People of the Barre by the Forward

How one dance lover is preserving the Jewish history of ballet — one blog entry at a time

Courtesy of People of the Barre

Beatrice Waterhouse happened to go to a college that had a notable dance program. She hadn’t taken a ballet class since her early teens, but she figured she’d take a course on the history of dance. It sounded cool — plus, she needed the elective.

“It turned out to be a history of basically ethnic minorities in dance in the United States,” Waterhouse said. “We just watched so much amazing dance and learned all about it and read all this theory. And I thought, ‘Oh, wow, I really miss this. I love it so much. And also, where are all the Jews?’”

Waterhouse, 25, was born to an Ashkenazi Jewish mother and an English father, and grew up in Northern California. “Like every middle-class Conservative Jewish kid, they sent me to ballet,” she said. “I really loved it for a long time.”

But as she got older, her teacher made it clear she wasn’t enthused about “wasting her time” with students who weren’t going to pursue dance professionally. “I got disenchanted with it and I left the ballet world completely.”

Back to Ballet

By the time she was an undergrad at Mills College in Oakland, double majoring in international relations and Spanish-American studies — and wondering where the Jews were in this art form she was rediscovering — she’d become familiar with the blogging platform Tumblr. She created “People of the Barre” (which, yes, is a play on “people of the book”) and started using the blog to store tidbits she came across about Jews in ballet, mainly for her own reference.

“But then people started following me, just a few, and I realized that a lot of people just didn’t know this history — and that was for reasons,” she said. “For the more recent dancers and other dance figures, sometimes it was just because these people had sort of assimilated into whiteness and didn’t brag about their Judaism,” she said. “Sometimes it was because people were hiding their Jewishness, changing their names to make sure that they sounded presentable. Sometimes it was because of antisemitism in home countries, like a lot of the Soviet ballerinas. Sometimes it was because whole companies had been destroyed in the Holocaust, and the dancers and their names with it.”

So what began as a private cache of information quickly became a more public-facing project.

“I started to have a bit more of a mission,” said Waterhouse, who goes only by Bracha, her Hebrew first name, on the blog. “I wanted to reveal to Jews and to non-Jews that we were present and our Jewishness mattered in this little slice of history that I loved so much.”

For more than five years, People of the Barre has been a repository of photos, videos and biographies Waterhouse writes about dancers, choreographers, composers, founders and impresarios, setmakers, and other Jewish artists who’ve contributed to the past and present of ballet. At its height, the follower count was in the thousands, and hovers today just below the 1,000 mark, a decrease Waterhouse attributes to a quieter period on the blog a couple of years back as well as the general decline of Tumblr as a platform. Still, it’s a small but engaged core audience that Waterhouse imagines as “an auditorium full of people.”

Now a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of California, San Diego — where she also completed a master’s in Latin American studies and wrote a thesis on Moroccan Jewish communities in Peru — Waterhouse is meticulous about citing her sources and offering further reading. “I really hope that [it] can become a resource for other people,” she said. “It’s not like a photo album for me anymore. It’s like a dictionary. And I also want it to be pretty.”

So, How Jewish Is Ballet?

Ballet isn’t necessarily associated with Jewishness — or Jewishness with ballet. “There’s also this assumption, right? That the Jewish body is ugly or ungraceful or that Judaism is against movement,” Waterhouse said. “You have like the nebbishy Jewish man and the grotesque Jewish woman, and nobody even thinks about Jewish trans people. Maybe if you’re lucky you get the hypersexualized exotic Jewish woman.”

Stereotypes and misconceptions of Jews run rampant anywhere, and ballet certainly isn’t immune. But “if you take a look at the whole history of ballet,” Waterhouse said, “we’ve been there dancing and being beautiful” — from the early court dancing masters (like the 15th-century dance master Guglielmo Ebreo, whose name literally means “William the Jew,” though he later converted to Christianity) to the Ballet Russes, the company that transformed ballet and propelled it into the 20th century and beyond.

However, you could argue that in at least one way, ballet is the antithesis of a Jewish art. Dance is perhaps the most ephemeral of art forms — one that disappears as soon as it happens. There’s no canvas you can hang or sculpture to display. It’s not a book you can hold or pass on through generations. Even among the performing arts, it’s especially prone to vanishing. In theater and music, scripts and scores have long been the norm. Dance does have notation systems, but they’re not as widely used or universally interpreted. Typically, a ballet, if it’s to survive, is taught in person — it requires some combination of dancers, choreographers, teachers and repetiteurs (coaches) to be in a studio together.

