Last October, the American consultant Theresa Ruth Howard held intensive talks with the directors of both Dutch National Ballet and the Dutch National Ballet Academy. Howard danced with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and Armitage Gone! Dance, worked as a teacher, choreographer and dance journalist, and currently lends support as a Diversity Strategist to dance and other arts institutes in actively implementing diversity and inclusivity policies. In the coming period, Howard will be advising Dutch National Ballet and the Dutch National Ballet Academy on these matters.
“Classical ballet is a world of stereotypes and prejudices”, says Theresa Ruth Howard on the phone from the United States. “And we’re not just talking about racial stereotypes and physical aesthetics, but also how we train dancers, for example, and how women are usually portrayed in classical ballet”.
If a ballet company aims to reach a culturally diverse audience and wants its ranks to more or less reflect the society within which it operates, then people’s perspectives need to be changed, says Howard. “You have to turn around their hearts and minds”. Howard – who is fully informed about the ‘zwarte piet’ discussion – has a clear opinion on the matter. “The Netherlands, too, has to deal with racial issues. Just like the US, of course, but the situations in the two countries are very different. You could say that we’re both in the same river, but have to deal with different fish”, says the American, who clearly enjoys metaphors.
Starting with the basics
In February 2017 and February 2019, Howard was one of the keynote speakers at the international ballet conference Positioning Ballet, organised by Dutch National Ballet every two years. This led to a close relationship with artistic director Ted Brandsen and then with the artistic director of the Dutch National Ballet Academy, Ernst Meisner. “If you want to bring about change, you have start with the basics. I had long talks with Ernst and Ted about their relationship with the population groups they want to reach, and about the best way to reach them. It’s really important that you’re genuinely interested in learning, collaborating and being open to what these people, who are often from different cultural backgrounds, have to offer. You’ll be surprised – as the Dutch National Ballet Academy has already experienced – at the talent you can discover off the ‘beaten track’. But even if that’s not immediately the case, building up the relationship is still crucial, if only for reaching new audiences”.
Howard says she’s often asked whether ‘the white ballet world’ is actually serious about aiming towards greater diversity and inclusivity. “Often, people still think that companies and academies are only interested in ‘politically correct behaviour’. But in my conversations with Ted and Ernst, I really sensed a deep commitment, and a sincere wish to learn and to bring about change. These changes can’t be made overnight; they take a long time. But if you never get started and don’t devote your full energy to it, then nothing will ever happen”.
The talks with Dutch National Ballet and the Dutch National Ballet Academy will certainly continue, says Howard. “We still have to see in what form exactly, but hopefully I’ll be able to give guidance and inspiration to those working for change in both organisations in the coming years”.