Ballet is and always will be a hard and demanding profession. To become a professional dancer requires talent, determination and sometimes sheer bloody-mindedness not to be beaten. But Julie Felix, born in Ealing, West London in 1956, faced another problem for someone wanting a career in ballet: she was black.
In Brickbats and Tutus, John Plimmer tells Felix’s story from Joyce Butler’s School of Dance, through her first professional engagement in Mother Goose at the Theatre Royal Bath and training at Rambert, to ten successful years with the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Although Plimmer tells the story of a dancer, Brickbats and Tutus is only in part a book about dance. Felix’s absorbing story is as important and as interesting for the light it sheds on attitudes towards race in the Britain of the 1960s and America of the 1970s. It’s a tale laced liberally with prejudice and rejection. The pain of Felix’s circumstance comes through again and again, but even as a child she comes over as the strong determined individual that those who have met her will recognise.
Early chapters detail her difficult upbringing in West London and how she quickly came to realise she was different. The opening pages are littered with incidents including bullying at school and wondering why friends who said they were coming round to play never showed up. When her mother explains how much hard work it would need to be a ballet dancer, she adds, “Probably in your case, harder work than most people.” Young Julie asks, “Because I’m black?”
There are constant setbacks, with people sometimes quite honest about the race issue. When she was rejected by The Royal Ballet School ostensibly because of her age, one member of staff confided in her that, actually, colour was the problem. Her dreams of a contract with London Festival Ballet, having appeared in Nureyev’s Sleeping Beauty, were dashed when she was told that Beryl Grey believed that, “If they are white swans, they all have to be white swans.” She wasn’t talking about the costumes. It would have been easy to throw up her hands and give up, but that is not the Julie Felix way and her determination not to be beaten shines through again and again.
It was at the Rambert School where one senses that Felix was first truly treated as an equal. Her affection for that time in her life shines through, as does the respect she had for Wendy Ellis in particular.
Another high point comes when Felix accepts a contract at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. But, as she soon finds out, that was to be only a partial escape from problems. The company, you sense, was a haven, but outside she survives several potentially nasty situations including witnessing police shoot a robber on the street, a New York blackout that led to much looting, and perhaps scariest of all, the Klu Lux Klan forcing the cancellation of a performance in Mississippi.
Although there are still incidents aplenty, a missile attack in Israel and racism in Paris to name but two, the further into Felix’s DTH career one gets, the less absorbing the book gets and the more it loses its grip. With the exception of her meeting and marrying dancer Joe Cipolla (in a role-reversal, he was the first white dancer to appear with DTH, and experienced not dissimilar feelings to Felix), there is much less sense of friendships and the people around her.
Brickbats and Tutus ends with the death of Felix’s father and sister Lucia in 2004. It’s also rather an abrupt closing with no mention of what has happened since, including her break up with Joe, subsequent relationships or her approach to teaching, all of which would be fascinating. Indeed, as a teacher, Felix has a reputation for being honest, bluntly so at times, but always fair, and always with time for those willing to put in the effort and the hard work that ballet requires. Reading her story, it’s easy to see where all that comes from.
For all the hold it exerts as a story, Brickbats and Tutus does have issues. It is let down badly by editing that verges on the slipshod. Indeed, at times you wonder if it has been edited at all. The writing doesn’t always flow comfortably, but it’s the grammatical glitches, unusual use of capitalisation, spelling and factual errors that really leap out time and again. Among the errors, we are told that the Met in New York is on Lincoln Square (rather than at Lincoln Center), there is a part of London called “Nottinghill Gate” (Notting Hill Gate), that ballet has “principle” (principal) dancers, and throughout that Felix danced with “Dance Theatre Harlem” (except for one real howler when it morphs into “Dance Ballet Harlem”) rather than Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Factual inaccuracies abound too, many of which could have been easily avoided with a little basic research. I’m sure Birmingham Royal Ballet would be surprised to find out they were “taken over” by Birmingham City Council, the implication that it had its name changed by them (in fact it was a company decision), and that the first night took place at the “newly built” Hippodrome. Although BRB’s studios were new in 1990, there has been a theatre on the site since 1899, and the present auditorium dates from 1925. The programme on that evening featured David Bintley’s Hobson’s Choice in front of Princess Diane [sic], says Plimmer. Wrong again. It was a triple bill of Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, David Bintley’s Brahms Handel Variations and Ashton’s Jazz Calendar; and it was Princess Margaret who led the guest list, not Diana. There are more.
I suspect Brickbats and Tutus is not really aimed at a dance audience. Plimmer constantly feels the need to explain dance steps and terms in extremely simplistic and not always totally accurate terms, although it sometimes feels that’s as much for his own benefit as for the reader’s. Grand battements (which he calls “Grand battemans” or “grande battemans”), for example are described as “high kicks.”
As exasperating as all this is, don’t be put off, for the Julie Felix story is an inspiring and uplifting tale that is often difficult to put down.
It’s also a book that makes you think a little about the situation today. Yes, things have moved on. Brickbats and Tutus comes out at a time when American Ballet Theatre is celebrating the promotion to principal dancer of Misty Copeland (albeit in a way that would lead anyone would think no company had ever had a black principal dancer before) but Felix’s story is a salutary reminder that that it wasn’t always like that. Equally, there are still issues. The fact that Cassa Pancho felt the need to create Ballet Black in the UK to “celebrate black and Asian dancers in ballet” and to “see a fundamental change in the number of black and Asian dancers in mainstream ballet companies,” indicates all is still not what it should be.
Brickbats and Tutus by John Plimmer
Austin Macauley Publishers, London
Paperback, 232 pages