched in 1969 to give children in Harlem a chance to participate in the art.

“A whole canon is being erased,” said Howard, who has launched an online project, MOBBallet.org, to document the history of black dancers.

Though YouTube has a couple of videos of Austin on stage with the Pennsylvania Ballet, most of her dance career predated the internet. Described by acquaintances as humble, Austin has no Wikipedia page in her own name. Austin doesn’t even appear in most results of a Google search on black ballerinas.

Setting the record straight

Occasionally, she has sought to set the record straight about her accomplishments, calling a TV station here, a newspaper there, when another dancer was mistakenly credited with one of Austin’s firsts.

She wasn’t sure whom to call first last week when a post appeared in her Facebook feed of a July 4 clip from a Texas TV news broadcast claiming, again, that Anderson had been the first black female principal of a major U.S. ballet company and that her pointe shoes would be displayed in the new museum.

Timothy Anne Burnside, a curatorial specialist for the National Museum of African American History and Culture who traveled to Houston to get the shoes and other memorabilia from Anderson, had announced the acquisition on Twitter in March. Anderson re-tweeted the posts on her own Twitter account, along with a poster from blackhistoryminidocs.com that called Anderson “The first female African American principal dancer in the U.S.”

A spokeswoman for the Houston Ballet said Anderson would not be available to discuss the matter. Katy Kendrick, an exhibitions curator at the museum, said Burnside is busy working on an installation in the museum and would have limited access to email and phone calls. Burnside did not immediately respond to an interview request.

Kendrick said Anderson’s shoes would be part of “Taking the Stage,” one of 12 permanent exhibits that will be in place when the museum opens to the public on Sept. 24. This exhibit will focus on African-American performances and creativity in the fields of theater, film and television, Kendrick said.

Kendrick said the museum had asked Anderson for her shoes.

She said they would be displayed in the context of Anderson’s status within the Houston Ballet, without the claim that Anderson had been the first black female principal at a major U.S. ballet company, because, Kendrick said, the museum now knows “that is not accurate.”

Sherri Holmes, founder of the Triangle Friends of African American Arts, which organizes events to raise awareness of African and African-American arts and to support art programming and collecting, has tried to publicize Austin’s overlooked role in ballet.

“Just to be a principal dancer, that’s an accomplishment,” Holmes said. “A small percentage of people in this country ever become a principal in a ballet company. But to have that accomplishment and be African-American is significant. You had to deal with all kinds of pressure, so many hurdles that the average person did not. And she did it all with such grace.

“That’s a part of our history. Not just for African-Americans, but for who we are as a country.”

For now, the new museum has paused its artifact-collection efforts as it gets ready to open. If it wants to expand its collection of ballet slippers later, there is a pair of Austin’s pointe shoes in a shadow box hanging on a friend’s wall in Florida.

“I think, for me, she would donate them,” Austin said.

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin

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