Alexandra

Blackface in "La Bayadere".

19 posts in this topic

Dirac just posted this on Links and I thought it worth discussing. We've discussed the topic before, but not for a few years, so let's have a go again.

It's a short article, and I WOULD BEG YOU :) to read the whole thing before posting!

Here's what dirac posted:

Judith Mackrell muses on the Bolshoi's little pickanninies in The Guardian's arts blog. (Luke Jennings responds in the comments section.)

So is there an argument for cleaning up La Bayadère? The most offensive elements are not entirely intrinsic to the ballet's style and texture. They could be tactfully restrained without too much damage - Natalia Makarova handled the issue well in her staging for the Royal.

But it's a slippery slope. Whole chunks of 19th-century choreography have been lost because someone either didn't rate them or thought they could do better. And those of us who feel queasy may just be too easily shocked. Perhaps we should just accept them as the less lovely face of ballet history?

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Posthumous stagings of LaSonnambula have kept the choreography for the Blackamoor pdd but changed the ethnicity (Taras' staging for ABT made them Balinese[?] ). I don't know why this is significantly less offensive, although the make-up and costumes for NYCB's Balanchine-era production were really very crude.

But it refers to a tradition, thankfully discarded, but part of theatrical heritage nonetheless. I would hate to see it lost, and perhaps one day society will be enlightened enough to take these things in their historical contexts.

What would Petrouchka be if the third puppet were blanded down? Would this character be as effective as a counterpoint to Petrouchka if he were of European stock?

I'm for keeping these "racist" references and keeping them in perspective as historical artifacts, reminding us how just plain stupid people can be, and continuing to shrink our world so we can see each other as brothers and sisters, not as Exotics. However, both Luke Jennings and DanceWright (next comment) suggest that we're not -- and may never be -- able to do that.

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Carbro, I agree on the Balinese change in La Sonnambula. It always looked to me as though they tried to find the ethnic group least likely to complain!

(And three virtual golden apples for reading the whole article AND the comments!!!!!):)

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But it refers to a tradition, thankfully discarded, but part of theatrical heritage nonetheless. I would hate to see it lost, and perhaps one day society will be enlightened enough to take these things in their historical contexts.What would Petrouchka be if the third puppet were blanded down? Would this character be as effective as a counterpoint to Petrouchka if he were of European stock?I'm for keeping these "racist" references and keeping them in perspective as historical artifacts

The world should just stop viciously digging in and arguing on this subject, and just try to enjoy performances more often. I personally agree with Lewis Segal statement as that ballet form is racially stereotyped by nature. Let's not forget that the most of today's well known choreographies were created in the XIX Century, and princesses, kings, queens and african slavery were still current at the time. Let's also not forget that Russia was still living in a pre-capitalist stage, and from there they abruptely jumped into communism, without having the time to develop a strong middle class. Hence, the characters on this stories talk about all of these extreme social differences. We shouldn't change anything, and just try to understand a little more the stories and the times when they were created. If Abderrakhan or Othello require a specific dark makeup because it's intrinsec to the role, let's work on it. If the Willis require some lightening makeup because it's intrinsec to their nature, let's give it to them too. Overall, let's respect tradition, history and accuracy, and soften up a little the subject of race in ballet. On top of everything, i would hate to see choreographies getting lost, mixed up, cofusing or forgotten becaused of lack of comprehensive knowledge and common sense. At the end, i can't forget the fact that i never had the opportunity to watch Raymonda back in Cuba. It's considered racist and offensive, and has never been staged. Do we want that?

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Good points, Cristian.

I thought Makrell and Jennings both raise good points (I like Jennings' work in general). My feeling is that in Bayadere it ought to go because it's so peripheral to the story. There's not enough we get from 8 children prancing in briefly in blackface to make up for the potential offensiveness. Were there a ballet version of The Merchant of Venice (Note to the Ballet Gods: I AM NOT SUMMONING THIS.) I would expect Shylock to resemble Shakespeare's depiction rather than a less-offensive version because it's central to the story. Like Carbro said, we need a record and we're better off understanding as fully as possible the prejudices of another time, remembering that we have our own. They may have been more advanced than us in other ways.

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Mackrell points out that we're on a "slippery slope" of censorship when we beginning cutting out things from historic productions.

Perhaps we should just accept them as the less lovely face of ballet today.

On the other hand, she points out that this particular form of make-up on these figures has no intrinsic importance in the context of the ballet. We are not talking about Othello, whose color is crucial to the plot and its significance. These characters have only one function: they are "exotics," of whom there are many in 19th century ballet. It is not the quaint black makeup that anyone is objecting to, it is the attempt to replicate a make-up style that has a long and dishonorable history in the popular arts. It is quite possible to give these characters alternative exotic looks without serious injury either to the ballet or to the the principle of historical accuracy.

