Thursday 11 March 2021

Julie Felix: The brilliant Black ballerina who was forced to leave Britain

 She was told there was no room for a ‘brown swan’ in the London Festival Ballet, so she went to the US. There she found enormous success, dancing for everyone from Michael Jackson to Prince

The turning point in Julie Felix’s career came in 1975. A student at Rambert ballet school in London, she was selected to dance in Rudolf Nureyev’s production of Sleeping Beauty with the London Festival Ballet (now the English National Ballet). Nureyev was the god of British ballet – and he lived up to his reputation on the first day of rehearsal, Felix recalls. “He was late, but everybody said he was always late. All of a sudden, the doors flew open and in he came. He was well renowned for these big boots he used to wear, and a big fur coat. He took the coat off like a matador and threw it so it slid across the dance studio floor. Everybody jumped up and stood to attention. He was there for probably about half an hour.” At the time, 17-year-old Felix was awestruck. In hindsight, half a century later, she is less impressed: “Talk about unprofessional.”

‘My feet would be bleeding. I’d have blisters all over my toes. And I didn’t care’ ... Julie Felix near her home in Cornwall. Photograph: Emli Bendixen/The Guardian

In the fairytale version of Felix’s life, having acquitted herself on stage with Nureyev, she would have joined the London Festival Ballet and become the first Black British dancer to begin her ascent through the ranks of a British ballet company. Instead, she was told she was a “lovely dancer”, but was not going to be given a contract, “because of the colour of my skin. I would mess up the line of the corps de ballet, because you can’t have a whole row of white swans and then there’s a brown one at the end.”

Felix was stunned: “It hit me like a thunderbolt.” Her mother was white British and her father African-Caribbean, from Saint Lucia. She had never thought of the refined world of ballet as being what we might now describe as institutionally racist. “It sounds ridiculous, but because I didn’t experience any racial issues or difficulties before that, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the colour of my skin. I thought that I was talented and that would be enough.”

Having grown up in Ealing, west London, in the 60s, Felix certainly knew about racial difference. She rarely saw any faces that were not white in the neighbourhood or at school, she says. After her parents had met on a bench in Hyde Park, her mother’s family disapproved. “They said: ‘If you marry that man, we’re going to disown you.’ And my mum just said: ‘Well, fair enough, I still want to marry him.’”

Her father, who worked as a foreman at the Hoover factory, was quite the charmer, says Felix. “He was the proudest man. He would paint the front door a different colour every year. He was always up the ladder washing his windows. He would grow fruits and vegetables in the back garden. But I would say my dad had a big chip on his shoulder.”

Julie Felix. Photograph: Courtesy of Julie Felix

She describes how he would dress like a dandy, in 40s suits and spats, even if he was just going to do the shopping. “He would always berate the grocers and say: ‘You’re picking the bruised fruit and vegetables because I’m Black. You think I can’t see this?’” She laughs. “Why would you move somewhere if you’re going to spend your life being concerned about the way other people look at you and your colour?”

There was an incident when she was eight or nine, when her father returned from work very late, his shirt ripped and covered in blood. A colleague had attacked him outside the factory gates with a meat cleaver on a chain. “He didn’t like, one, the way my dad spoke to him and, two, because my dad was Black,” she says.

Culturally, the Felix household was “100% British”, she says. She had no connection to her Saint Lucian family, although she would see her British grandparents in Essex regularly (relations had thawed when Felix’s elder sister and she were born). Musically, her father liked American crooners such as Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole; her mother preferred classical music and had once aspired to be an opera singer. “So, when it came to my wanting to dance, there was a local ballet school around the corner in Ealing that I would go to, and Mum said: ‘Well, as long as you keep working hard and you’re enjoying it, I will fund it for you.’ She wasn’t a pushy, stereotypical ballet mother, but she knew that I loved it. And because she’d been stopped doing what she wanted to do, she was there 100% for me.” When she passed the audition for the Rambert, her parents could not afford the fees; Felix won a grant from the Inner London Education Authority, which paid 75%.

Felix says no one is “born to dance”, but, as a student, her passion for ballet was boundless. “I can remember the feeling of waking up in the morning, earlier than I needed to, getting on the underground and going into Notting Hill Gate, where the school was. I was the first one in the door. The cleaner was still there.

“I could not get enough of it. My friend and me would stretch and practise our fouettés in the lunch break. We’d be the last ones out of the building. Get back on the train, go home. My feet would be bleeding. I’d have blisters all over my toes. And I didn’t care. I just knew this was what was required. I soaked my feet in salt water, dabbed surgical spirit on them to get the skin to heal and get them dried out so that I could get up the next morning and get on that train again.”

Felix in New York in 1983. Photograph: Courtesy of Julie Felix

After all her dedication, being rejected for her colour was devastating. “It didn’t last long, mind you,” she says. “Part of my personality is: sink or swim. And I thought: ‘I am not going to sink here.’ So I just flipped it around and just said: ‘Watch me. I’m going to show you I can do it.’”

