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Blackface in Bolshoi's "The Pharaoh's Daughter"


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#16 Cordelia

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Posted 31 July 2012 - 03:55 PM

In Russia they don't view black-face as racist as they haven't that sort of contextual meaning. So I think we Americans should just step back and not try to make others as politically-correct as we are in performing arts with respect to African-Americans. Why is it perfectly fine to wear eye tapes to look Asian in such operas as Turandot and Madame Butterfly? When I saw Turandot, it certainly appeared to me that Caucasian opera singers did just that, along with make-up to help slant their eyes even more. As a person of Asian descent I was not offended, but merely saw it as theatricality. Political-correctness when carried to this sort of extremes should have no place in the arts.

#17 Drew

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Posted 31 July 2012 - 04:14 PM

Political-correctness when carried to this sort of extremes should have no place in the arts.


One may find that the debate here includes a)the nature of racism across different cultures/contexts...What exactly does it mean that Russians don't, as you say, view "black face" as racist? That it isn't? Maybe yes...but (in my opinion) more likely no...and b)What counts as extreme? Excising most or all nineteenth-century norms from (authentic) nineteenth-century ballets would, to my mind, be extreme. But that is not what is being discussed.

Pharoah's Daughter--the work of a twentieth/twenty-first-century French choreographer--hardly seems to me an "artistic" event whose vision is based in any kind of authenticity. It's a contemporary tribute/pastiche that has already been adapted to contemporary norms (eg length)...

#18 Birdsall

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Posted 31 July 2012 - 04:25 PM

I hope no one is getting mad. I think this is a very good discussion, and it may need its own topic....maybe "race issues in Ballet" or something.

I think many people make good points on both sides of this. I do think it is important to think of all sides of this issue. I will have to ask my black friends what they think of this issue, because I would like to hear from blacks and whether they would be highly offended if they saw the Pharaoh's Daughter.

My aunt used to be an art director in Hollywood, and she said Whoopi Goldberg brought Aunt Jemima dolls to the set to show my aunt (who is white). My aunt had a fit and said, "Get those off my set!" because she felt they were symbols of a racist time. Whoopi explained to her that she collects them and they represent the first depictions of blacks, so she finds them to have historical value.

I am sure another black person would not feel the way Whoopi does, but my point is that different people are going to feel differently about a hot button issue like this.

#19 Cordelia

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Posted 31 July 2012 - 04:40 PM


Political-correctness when carried to this sort of extremes should have no place in the arts.


One may find that the debate here includes a)the nature of racism across different cultures/contexts...What exactly does it mean that Russians don't, as you say, view "black face" as racist? That it isn't? Maybe yes...but (in my opinion) more likely no...and b)What counts as extreme? Excising most or all nineteenth-century norms from (authentic) nineteenth-century ballets would, to my mind, be extreme. But that is not what is being discussed.

Pharoah's Daughter--the work of a twentieth/twenty-first-century French choreographer--hardly seems to me an "artistic" event whose vision is based in any kind of authenticity. It's a contemporary tribute/pastiche that has already been adapted to contemporary norms (eg length)...


Extreme in that we may instinctively react in a negative way to such displays as black-face in a ballet set in ancient Egypt, all the while denying or lessening the actual, overall context. Russia does not have the large African-American population and history of slavery and discrimination against African-Americans, so I don't consider their use of black-face as offensive or even culturally insensitive. So because our nation has a shameful history of using black-face to make fun of African-Americans, does that mean that other cultures should follow our own, national sensitivities in something as trivial as a ballet?

Just because Pharoah's Daughter is a piece of fluff as far as ballets go, it doesn't mean that the set designers, costumers, and others who worked hard to recreate their artistic vision of Egypt, should be considered to be less serious as well. I agree it's a piece of pastiche but I bet it takes a lot of work to create such pastiche.

#20 California

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Posted 31 July 2012 - 04:59 PM

Extreme in that we may instinctively react in a negative way to such displays as black-face in a ballet set in ancient Egypt, all the while denying or lessening the actual, overall context. Russia does not have the large African-American population and history of slavery and discrimination against African-Americans, so I don't consider their use of black-face as offensive or even culturally insensitive. So because our nation has a shameful history of using black-face to make fun of African-Americans, does that mean that other cultures should follow our own, national sensitivities in something as trivial as a ballet?

