Woke ballet at Princeton, Part One

Perhaps I should have called this post “Why ballet at Princeton?” A document sent by the leaders of the Princeton University Ballet (PUB), the student-run ballet club, seems to argue by implication for ditching ballet altogether.

The document begins:

Ballet is rooted in white supremacy and perfectionism. We are all entering this space with a mindset that what we see as perfect is a white standard. Unlearning that will be difficult but rewarding. Before we begin detailing our action plan, we want to acknowledge that our leadership and those who composed this plan are all white.

The last sentence comes as no surprise. Could black students have written anything this ridiculous? Other than as a parody of the white left, I mean.

The All Whites continue:

Firstly we would like to add land acknowledgement to our shows, in addition to historical context in our programs. We rarely shed light on the problematic history of our art form, and want to bring it to the forefront of our performances.

We aim to decolonize our practice of ballet, even as ballet remains an imperialist, colonialist, and white supremacist art form. We realize our distinct freedoms as a college run dance group, which is that we do not report back to any sort of board or funding programs that would restrict our choices. In selecting new members and cultivating our style, we want to centralize artistry instead of technique, in the hopes of maintaining our core purpose as a ballet company but doing away with some of the stringent and exclusive standards that pervade the art form. As this is particularly important during auditions, we will be prefacing audition discussions with a frank recognition and repudiation of our own biases.

The All Whites must believe that, like ballet, competent, fully intelligible writing is rooted in white supremacy and perfectionism. Have they “unlearned” such writing at Princeton or did they not learn it in the first place?

The document rambles on in mind numbing, nearly unreadable fashion. For example:

We would also like to open a conversation about body image and take steps to heal and deconstruct the harmful and racialized ideas about body image that many of PUB’s members enter the company with just by virtue of being a ballet dancer. Historically, PUB has been neutral on this issue, and while body neutrality is something some may strive for individually, it is not realistic or helpful for a group of ballet dancers who have internalized damaging ideas about how they should eat and what they should look like. We are hoping to bring someone in from outside the company to train the officers or the company as a whole on how to talk about body image and how to create an environment where we feel comfortable talking about our struggles with body image while also helping to deconstruct our assumptions about it.

Wouldn’t it better just to call the whole thing off?

The Princeton University Ballet will call it off for potential members who are insufficiently woke and insufficiently activist. As incoherent as the document is at times, it leaves no doubt as to that point:

We hope to take steps to ensure that PUB membership, not just leadership, requires a commitment to EDI [equity, diversity, and inclusion] work. As such, we have decided that participation in service and outreach to local communities will become a requirement of every company member. We partner with an organization that members can sign up to volunteer with, but there are numerous other opportunities for dance service on campus. Even though we cannot change some of the biases and prejudices that exist in ballet off campus, we can dedicate ourselves to combating that exclusivity in our local communities and for the next generation.

(Emphasis added)

Princeton students should be able to participate in a Princeton ballet company without having, in addition, to commit themselves to “EDI work” or to volunteer for community service of any kind. Can an organization sponsored by a university exclude students from participation because they are unwilling to engage in activism — in this case promoting EDI and combating “biases, prejudices, and exclusivity” in local communities?

This question leads to the issue of where Princeton stands on wokeness in on-campus performing arts. I will take up that question in Part Two of this series.

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