She didn’t have to wait too long. The previous summer, the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) had come to perform in London. This was a pioneering Black ballet company founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell, the first top-flight Black dancer in US ballet. While they were in town, Felix went along, auditioned for Mitchell and was immediately offered a contract. She declined. When her teacher at Rambert found out, “she absolutely hit the roof”, Felix recalls. “She said: ‘You can’t pick and choose. You’ve been offered a job!’” Fortunately, the DTH returned to London a few months after her Nureyev experience. Felix auditioned and was offered a job a second time. She did not turn it down.

This time, Felix’s skin colour was to her advantage, although working with an all-Black company in the US was a curious reversal: “I’d gone from all of my ballet training, and growing up not really being aware of anything to do with Black people, to going to New York and there’s no white people.” Before relocating to New York, Felix had never had a passport, left the UK or flown in an aeroplane.

Backstage at Sadler’s Wells theatre in 1980 on Felix’s first tour back in the UK. Photograph: Courtesy of Julie Felix

“Within two weeks of being there, Arthur Mitchell said to me: ‘We’ve got to knock the British out of you.’ And I took umbrage, because I’m really proud of being British,” Felix says. In retrospect, she knows what he meant: “It was the wishy-washy way I approached my technique and my ballet training. But it wasn’t just about that; it was everything that Arthur Mitchell taught and portrayed and wanted us to portray within our work. He wanted to show that Black people really can do this.”

DTH’s sense of purpose aligned with Felix’s own. She stayed with the company for 10 years, earning her place as a soloist and touring the US and beyond (including a satisfying return to the Royal Opera House). Life in the US put British racism into perspective, says Felix. In her first week in New York, she witnessed a young Black man being shot dead in the street by two white police officers for shoplifting. A touring performance in Mississippi in 1978 had to be cancelled because the Ku Klux Klan staged a protest outside the theatre, in white hoods, burning cross and all. “No words can describe that feeling,” she says.

There were more good times than bad, though. Felix shared the stage with, and danced for, luminaries from Ronald Reagan to her hero, Luciano Pavarotti. She danced with Lionel Richie to All Night Long at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics closing ceremony; visitors to her shows included Michael Jackson and Prince. Jackson wanted to cast the dancers in his ill-fated Peter Pan movie, she says. He came to a matinee in Pasadena, California, supposedly incognito, but in full Jackson regalia: black sunglasses, Jheri curl and military-style outfit, with a complement of bodyguards. “I was annoyed, because I was there to deliver the performance, but you had all these girls screaming in the audience,” says Felix. “Anyway, after it finished, he came backstage and said to us, very, very quietly: ‘I really enjoyed your performance. I just think you’re fantastic.’ What a humble man.”

A year later, Prince came to a show, by coincidence at the same theatre. He was similarly “incognito”, in a sequined, hooded purple cape. He never took the hood down. “At the end of the performance, he got back in his limo and left and didn’t say thank you, hello, anything. Really quite rude.”

Felix on a poster for the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Photograph: Courtesy of Julie Felix

By 1986, aged 30, Felix was beginning to feel the physical toll of ballet life. She also missed home. She returned to the UK and became a teacher and remedial coach for Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, first in London, then in Birmingham, where the company relocated when it became Birmingham Royal Ballet, in 1990. She married and had three daughters (none of whom followed in their mother’s footsteps).

She then became head of dance at a local school. Now it was her turn to “knock the British out” of her students. “They don’t seem to know how to really push themselves,” she says. “Ballet is really painful. If you don’t feel that, then you’re not doing it properly.” 

Ballet has also always required a highly specific form of physicality, Felix points out. “It needs very arched feet, it requires good natural rotation of your hip sockets, a slender body, long, lithe muscles, long neck, small head.” Regardless of talent or musicality, she says, dancers who do not conform to this body type will struggle. Perhaps it is this inherent discrimination that has made other forms of prejudice easier to disguise.

British ballet has made some progress since the 70s, but it could do more. Birmingham Royal Ballet, for example, had a successful workshop programme with local schools, whose pupils were often from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds, but such programmes seem to have “fizzled out” as a result of local authority budget cuts, Felix says. On the other hand, there are institutions such as Ballet Black, which advocates for diversity in professional ballet. At the time of its founding in 2001, there were still no women of colour performing in any British company. The Royal Ballet recruited its first Black, British-born male dancer, Solomon Golding, only in 2013.

Julie Felix: ‘Ballet is really painful. If you don’t feel that, then you’re not doing it properly.’ Photograph: Emli Bendixen/The Guardian

Felix is not convinced British ballet has turned the corner: “I still believe that we’ve got ballet companies who will take a few people of colour just to be politically correct.” However, she was heartened by the appointment of the Cuban-British dancer Carlos Acosta as director of Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2020, although the pandemic has so far curtailed its activities. While all British arts are vulnerable at the moment, ballet – with its high demands for time, labour, space and personnel – is especially so. Now based in Cornwall, Felix has made do teaching over Zoom for the past year. She is not complaining: “It really is a lovely place to be locked down.”

Felix’s skin colour began as a factor that counted against her, but it became an animating force in her career and led to a wealth of experiences and successes she might otherwise not have had. With that satisfaction, the anger she feels for her 17-year-old self being told her brownness would “mess up the line” has mellowed a little. “Their choice of not accepting me enabled me to find something within myself that I probably would never have known was there,” she says. “And then to open up this whole world for me. So I can say that hatred was turned to gratitude.”

(Source: The Guardian)

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