A few years ago I had the opportunity to work with a group of university students from an eastern European nation (not Russia) on "intercultural communication." These students were very fluent in English, but wanted to improve so they would be competitive in getting jobs with big companies in western Europe, including U.S. multi-nationals. They were very well-versed in American history, including the history of slavery and Native Americans, but it was entirely "book-learning" and they had had almost no contact themselves with African-Americans. At most, they had met a few international students from Africa studying at their home university.

I was surprised that they had been taught that it is always unacceptable to refer to someone as "black." No, I explained, it is sometimes okay to refer to "white people" and "black people," although that's not preferred and is somewhat informal. I decided I had better make sure they understand that one word is always unacceptable, the N-word. I told them I never said it myself, but I thought I'd better this one time to be sure they knew what I meant. I literally choked saying it, as I'm so trained to never say it in any circumstance. I was relieved that most already knew they should never use the N-word.

I guess my point is that eastern Europeans (and, I'm guessing, Russians) mean well, at least the younger and the better educated ones, but they have very limited experience with the multi-culturalism that the U.S. takes for granted. Making things worse, their teachers (who probably don't know any better themselves) are passing along incorrect information. They do have other cultural tensions (I'm thinking of the situation with the Roma -- gypsies, as we call them in the U.S. -- and Muslims), but I'm not critical of people who did not grow up understanding the complex history of race in the U.S. (And, I would add, we still have a long way to go in eradicating our own insulting treatment of Native Americans, using them as athletic mascots, etc., but I'll leave that for another day.)

#21 puppytreats

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Posted 31 July 2012 - 05:11 PM


Extreme in that we may instinctively react in a negative way to such displays as black-face in a ballet set in ancient Egypt, all the while denying or lessening the actual, overall context. Russia does not have the large African-American population and history of slavery and discrimination against African-Americans, so I don't consider their use of black-face as offensive or even culturally insensitive. So because our nation has a shameful history of using black-face to make fun of African-Americans, does that mean that other cultures should follow our own, national sensitivities in something as trivial as a ballet?

A few years ago I had the opportunity to work with a group of university students from an eastern European nation (not Russia) on "intercultural communication." These students were very fluent in English, but wanted to improve so they would be competitive in getting jobs with big companies in western Europe, including U.S. multi-nationals. They were very well-versed in American history, including the history of slavery and Native Americans, but it was entirely "book-learning" and they had had almost no contact themselves with African-Americans. At most, they had met a few international students from Africa studying at their home university.

I was surprised that they had been taught that it is always unacceptable to refer to someone as "black." No, I explained, it is sometimes okay to refer to "white people" and "black people," although that's not preferred and is somewhat informal. I decided I had better make sure they understand that one word is always unacceptable, the N-word. I told them I never said it myself, but I thought I'd better this one time to be sure they knew what I meant. I literally choked saying it, as I'm so trained to never say it in any circumstance. I was relieved that most already knew they should never use the N-word.



I venture to say it is even more complex. Age and degree of integration and interaction make a difference, too, as does context. What if they came to the U.S. and interacted with people who used or listened to music or saw a current movie that used that word freely? Would they understand that, or misinterpret your categorical statement?

Within a given ethnic group, cultural jokes may be made, often with people laughing at themselves. Outside of the group, negative reactions may result, depending on the parties' relationship and intention.

#22 Birdsall

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Posted 31 July 2012 - 06:08 PM

California,
I'm glad you taught them that it depends on the situation!

Some blacks have told me that they don't like the term "African American" in some instances, because it has a formal, distancing effect at times. It is a case where they feel someone who always uses "African-American" and never "black" is almost scared and trying to be ultra PC that it is a case of protesting too much (being overly cautious which in itself seems prejudiced)!

I think it is fairly normal to use the more formal "African American" term when making a political speech or discussing literature at a conference, etc., but among friends the term is usually "black." I have been told by my black friends that they describe each other in shades like mocha, caramel, etc.

I have asked a black friend of mine via email (friend for years but now we live in separate cities) about The Pharaoh's Daughter, and I will report back how he personally feels about the matter. I explained the whole discussion and what is seen in the ballet and asked how he would feel seeing that ballet. I told him that I know his feelings about the matter do not necessarily mean all blacks will feel the same way, but it might open our eyes. I explained that it was staged by a French choreographer in Russia, that it is on dvd, and it has been revived. I asked if he would be okay with Russia doing this, etc.