“The more marginalized a choreographer is, the more likely their work is to be lost. And once that happens, there’s no getting it back,” Waterhouse said. “It was in the bodies of the people who danced it and it was in the mind of the choreographer. And if it wasn’t recorded some other way, that’s it,” she added. “And that’s actually unlike a lot of Jewish culture, which is so much about writing and recording and making sure that we repeat every single thing every year, so that it’s never, ever forgotten. Ballet could do with a little bit more of that.”

Waterhouse is heartened by the fact that technologies like film and social media allow more — and more varied — forms of dance to be recorded these days, even when that dance is created outside of the elite companies with the most resources. And to the extent that she can, she’s trying to fill in some of the gaps.

“Dance for so long suppressed ethnic, racial, and cultural distinctions and limited where dancers of obvious ‘otherness’ could dance,” said Ann Murphy, a dance writer and critic and former professor and chair of the dance and theater studies department at Mills College who taught the class that inspired Waterhouse (calling her “a star student”). “So by highlighting ballet dancers’ Jewishness, Beatrice gets at something that I believe is core to understanding U.S. dance more generally,” she added. “With the evolution of dance studies as an academic discipline, dance began to apply the same critical thought, theory and self-scrutiny that had been shaping the other arts, as well as politics and philosophy for some time.”

A Jewish Ballet Blog

On People of the Barre, you’ll find entries for the most obvious suspects, like Alicia Markova, who reigned over British ballet and found international fame, along with Jerome Robbins (née Rabinowitz), the choreographer who created dances for New York City Ballet and other major companies as well as hit musicals like “Fiddler on the Roof” and “West Side Story,” originally envisioned as “East Side Story,” about Jews and Catholics.

But there are so many others whose Jewishness is less obvious or well-known, whether by design or by accident. Allegra Kent and Melissa Hayden, stars of New York City Ballet under its legendary founder George Balanchine, were born Iris Margo Cohen and Mildred Herman, respectively. Michaela DePrince, who first gained widespread attention as a teenager when she appeared in the documentary “First Position,” is known as a groundbreaking Black ballerina with a harrowing story: She was orphaned during the civil war in Sierra Leone before being adopted at the age of four by an American couple. Fewer people are aware that the couple is Jewish.

Waterhouse keeps a long, running list of names and sources for new bios to add. “I read programs and think, ‘Gosh, is there anyone named Cohen?’” she said, or she’ll scroll through Instagram — which has become a hub for dancers of all kinds looking to make a name for themselves — and keep an eye out for a menorah or another clue. Sometimes she’ll unexpectedly come across a relevant name in a book she’s consulting for her graduate studies, other times she gets requests from her blog followers to feature a certain figure, and often she relies on newspapers, magazines and other periodicals.

One old newspaper clipping she found in French, for example, was about Tatjana Barbakoff, a Jewish-Chinese-Latvian dancer who trained in in ballet before becoming known as a modern dancer in Weimar Germany and then Paris, where she initially escaped from the Nazis in 1933. Barbakoff continued performing until the Nazis came for the Jews in France as well. “She was deported to Auschwitz and was murdered and her name has just sort of vanished,” Waterhouse said. “Every time I find someone from before 1940 that I didn’t know about, it’s like this little burst of joy because so often there’s just no record of these people who either assimilated or were murdered in the Holocaust,” she added. “It made me happy to think that I was remembering her name and the people following were going to learn about her and in that way, she’s got a little bit of a record again.”

Waterhouse features stars of the moment — like Esteban Hernández, a Mexican-American-Jewish dancer at San Francisco Ballet, and his older brother Isaac Hernández, who dances with the English National Ballet — and the rare contemporary choreographer who’s made explicitly Jewish-themed ballets, such as Julia Adam, a former principal with San Francisco Ballet who made “Ketubah” for Houston Ballet. But she’s just as likely to profile long-dead artists like Barbakoff or the composer Ludwig Minkus, most famous for his score to “Don Quixote.”

When Waterhouse is asked why she focuses on both past and present, she says there are two answers. The ballet answer has to do with the fact that ballet has been proclaimed dead ad nauseum and she vehemently disagrees. While the art form is undoubtedly a backward-looking one that “prizes its classics and has its canon,” she said, it’s also “really vibrant and alive” and reinventing itself in the 21st-century, though “people are always looking backward for inspiration even as they’re going forward.”

“The Jewish answer is that we’re responsible for remembering our own; people don’t remember it for us,” she said. “There are so many different kinds of Judaism and ways of being Jewish, but I think inherent to all of them is the fact that memory matters,” she said. “But also in Judaism, there’s this concept of l’dor v’dor, right? The next generation is important. We care about our future.”