This week's Times Literary Supplement has it own review article on the Bolshoi's London season. The reviewer, Judith Flanders, writes intelligently and, on the whole, favorably about Ratmansky's re-choreographing of The Bright Stream. She concludes, however:

Finally I must admit I feel uneasy. A ballet about the happy carefree days of forced collectivization? Ballet is not an art that lends itself readily to realism, but that doesn't mean we have to leave our morals at the door. I gritted my teach through what I fear in the original Corsaire libretto was probably called "the dance of the picaninnies" (small children who today, shamefully, still appear in black-face); I swallowed hard at the anti-Semitic depiction of the money-grubbing merchant in the same piece. But how does the population of the Ukraine respond when the Bolshoi tours its happy-go-lucky version of events that caused the deaths of millions of their compatriots? One understands why Lopukhov and Shostakovich through this was a good subject in 1925. But now? I am genuinely uncertain about what our present response shoudl be to preserving these unpleasant relics imbedded in masterpieces of the past. Pretending they do not exist cannot be the answer. [The boldface -- or should I say the "blackface"? -- is mine.]

Racist, nationalist, and religious-purity movements of all sorts are on the rise in the world today -- definitely not excluding Russia, the keeper of so many ballet traditions. Small things like a little make-up may be irrelevant to this. Or not. But how important, really, is it to preserve them?

Edited to add: Leigh and I were posting at the same time. It goes without saying that I agree with his point about this detail being "peripheral to the story."

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I read DanceWright's comment with interest:

As a black American and a choreographer who uses classical ballet movement, I am convinced that it is the stereotypes in the Romantic ballet repertorie that distances audiences and artists from ballet.

Simply because of the portrayals of different ethnic characters, along with an ongoing argument in the United States over the place of black dancers in ballet, many simply regard the entire art form as irrelevent to contemporary life. I believe that this is one factor that is killing off ballet companies in America.

One argument for the great classical and Romantic ballets is that all great stories are universal. Dance Theatre of Harlem's Creole Giselle showed the same issues of caste and class that any setting in Europe does. The pain of betrayal Giselle feels is the same regardless of race. At the other end of the spectrum, clever girl wraps dumb boy around her finger and shows him who's boss, sometimes making great fun of the town's old weird guy, also transcends race.

I think that's in pretty stark contrast to "decorative" elements that telegraph, "You only let us in at our own expense."

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What would Petrouchka be if the third puppet were blanded down? Would this character be as effective as a counterpoint to Petrouchka if he were of European stock?
What a great question. They only production of Fokine's version I've seen is the controversial one that Nureyev and the Joffrey did in NYC about 30 years ago. Even though this was a time of of great sensitivity about matters having to do with "race" -- a time about which it is now fashionable to use the term "politically correct," as an insult -- I remember no big deal about the Moor, who was danced by someone really black. (Edited to add: Christian Holder) Besides, the ballet itself has been described as a "burlesque," and a certain amount of exagereration is called for.

On the other hand, at this very moment I'm looking at an old photo of a Royal Ballet version ("revived by Grigorovitch") in 1957. The sword wielding Moor indeed is black-faced to the nines. His mouth and the area around his eyes are grotesquely highlighted in white.

The dark skin is central to the original vision of this piece, and I think it should remain (Although you could do another version in any color you want, just so long as it contrasted with Petrouchka's.) The exagerrated white highlights, however -- so remiscent of the old black-face minstrel shows that were so popular in the US when racism was at its height -- should definitely go. (I noticed they were considerably toned down in the 1992 Paris video, available as Paris Dances Diaghelev..)

I'd love to hear other takes on this. Alexandra -- is it okay to expand this topic beyond La Bayadere?

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Keep the choreography and music, schlumpfy though they may be, but change the makeup design. It's a children's dance and well above the boredom level in such dances. How many ballonné/pas de basque sequences can you stand? The kids don't have to be any darker than Medora or Nikiya.

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I'd love to hear other takes on this. Alexandra -- is it okay to expand this topic beyond La Bayadere?

Of course!

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I think we could get rid of the makeup without harm. The choreography in Petrouchka could remain the same and I don't think it would be an issue, and even the Bayadère choreography could be permitted to remain (but it might not be difficult to replace it with a traditional Indian dance or a balleticized Indian-esque one).

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ABT tried a no-makeup "Petrouchka" here a few years ago, and I don't think it worked. "Petrouchka" is not white; he's in "white face" (tradition says that Pierrot, from whom Petrouchka derives, was a baker's assistant and was always falling into the flour. The flour is what makes his face white.) The Blackamoor, to me, isn't a "black person" but a specific, Blackamoor doll. So to me, the makeup is important.

An aside. I showed "Petrouchka" to a class of students this summer. They did "read" the characters as racial types, and were interested about the "doll" background information. And they were very surprised that the Blackamoor was the cool guy and got the girl. One boy thought it was very "advanced for its time!"