#23 Birdsall

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 06:47 PM

I mentioned that I would post my friend's opinion on this. He is a singer in the Opera Tampa chorus, by the way, which is why he mentions Aida. Here is what he says about seeing performers in black paint:


[size=4][font=Helvetica]I wouldn't be offended given the context .interestingly, In our production of aida ,some slaves were whites in black face but there were black people as well . Perhaps the Russian and French directors could have taken a similar tact . Many people throughout history have been slaves . The Jews to the Egyptians , the Germans to the Romans , the Jews had their conquered peoples as slaves also, so perhaps sharing the role of slave across different ethnic groups could be both a politically correct and historically accurate depiction of slavery.[/font][/size]

#24 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 09 August 2012 - 12:22 AM

Outside of the group, negative reactions may result, depending on the parties' relationship and intention.


Ricky Ricardo: Check!

#25 puppytreats

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Posted 09 August 2012 - 07:11 AM


Outside of the group, negative reactions may result, depending on the parties' relationship and intention.


Ricky Ricardo: Check!


I just listened to a Jenifer Lopez record this weekend and it is filled with the phrase "My N__'s...."

#26 Birdsall

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Posted 09 August 2012 - 07:59 AM

Cristian, I think you have a totally valid point. However, I think the black issue is tied to the slavery past. America has depicted Asian men as photo snapping smiling nincompoops for a long time (the women are viewed as beautiful and exotic), but even the Asian stereotype does not upset me as much as a black one b/c the blacks were actually whipped like dogs and treated like lesser human beings during slavery times. We have plenty of prejudice still in the U.S. no matter how much P.C. manners we pile on top of it to hide it, but in the case of the issue around blacks, I actually think they do have more to complain about than Latin Americans or Asians. You have a right to feel differently, of course, but I think the black stereotypes have much more baggage in the U.S. than the other ones.

#27 Birdsall

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Posted 09 August 2012 - 08:03 AM

What I'm trying to say is that even when we recognize a stereotype of an Asian or a Hispanic person, it doesn't shock us here in the U.S. as much as when we see an Aunt Jemima. That doesn't make it right that we aren't shocked by the other things, but the black stereotype is much more volatile and shocking in the U.S. culture, not so much in other cultures. It is due to our history.

#28 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 09 August 2012 - 10:02 AM

I agree, and coming from a nation with the same slavery past, this is something I can relate . Actually there's a whole Cuban theatre art form, "Teatro Bufo" , which is based in characterizations of white actors in blackface,all with a deep sense of criticism but highly permeated by humor.
There's a great book I have..".Blackface Cuba, 1840-1895 (Rethinking the Americas)" by Jill Lane, who teaches theatre studies and American studies at Yale University. Invualuable source to understand this complex process which, as I said, in Cuba took a singular humorous turn.

http://www.amazon.co...s/dp/0812238672


"Blackface Cuba, 1840-1895 offers a critical history of the relation between racial impersonation, national sentiment, and the emergence of an anticolonial public sphere in nineteenth-century Cuba. Through a study of Cuba's vernacular theatre, the teatro bufo, and of related forms of music, dance, and literature, Lane argues that blackface performance was a primary site for the development of mestizaje, Cuba's racialized national ideology, in which African and Cuban become simultaneously mutually exclusive and mutually formative.

Popular with white Cuban-born audiences during the period of Cuba's anticolonial wars, the teatro bufo was celebrated for combining Spanish elements with supposedly African rhythms and choreography. Its wealth of short comic plays developed a well-loved repertory of blackface stock characters, from the negrito to the mulata, played by white actors in blackface. Lane contends that these practices were embraced by white audiences as especially national forms that helped define Cuba's opposition to Spain, at the same time that they secured prevailing racial hierarchies for a future Cuban nation. Comparing the teatro bufo to related forms of racial representation, particularly those created by black Cubans in theatres and in the press, Lane analyzes performance as a form of social contestation through which an emergent Cuban national community struggled over conflicting visions of race and nation."

