Julie Felix: the brilliant Black ballerina who was forced to leave Britain | Ballet

The turning level in Julie Felix’s profession got here in 1975. A scholar at Rambert ballet college in London, she was chosen to dance in Rudolf Nureyev’s manufacturing of Sleeping Magnificence with the London Competition Ballet (now the English Nationwide Ballet). Nureyev was the god of British ballet – and he lived up to his repute on the first day of rehearsal, Felix remembers. “He was late, however everyone stated he was all the time late. Swiftly, the doorways flew open and in he got here. He was nicely famend for these large boots he used to put on, and a giant fur coat. He took the coat off like a matador and threw it so it slid throughout the dance studio ground. All people jumped up and stood to consideration. He was there for most likely about half an hour.” At the time, 17-year-old Felix was awestruck. In hindsight, half a century later, she is much less impressed: “Speak about unprofessional.”

In the fairytale model of Felix’s life, having acquitted herself on stage with Nureyev, she would have joined the London Competition Ballet and turn into the first Black British dancer to start her ascent by the ranks of a British ballet firm. As an alternative, she was instructed she was a “pretty dancer”, however was not going to be given a contract, “due to the color of my pores and skin. I’d mess up the line of the corps de ballet, as a result of you may’t have a complete row of white swans after which there’s a brown one at the finish.”

Felix was shocked: “It hit me like a thunderbolt.” Her mom was white British and her father African-Caribbean, from Saint Lucia. She had by no means considered the refined world of ballet as being what we’d now describe as institutionally racist. “It sounds ridiculous, however as a result of I didn’t expertise any racial points or difficulties earlier than that, I didn’t assume there was something fallacious with the color of my pores and skin. I assumed that I was gifted and that may be sufficient.”

Having grown up in Ealing, west London, in the 60s, Felix actually knew about racial distinction. She not often noticed any faces that weren’t white in the neighbourhood or at college, she says. After her mother and father had met on a bench in Hyde Park, her mom’s household disapproved. “They stated: ‘When you marry that man, we’re going to disown you.’ And my mum simply stated: ‘Properly, truthful sufficient, I nonetheless need to marry him.’”

Julie Felix
Julie Felix. {Photograph}: Courtesy of Julie Felix

Her father, who labored as a foreman at the Hoover manufacturing unit, was fairly the charmer, says Felix. “He was the proudest man. He would paint the entrance door a special color yearly. He was all the time up the ladder washing his home windows. He would develop fruit and veggies in the again backyard. However I’d say my dad had a giant chip on his shoulder.”

She describes how he would costume like a dandy, in 40s fits and spats, even when he was simply going to do the procuring. “He would all the time berate the grocers and say: ‘You’re selecting the bruised fruit and greens as a result of I’m Black. You assume I can’t see this?’” She laughs. “Why would you progress someplace in case you’re going to spend your life worrying about the approach different individuals have a look at you and your color?”

There was an incident when she was eight or 9, when her father returned from work very late, his shirt ripped and lined in blood. A colleague had attacked him exterior the manufacturing unit gates with a meat cleaver on a sequence. “He didn’t like, one, the approach my dad spoke to him and, two, as a result of my dad was Black,” she says.

Culturally, the Felix family was “100% British”, she says. She had no connection to her Saint Lucian household, though she would see her British grandparents in Essex usually (relations had thawed when Felix’s elder sister and she or he had been born). Musically, her father appreciated American crooners reminiscent of Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole; her mom most popular classical music and had as soon as aspired to be an opera singer. “So, when it got here to my wanting to dance, there was an area ballet college round the nook in Ealing that I’d go to, and Mum stated: ‘Properly, so long as you retain working onerous and also you’re having fun with it, I’ll fund it for you.’ She wasn’t a pushy, stereotypical ballet mom, however she knew that I cherished it. And since she’d been stopped doing what she wished to do, she was there 100% for me.” When she handed the audition for the Rambert, her mother and father couldn’t afford the charges; Felix gained a grant from the Internal London Schooling Authority, which paid 75%.

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

Felix says nobody is “born to dance”, however, as a scholar, her ardour for ballet was boundless. “I can bear in mind the feeling of waking up in the morning, sooner than I wanted to, getting on the underground and going into Notting Hill Gate, the place the college was. I was the first one in the door. The cleaner was nonetheless there.

“I couldn’t get sufficient of it. My good friend and me would stretch and practise our fouettés in the lunch break. We’d be the final ones out of the constructing. Get again on the practice, go dwelling. My toes can be bleeding. I’d have blisters throughout my toes. And I didn’t care. I simply knew this was what was required. I soaked my toes in salt water, dabbed surgical spirit on them to get the pores and skin to heal and get them dried out in order that I may rise up the subsequent morning and get on that practice once more.”

In any case her dedication, being rejected for her color was devastating. “It didn’t final lengthy, thoughts you,” she says. “A part of my character is: sink or swim. And I assumed: ‘I’m not going to sink right here.’ So I simply flipped it round and simply stated: ‘Watch me. I’m going to present you I can do it.’”

