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

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#31 Quiggin


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Posted 09 August 2012 - 12:17 PM

Keeping it just to economic rights:

I think the difference between Ricky Ricardo stereotyping and blackface is that Desi Arnaz was able to become quite wealthy from his self-parody, and any humiliation was quickly mitigated by all the cash - laughing all the way to the bank, to cite the great American apothegm.

In vaudeville, jazz, r&b, and rock n roll in the US there is a long history of black artists having their intellectual material robbed and reused without remuneration, and their lives ending in poverty.

So whites in blackface are a pretty potent graphic symbol of this ongoing robbery - and not just a sort of wimpy PC complaint.

But also:

Whoopi Goldberg can bring all the Aunt Jemima dolls to the set or can use the term niggah as much as she’d like - that’s a sort of gallows humor allowed to the condemned, and shouldn't be read as a signal that everything is all right now.

And the Native Americans were not only treated "insultingly," they were pretty much eradicated. Henri Matisse on his way to San Francisco in 1930:

My train is called “the Chief.” The Americans who have exterminated the unfortunate Indians only remember them for decorative purposes.

#32 Birdsall


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Posted 09 August 2012 - 12:19 PM

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?

I think Mark Twain's novels are some of the most challenged (patrons complain and ask for it to be removed). The American Library Association puts out a "Most Banned Books of 2011" list usually, and it is usually comprised of amazingly good books.

What's funny is that it is really the luck of the draw when a patron complains about a book on a library shelf. I never had a patron demand it be removed, but I had some question the wisdom of a book on my shelf and I am usually shocked, because what I have often thought to myself, "You are complaining about THAT book???? THAT one is so mild compared to many others on the shelves! If you only knew!!!!" But you really don't want to say that to the patron, because then you have a stack of books they are complaining about! LOL

I usually tell them that if I took a book off everytime a book offended someone somewhere I would probably have a library full of maybe 20 books total. They usually understand and drop it. I worked in a middle school library and Young Adult literature (authors writing specifically for teens) does not shy away from any topic nowadays (date rape, being gay, molestation, anorexia, cutting your arms, suicide, etc). We are actually in a Renaissance of Young Adult literature in which the books are as deep and rich as any adult literature. It just tends to keep sex out of it (no lurid descriptions or the author sticks to age appropriate incidents or descriptions). Even a book on rape can be written for different ages and kept age appropriate. Of course, some would disagree. These Young Adult books can make you cry, laugh, etc. The days of Dick and Jane Go to School are over. Youth Literature is amazing! In fact, since it attempts to avoid smut and deal with real world issues sensitively it can actually be better than adult novels that like to stick in the popular sleaze and lots of sex! LOL

But due to Young Adult Literature experiencing this Renaissance, complaints and "book challenges" are becoming more and more normal in the schools because different people have different ideas of what children should read. So it is a complicated issue. Every school librarian has a committee (at least in the county I worked in) that you hope never meets. It is comprised of teachers and community members, and I tried to keep it as balanced as possible with both conservatives and liberals on the committee. I was lucky that my committee never had to meet, b/c I didn't have many questions about books, despite having plenty of books that get challenged all the time, but other librarians had book challenges from a parent almost weekly. It depends on the school.

#33 cubanmiamiboy


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Posted 09 August 2012 - 06:47 PM

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

Well...I still remmber TV shows of that kind, and to be honest, it never ocurred to me there were offensive in any form....but then, I must confess that I never faced so much "political correctness" issues in my whole life until I got here. But...I'm not really in any position to question all this. It is what it is and every society-(and person)-deal with such issues in their own particular ways.
This is one of such TV shows.

#34 GeorgeB fan

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Posted 10 August 2012 - 08:58 AM

I'm African-American.

I love ballet but I am aware of the fact there are very few ballet companies in the world that has black dancers of African descent much less children studying at their world famous ballet schools. I mean that's just the reality. So I've come to accept there will be times - in certain ballets - in which dancers will darken their skin for a role in which they will be dancing.

I remember when ABT revived Fokine's Petrouchka some years back. One of the main characters of course is The Moor. Marcelo Gomes performed that role and his skin was darkened. I had no issues with it...mainly because his make-up was tastefully done. It was not insulting nor disgusting to watch. When ABT performed Othelle, once again, Gomes danced the title role and once again I didn't have an issue with his make-up because it was tastefully handled.

When I mean "tastefully handled" I mean the make-up just darkened his skin to perhaps a medium brown. That's it. Nothing more. Totally acceptable.

When I watched this video of Pharaoh's Daughter I was distrubed - and I'll be honest - I wasn't able to finish watching it. The moment those children appeared a shot of anger went through me because their make-up was disgusting and completely unnecessary...and the costume and choreography didn't help things.

The reason why I was offended wasn't because of the darken make-up. If you notice the ballerina, who was also wearing darken make-up, she was fine. I have no issue with her make-up at all. It was tastefully handled and well done.