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I saw the Kirov perform La Bayadere in L.A. in 2003, which was a particular reconstruction (someone help me out here; I'm not very good with which version is which) and if the children's dance was eliminated entirely, or even if the costumes were changed, wouldn't that change the entire concept of a reconstruction of an historic ballet version? In this particular version, not only would the make-up have to change, but also the costumes, as the children wore dark brown long-sleeved shirts and dark brown opaque tights underneath the little dresses. And there was at least one African American child who had to do the costume and the make-up just like everyone else; I don't think she or her family found it offensive to do so.

If people found those costumes and make-up offensive, I would think it would not be difficult to change, and I personally would not mind to see the make-up and costumes be changed to be less offensive to this day and age, but maybe the ballet historians would find that it would negate the historical value of a reconstruction.

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if the children's dance was eliminated entirely, or even if the costumes were changed, wouldn't that change the entire concept of a reconstruction of an historic ballet version?

If the production were billing itself as a an historic version, it very well would, but hardly any productions make that claim!

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if the children's dance was eliminated entirely, or even if the costumes were changed, wouldn't that change the entire concept of a reconstruction of an historic ballet version?

It would be choreographically altered for sure. Can't choreographers just keep african slaves as so and just work in a more sophisticated make up method, eliminating as much as possible any grotesque signal?...I'm sure something more subtle can be done without going to the extreme of eliminating the whole "Pas". If we start erasing all the african slaves/black faced characters from all the operas and ballets (even being "minor","non important", "boring" or children roles) for that reason, then i don't really know what's gonna happen. And then, boring, non important and children dances are everywhere in every ballet, and not always by black faced characters, by the way. Should we just start eliminating those too...?

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Is there notation specifically for this dance?

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Being of Indian origin, watching La Bayadere is one of the more amusing experiences at the ballet, and I can imagine that others feel the same way about other ballets (Chinese dance in Nutcracker? My friend nearly cried from laughter). I think we can all agree (being reasonable) that the concepts that prefaced blackface and stereotypes are reprehensible. If a modern ballet was created and required blackface, I'd be more upset than when I see it now in Bayadere. As long as people recognize that that is the history of the ballet, and not a commentary on a race or socialclass, I think we'll all enjoy it.

This might open a can of worms (but we have had some good cans opened recently), but isn't that the same idea of Princess being rescued by Prince Charming? Or, take ANY Disney movie. Somehow, losing a parent is necessary for protagonists. :)

just my 2 cents.

ngitanjali

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I think that was beautifully put, ngitanjali, and clarified the issues very well. (Ballet is known for its one-parent heroes and heroines. Aurora in "Sleeping Beauty" and Clara in "The Nutcracker" are exceptions. The rest are orphans or half-orphans.)

On the Chinese dance in "Nutcracker," I have a story. A few years ago a Chinese ballet company came to DC and brought a Chinese ballet with, in addition to classical dancing and a few things borrowed from the circus (very artistically!) there were some folk dances. One of them had two men come out, wearing regulation ballet Chinese hats, put their hands up, extended their index fingers, and began bobbing their heads from side to side. A colleague of mine went back stage and asked where that had come from and was told it was a traditional Chinese dance -- he had more details, but I can't remember them. Now, they may have been pulling his leg; I don't know. Buyt it was interesting.

Back to blackface in 19th century ballets, I think it's important to keep things as they were for history's sake, unlike TV's "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" or whatever it was called awhile back where the Old West was presented as a contemporary multi-culturalist's dreamland that was very, very far from reality. We need to look at our sins.

I've posted this on past discussions of this topic, so apologies to those who've read it before. There is a blackface dance in Bournonville's "Far From Denmark" that has an interesting background. They are at the heart of the ballet. Bournonville had heard Gottschalk's "Negro Dance," as it was called and was fascinated by its rhythms. He wanted to make a ballet, but couldn't imagine how he could find a Danish story that would suit. So he had sailors visit the Caribbean, where Denmark had colonies and there was a large black population. Thus Jason and Medea, two servants (with quite a few children, whom they did not kill!), were born. At one point in the ballet, Jason asks one of the characters to play the piano. Bournonville writes about this, saying, first, that he was very proud that Denmark never countenanced slavery and that Jason and Medea were servants, not slaves. And although some people might object to a servant asking a guest of the house to play the piano, he thought that Jason had been such a good servant, and was such an important part of the household, that such a request would not be out of line. I think details like that are important to history, and I wouldn't want to lose it.

All that said, I can imagine that someone who hasn't been prepared for what he or she is about to see on stage could very well react negatively and be hurt or offended or angered by what they see. I don't think that it's easy to reconcile the two views.

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Just for the record, the Gottschalk in "Far from Denmark" is titled "Le Bananier" (The Banana Tree), and is subtitled, "Danse Negre".

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