By marrying hip-hop with classical ballet techniques, choreographer Homer Hans Bryant is reinvigorating the classical style while challenging ballet’s lack of diversity
Fuck Tchaikovsky, Profokiev and any pre-determined ideas you had of ballet. A Facebook video dubbed to a Jason Derulo track that has since received 34 million views across social media has reinvigorated one of the West’s most favourable, oldest and problematic forms of dance by integrating hip-hop into classical ballet and vice versa to create, what the founders call, ‘hiplet’.
‘Hiplet’ (pronounced “hip-lay”) takes traditional disciplines of ballet and marries them to modern forms of dance with extenuated hip movements and less rigid arm postures. This new wave of ballet is the creation of famed choreographer Homer Hans Bryant (who has worked with the likes of Lady Gaga and Barack Obama’s children) as a continuation with his 90s efforts of rap ballet. Students wanting to practice the form must take four to five classical ballet classes each week along with pointe technique classes. ‘Hiplet’ not only celebrates the innovation of modern dance, but allows boys and girls of colour to celebrate their culture and identity in a highbrow manner. The sensational videos of dancers of colour strutting en pointe to R&B music has sparked controversy within the ballet community, highlighting the fact that it’s an artform with some issues.
Balllet’s lack of diversity has been largely brushed under the carpet (although not entirely) but ballet still finds itself coming up against the same old problems. Directors and audiences seem to see Giselles as pale and ghost-like, swans as white and ‘innocent’, Coppelias as cherished white dolls and copious princesses just as Caucasian as their 18th-century creators. Elderly donors who keep many a ballet company afloat appear to have a Eurocentric favour when it comes to castings.
Current artist of the English National Ballet Precious Adams was told to bleach her skin when training at the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy. Of the fifteen principals within the Royal Ballet, the only dancer of colour is Cuban guest principal Carlos Acosta. Again, only one dancer in the same company’s First Artists is of colour. Of Soloists? Only three of twenty. In the company of over 100 dancers? Under a dozen.
This is why Homer’s dance is so integral to ballet’s future generations. Making a form of dance accessible allows more young of colour dancers the opportunity to get themselves into yet another industry that still does not favour them and changes the foreground of ballet for future audiences.
It goes far deeper than the stage, with many dancers of colour having to paint his or her pointe and ballet shoes to match their skin tones. Again, white seems to be the default, and, as black dancers dust themselves into white swans and wear “nude” pink tights on stage, ballet companies are enforcing the ideology that black people seemingly do not belong within their world.
And how can dancers of colour integrate themselves in an art form that offensively caricatures race and creed? Act II of The Nutcracker is a series of white men painted yellow or in black face, playing over the top roles that mock African and Asian cultures.
In conversation with creator of ‘hiplet’, Homer Bryant tells Dazed that “the sad truth is that there are still so little classical dancers of colour because many Artistic Directors of traditional ballet companies are mentally stuck in the past, and are blinded by the "white".
“If a dancer of colour is disciplined enough to put in the work, looks the part, and is very good at her craft, she should be given the same opportunity to do what she loves. However for many companies, looking the part still equates to ‘white’ or ‘fair’”.
“We are very carefully looking at various options that would serve our mission to empower children’s lives through the discipline of dance,” the ‘hiplet’ creator continues, alluding to his work at CMDC. “After the original video went viral we've had several outlets repost it, and now there have been over 34 million total views so far. We have appeared on multiple TV news programs in the US and been inundated with calls from all over the globe for performances.”
“We are very carefully looking at various options that would serve our mission to empower children’s lives through the discipline of dance” – Homer Bryant
Homer’s Chicago Multicultural Dance Centre follows the footsteps of where he trained Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) and companies like Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre (AADT), that celebrate dancers of colour and offer them sanctuaries of fair casting. Homer stays relevant to what kids are doing on the streets and marries it to the strength of his dancers to form the dance empire he now has.
Homer tells us: “Thanks to DTH, there are now thousands of children of colour that can go to a performance and see not one, but many, many dancers of colour who look like them. These children will say, ‘They look like me, I too can follow my dreams’. There is a lot to be said about the role of innovation in the evolution of ballet. We must allow the art form to stay alive and relevant to our current audiences... This is what I do.”
Setting example over here in England are Birmingham Royal Ballet, who in 2012, cast Trinidad born Céline Gittens as the first black Odile/Odette in the UK. Since then, the company has heralded multiple dancers of colour. Similarly, in 2001 British-Trinidadian Cassa Pancho MBE founded Ballet Black in order to provide role models to young, aspiring black and Asian dancers. A year later, she opened the Ballet Black Junior School in Shepherd’s Bush and in 2004, began the BB Associate Programme, which currently has over four hundred members.
No doubt, music has changed colossally since the 17th and 18th century, but classical ballet seemingly has not. Though it is important to celebrate the heritage of ballet, the techniques, disciplines and existing choreographies, dance must adapt for new audiences to stay alive, relevant and of interest. Though hiplet is still in its embryonic stages, there is no doubt that this innovation is changing the landscape of not only what ballet means, but what it means to be a ballet dancer.