It was the white make-up that surrounded those children's eyes and lips that I was most disgusted with. That white make-up over their darken make-up plays into the stereotype of the negative facial images of blacks. And because they're kids, there's a word for it: Picaninniy. That white make-up is demonstrating those kids have all the stereotypical images of blacks: the bulging stupefied eyes with the big wide, ugly lips...big enough in which they could stuff a huge slice of watermelon in their mouths with no problem. That added make-up made those kids offensive to look it...at least for me. And as I mentioned the choreography didn't help much. In that first segment the kids had their hands up in the air, their palms facing the audience, their fingers stretched wide and they're jumping sideways back and forth on their legs. For a second I thought I was watching a minstrel show and I'm pretty convince that thought would have never crossed my mind if those kids wasn't wearing the white make-up. I probably would have simply thought the choreography was cute for the kids, but with that added make-up, I couldn't help but think something else. The Bolshoi took the make-up too far and I have a strong feeling they know it. After all they didn't dare put that white make-up on the ballerina. Could you imagine the uproar if that would have happened? They probably thought because they were children they could get away with it.


#35 cubanmiamiboy


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Posted 10 August 2012 - 09:40 AM

I think GeorgeBfan has spoken the definitive words in his honest assessment. It is not, as he says, the fact of having to darken someone skin to try to portray a certain black skinned character if unable to have a performer-(or various of them)-with such racial features. It is instead the way the racial issue is offered. The clip I posted earlier has clearly, for those who know Spanish, a definitive underlying critique to the social situation of the characters being played-(a rich family driver and maid), and the ultimate intention of it is to ridicule to its most extent the very social picture-(in a place where maid uniforms and the like are by now a defunct issue). I guess the whole thing depends on who gets touched by what. I will never forget the first times I got to see maids in those obsolet to me uniforms going behind their rich employers to the hairdressing salon I worked here for many years, acting and doing things that looked to me like things from the XIX century. Many times I got horrified by the fact that many coworkers around me would look and interact with such situations and behaviours as if they were the most normal thing in the world, when to me they were uttermost humiliating.
I know the same happen with the blackfaces of Pharaoh's Daughter. I'm sure they speak different words to GerogeBfan than those to the Russian stagers who included them.

Edited to add: BTW, and to make an interesting ballet comparison. There's an old post of mine about one of MCB's Nutcrakers-(Balanchine's version)-in which I remember mentioning a little detail I observed in the background action during the party scene, where Frau Silberhaus is seen reprimanding one of her maids with a marked, unnecessary severity. Now, Frau Silberhaus is a POSITIVE character in the plot, and still one is been forced to accept that she has the power to act in a way that could be not acceptable to some, just because the choreographer or stager wants it. I would like to know if anybody here has ever seen this detail in this ballet, and if the detail has spoken the same way it did to me.

[size=5]So...could that be that uniformed, domestic servants being yelled at and steoreotypes related to blacks are still seen as a normal thing by certain groups...?[/size]

#36 Birdsall


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Posted 10 August 2012 - 11:20 AM

GeorgeB Fan,
Thank you for your perspective! It is very enlightening, and I understand what you mean now that you describe it. This is the only way we learn....to hear from people that the stereotype or offensive event actually impacts emotionally.
B. Birdsall

#37 Birdsall


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Posted 10 August 2012 - 11:32 AM

For anyone to yell at a maid no matter what color or nationality is vulgar, unless she does something outrageous like slap a child or other mischief. There is no need to yell if she simply failed to do something the way you wanted. This is a pet peeve of mine. Many people get into a position of power over another human being and wields that power over the person unnecessarily so. The people who do this are timid as mice when someone has power over them, but they abuse people below them in status. I hate that.
In my life I have always treated people below me well (I had a maid), but I fight those above me when I need to, and it is like fighting windmills (Don Quixote), but that's what people should do. It is easy to be mean to those who are below you. Much harder to fight with those who have power over you, but you burn a trail that helps other people. I had to fight a Superintendent who tried to scare me, and I showed up at a public speaking engagement and confronted her and started showing up to school board meetings to complain about my treatment. She totally stopped trying to harm me and always shook my hand and called me by first name.
That is how I think people should live life. Be kind to those who have it worse off in life (financially and status-wise) and save your mean energy to fight the people above you who throw their weight around. But so few people are willing to do that. They prefer to spit on the people below. It is nothing but sheer cowardice.
B. Birdsall

#38 dirac


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Posted 10 August 2012 - 11:47 AM

I had the privilege of seeing Domingo do Otello live during the mid 1990s and early 2000s at the Met. I don't recall him using black face. He used makeup that made his skin look darker, but he was not in black face. I have no idea whether he used black face when he first started singing the role (in the 1970s?)

Lucky you! I don't remember Domingo ever being in blackface. That seems to be the trend with Othellos, even Othellos set in the past, as in the film "Stage Beauty," where Billy Crudup goes onstage as Othello with little more than a nice tan and some funny marks on his face. I wouldn't call the very dark makeup used by Olivier as seen in the film blackface either (and it was part of Olivier's conception of the role that his Othello be exactly that dark).

As for the Bolshoi, the painting of those kids is ludicrous and would be offensive anywhere, not just the U.S. As GeorgeB fan notes, there are tasteful and acceptable ways of darkening skin for theatrical purposes. This is not one of them.

Just because they don't view it as racially insensitive doesn't mean that it's not.


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