She didn’t have to wait too lengthy. The earlier summer time, the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) had come to carry out in London. This was a pioneering Black ballet firm based in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell, the first top-flight Black dancer in US ballet. Whereas they had been on the town, Felix went alongside, auditioned for Mitchell and was instantly supplied a contract. She declined. When her trainer at Rambert came upon, “she completely hit the roof”, Felix remembers. “She stated: ‘You may’t decide and select. You’ve been supplied a job!’” Thankfully, the DTH returned to London just a few months after her Nureyev expertise. Felix auditioned and was supplied a job a second time. She didn’t flip it down.

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

This time, Felix’s pores and skin color was to her benefit, though working with an all-Black firm in the US was a curious reversal: “I’d gone from all of my ballet coaching, and rising up not likely being conscious of something to do with Black individuals, to going to New York and there’s no white individuals.” Earlier than relocating to New York, Felix had by no means had a passport, left the UK or flown in an aeroplane.

“Inside two weeks of being there, Arthur Mitchell stated to me: ‘We’ve obtained to knock the British out of you.’ And I took umbrage, as a result of I’m actually pleased with being British,” Felix says. Looking back, she is aware of what he meant: “It was the wishy-washy approach I approached my method and my ballet coaching. However it wasn’t nearly that; it was all the things that Arthur Mitchell taught and portrayed and wished us to painting inside our work. He wished to present that Black individuals actually can do that.”

DTH’s sense of goal aligned with Felix’s personal. She stayed with the firm for 10 years, incomes her place as a soloist and touring the US and past (together with a satisfying return to the Royal Opera Home). Life in the US put British racism into perspective, says Felix. In her first week in New York, she witnessed a younger Black man being shot useless in the avenue by two white cops for shoplifting. A touring efficiency in Mississippi in 1978 had to be cancelled as a result of the Ku Klux Klan staged a protest exterior the theatre, in white hoods, burning cross and all. “No phrases can describe that feeling,” she says.

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

There have been extra good occasions than dangerous, although. 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 time Lengthy at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics closing ceremony; guests to her reveals included Michael Jackson and Prince. Jackson wished to forged the dancers in his ill-fated Peter Pan film, she says. He got here to a matinee in Pasadena, California, supposedly incognito, however in full Jackson regalia: black sun shades, Jheri curl and military-style outfit, with a complement of bodyguards. “I was irritated, as a result of I was there to ship the efficiency, however you had all these ladies screaming in the viewers,” says Felix. “Anyway, after it completed, he got here backstage and stated to us, very, very quietly: ‘I actually loved your efficiency. I simply assume you’re incredible.’ What a humble man.”


A yr later, Prince got here to a present, by coincidence at the identical theatre. He was equally “incognito”, in a sequined, hooded purple cape. He by no means took the hood down. “At the finish of the efficiency, he obtained again in his limo and left and didn’t say thanks, hiya, something. Actually fairly impolite.”

By 1986, aged 30, Felix was starting to really feel the bodily toll of ballet life. She additionally missed dwelling. She returned to the UK and have become a trainer and remedial coach for Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, first in London, then in Birmingham, the place the firm relocated when it turned Birmingham Royal Ballet, in 1990. She married and had three daughters (none of whom adopted of their mom’s footsteps).

She then turned head of dance at an area college. Now it was her flip to “knock the British out” of her college students. “They don’t appear to know the way to actually push themselves,” she says. “Ballet is basically painful. When you don’t really feel that, you then’re not doing it correctly.” Ballet has additionally all the time required a extremely particular type of physicality, Felix factors out. “It wants very arched toes, it requires good pure rotation of your hip sockets, a slender physique, lengthy, lithe muscle groups, lengthy neck, small head.” No matter expertise or musicality, she says, dancers who don’t conform to this physique sort will battle. Maybe it’s this inherent discrimination that has made different types of prejudice simpler to disguise.

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

British ballet has made some progress since the 70s, however it may do extra. Birmingham Royal Ballet, for instance, had a profitable workshop programme with native faculties, whose pupils had been typically from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds, however such programmes appear to have “fizzled out” because of native authority price range cuts, Felix says. On the different hand, there are establishments reminiscent of Ballet Black, which advocates for variety in skilled ballet. At the time of its founding in 2001, there have been nonetheless no girls of color performing in any British firm. The Royal Ballet recruited its first Black, British-born male dancer, Solomon Golding, solely in 2013.

Felix isn’t satisfied British ballet has turned the nook: “I nonetheless imagine that we’ve obtained ballet corporations who will take just a few individuals of color simply to be politically appropriate.” Nevertheless, she was heartened by the appointment of the Cuban-British dancer Carlos Acosta as director of Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2020, though the pandemic has up to now curtailed its actions. Whereas all British arts are susceptible at the second, ballet – with its excessive calls for for time, labour, house and personnel – is particularly so. Now primarily based in Cornwall, Felix has made do educating over Zoom for the previous yr. She isn’t complaining: “It truly is a beautiful place to be locked down.”

Felix’s pores and skin color started as an element that counted in opposition to her, however it turned an animating drive in her profession and led to a wealth of experiences and successes she may in any other case not have had. With that satisfaction, the anger she feels for her 17-year-old self being instructed her brownness would “mess up the line” has mellowed a bit of. “Their alternative of not accepting me enabled me to discover one thing inside myself that I most likely would by no means have identified was there,” she says. “After which to open up this complete world for me. So I can say that hatred was turned to gratitude.”

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