For some of her contemporary subjects, there’s a sense of shared goals. “People of the Barre highlights something that has been hiding in plain sight for so long,” said Sarah Elizabeth Hartman, a Romani-Jewish ballet dancer, choreographer, writer, and visual artist who was among the first to be highlighted on the blog. “I want to bring Jewishness (and my other identities) into ballet, and a site like POTB is a huge help, because it recognizes that dancers are so much more than just bodies,” she added. “It’s a wonderful step in the long journey ballet has to join the 21st century.”

A Small Vehicle for Change

While Waterhouse has a deep love for ballet and Judaism, she expects more from both. In each, separately, “there is racism and it is fundamental to understanding our history. And where ballet and Jewishness connect, so does the racism,” she said. “If we expect Judaism and ballet to endure as the world spins forward, we are going to have to do better than that.”

She includes herself in that “we.” On June 24, 2016, Waterhouse posted about Brexit. “POTB would like to extend its deepest sympathies to the many, many people who have been irretrievably f—ked over by the baldfaced racists running Europe,” she wrote. “As a blog that follows dancers whose stories are often ended or interrupted by European fascism and antisemitism, I feel it is my duty to remind everyone that fascism is alive and well.” At the time, she tried to explain to her followers why she “broke ‘character,’” but in retrospect, it was the beginning of a new, more explicit path that tied the blog to her beliefs about social justice, which include, but are not limited to, views on Jews and Jewishness.

“When Brexit happened and it was also the middle of this horrible U.S. presidential election, where I could really see which way the tide was going, it felt like I had this one platform and I had to use it,” she said. “But I think I had been coming to it for a long time, because you can only spend so much time reading about all the many different ways that Jewish ballet figures have been prevented from engaging in ballet by exactly that kind of xenophobia before you want to talk about it,” she added. “From that point on, I decided to be more explicit about it on the blog as in other areas of my life.”

On an everyday level, that means featuring a diverse array of Jewish artists, choosing not to feature certain contemporary figures she considers problematic, and acknowledging the complicated contributions of historical figures — like Ida Rubinstein, who performed with the Ballets Russes in the company’s first explosive seasons in Paris in 1909 and 1910 and used her personal wealth to make major commissions throughout her career.

Rubinstein faced prejudice herself, but also “took advantage of the othering that came from her exotified, stereotypically Jewish appearance to orientalize Asians, especially Middle Easterners, in ballets like ‘Scheherazade,’” Waterhouse said. Aligning her platform with her values also means stating for all to see in the “About” section that “this blog opposes racism, misogyny, fatphobia, ableism, transphobia, queerphobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia, or any other expression of power-enabled hatred,” and enforcing that stance by reminding her followers, for example, that “TERFs [trans-exclusionary radical feminists] are not welcome at this blog,” as she wrote in May. “Hashem weeps because of you.”

Following the murder of George Floyd, Waterhouse spoke out about racism in ballet and provided scripts followers could use to do their small part. One set of templates laid out how ballet fans could reach out to their favorite companies to try to hold them accountable — whether they’d made a statement about racial justice or not, whether one of their own dancers had spoken out or not. Another script focused on urging local dance schools to update their dress codes to make them more inclusive of dancers of color. Ballet isn’t just about the major companies, she said, it’s also about all the neighborhood schools where most people become acquainted with it.

“Ballet, in general, only in the last few decades, began to welcome in different types of dancers,” Murphy explained. For most of their histories, American companies tended to “promote a certain height, body type and look that signaled ‘elite’ or in the least ‘white,’” Murphy said. “So Beatrice is part of the project that proves culture is fluid, like water and anyone can participate.”

In Waterhouse’s eyes, an ideal ballet world needs to be broader, and she can see it beginning to expand. “Ballet is more accessible now. People see it on their Instagram feed and they go to a class at their local gym — and you get this opportunity to see hijabi dancers and fat dancers and older dancers be visible in this way that has never been possible before,” she said. The “audience now is the young people who came to it through Instagram, and they’re not going to stand for nonsense in a way that people have stood for nonsense from ballet companies for a really long time.”

When she thinks about the Jewish values she’s striving for with People of the Barre, Waterhouse names history and memory, hiddur mitzvah, and justice and tikkun olam. One specific quote from Pirkei Avot comes to mind, she said: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” She alone cannot reshape the worlds of Judaism or ballet to make them more just and equitable and diverse and inclusive. Still, “whenever I think this is just a really silly blog and it’s such a small thing, I think, well, it’s a small thing that I can do, so I’m going to keep doing it.”

Stav Ziv is a journalist based in New York City whose work has also appeared in Newsweek, The Atlantic, Newsday, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is currently a senior editor/writer at The Muse.

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How ‘People of the Barre’ is preserving Jewish ballet

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