I want also to highlight that there's a term used in Spanish to designate people of African ancestry, and has NOT any diminishing aura whatsoever. Our late great Celia Cruz used ita lot in her songs, like "La Negra tiene tumba'o","negra" being called in this case a beautiful black girl with a sinuosuous swing. Perhaps "negra" or "negro" sounds a lot like the "N" word so forbidden and hated over here, but, I repeat it, it does NOT has the same connotation. I think that's what J.LO uses in her songs too.



#29 Birdsall

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Posted 09 August 2012 - 11:34 AM

That is fascinating. Do black Cubans enjoy watching black face (whites in black face)? I am just curious.

I have an acquaintance in Tampa whose grandmother (now dead) used to do black face shows in Arkansas, and he claims that even the blacks would come to watch the show and enjoy them, but he transferred his grandmother's shows onto dvd, and he said that many people would think he is racist to want such shows, but he wants them because it showed his grandmother doing an act when she was young.

These are definitely issues that need to be studied and discussed, which is why this topic thread on Ballet Alert is worthwhile. But for most Americans it is still shocking, because we have been told since we are children that it is taboo.

As a former school librarian I knew about a case where a black family was trying to get another librarian fired, because they brought to her attention that there was a book on her shelf with the "n" word, although it was a book in which this white girl befriends a black girl and depicted what happened back in the 1960s in the South. So the author's overall message was that discrimination is bad, but the black family did not like that the book contained villains calling a black girl the "n" word. Well, in discussions of the book the librarian used the whole word ("n" word) simply to discuss the word (not to call anyone any names), and the family became outraged and it made the newspapers, and they wanted her fired. I have no idea what happened, since I moved away. So, as you can see, it is a volatile topic in the U.S. I think it probably is healthier to keep dialogue and discuss these issues openly and honestly (like the librarian did), and it is unhealthy to actually simply enforce a taboo and censor books, for example, etc.

But linking this to the original reason we are discussing......I actually do not have too much problem with the Pharaoh's Daughter or Bayadere (in Russia) but I do think it could be unwise for ABT or an American company to stage it like that. If I were the director of Pharaoh's Daughter and staging it in the U.S. I would not stage it with black face dancers and just let them be white. It doesn't change anything. But I don't really have that much problem with Russia doing what they did. It is up to Russian people to decide if that is offensive or not to their culture. But I am sure some here will disagree with my assessment.

#30 puppytreats

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Posted 09 August 2012 - 11:41 AM

That is fascinating. Do black Cubans enjoy watching black face (whites in black face)? I am just curious.

I have an acquaintance in Tampa whose grandmother (now dead) used to do black face shows in Arkansas, and he claims that even the blacks would come to watch the show and enjoy them, but he transferred his grandmother's shows onto dvd, and he said that many people would think he is racist to want such shows, but he wants them because it showed his grandmother doing an act when she was young.

These are definitely issues that need to be studied and discussed, which is why this topic thread on Ballet Alert is worthwhile. But for most Americans it is still shocking, because we have been told since we are children that it is taboo.

As a former school librarian I knew about a case where a black family was trying to get another librarian fired, because they brought to her attention that there was a book on her shelf with the "n" word, although it was a book in which this white girl befriends a black girl and depicted what happened back in the 1960s in the South. So the author's overall message was that discrimination is bad, but the black family did not like that the book contained villains calling a black girl the "n" word. Well, in discussions of the book the librarian used the whole word ("n" word) simply to discuss the word (not to call anyone any names), and the family became outraged and it made the newspapers, and they wanted her fired. I have no idea what happened, since I moved away. So, as you can see, it is a volatile topic in the U.S. I think it probably is healthier to keep dialogue and discuss these issues openly and honestly (like the librarian did), and it is unhealthy to actually simply enforce a taboo and censor books, for example, etc.

But linking this to the original reason we are discussing......I actually do not have too much problem with the Pharaoh's Daughter or Bayadere (in Russia) but I do think it could be unwise for ABT or an American company to stage it like that. If I were the director of Pharaoh's Daughter and staging it in the U.S. I would not stage it with black face dancers and just let them be white. It doesn't change anything. But I don't really have that much problem with Russia doing what they did. It is up to Russian people to decide if that is offensive or not to their culture. But I am sure some here will disagree with my assessment.


Don't libraries sometimes have problems with Mark Twain?


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