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canbelto

Blackface in the Bolshoi's La fille de pharaon

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17 hours ago, canbelto said:

I'll add that if you cannot enjoy a ballet without these blackface getups (as in without the blackface then you don't want to watch the ballet), then maybe that ballet isn't worth reviving.

Indeed.

In my opinion the production could do well without the whole face painting business. And the painted dancing children. I honestly don't think that by removing both it will affect or lessen the production value the work has.

Edited by Lam

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To call it "disgusting" is certainly a modern-day American reaction.  I would say the make-up choice is somewhat debatable. 

I mean, it's not just about the history of racism or slavery, it's more about how "black-face" make-up was used in American performance culture in the past, isn't it?    

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14 minutes ago, bcash said:

To call it "disgusting" is certainly a modern-day American reaction.  I would say the make-up choice is somewhat debatable. 

I mean, it's not just about the history of racism or slavery, it's more about how "black-face" make-up was used in American performance culture in the past, isn't it?    

Not just American. The uses may differ in different countries, but I don’t think the history of blackface in European countries is somehow completely a separate issue. 

And not just the past—though one doesn’t find it nowadays in mainstream American entertainment. 

 

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26 minutes ago, Drew said:

Not just American. The uses may differ in different countries, but I don’t think the history of blackface in European countries is somehow completely a separate issue. 

And not just the past—though one doesn’t find it nowadays in mainstream American entertainment. 

 

Precisely, Drew. To act as if it's only the US that has "issues" with blackface representations is naive, at best. An (American) friend of mine (who has spent more time living abroad in Europe & Asia than in the United States) was working in Leiden and her first run-in with Zwarte Piet ("Black Pete") at Christmas-time was quite shocking for her. Her toddler daughter was also rather shocked! There are plenty of Dutch activists working against the continuation of this tradition. It's not just American "hysteria." 

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Wasn't the first ever film with spoken dialogue The Jazz Singer with a blacked up Al Jolson?  Will that movie now be air-brushed from history?

Yes there are people in the Netherlands opposed to Black Pete, but they are almost exclusively immigrants according to a TV news item from last Christmas.  The Dutch are unlikely to ditch a tradition that goes back centuries.  

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51 minutes ago, Mashinka said:

Wasn't the first ever film with spoken dialogue The Jazz Singer with a blacked up Al Jolson?  Will that movie now be air-brushed from history?

 

Not air brushed from history. In a way, quite the contrary: the role of blackface in that film should be (and has been) discussed, acknowledged, critiqued--not treated casually, ignored because the film is important and people like it, and/or defended as having nothing to do with the history of racism.  And not perpetuated unthinkingly in new films either. What seems like air-brushing to me is acting as if the use of blackface is a non-issue.  

But in any case, it's very hard for me to consider Lacotte's Pharaoh's Daughter as a historical classic however charming a tribute to the classics I may find some of it. Do we think his balance of mime, character dance, and classical dance exactly reproduces Petipa's balance? At any rate we know the steps don't...however pleasing one may find several of the enchainements. 

To be honest, I personally am okay with minor revisions to nineteenth-century works in a performing art like ballet given that those works are not tightly unified modernist artifacts and were always subject to revisions and interpolation--and for better or worse, ballet isn't exactly reproducible in the manner of film. But, as I have said above, I better understand the defense of blackface in a strict reconstruction even when I'm not entirely convinced. Still, if people want to defend Lacotte's Pharaoh's Daughter as a crucial historical document then does it really require simply denying what's problematic about blackface? Or about 19th-century orientalism for that matter... ? No genuine work of art is contained by its history and no-one has to give up their love of what is pleasurable and sometimes profound about an art work in becoming sensitive to that history. But ignoring that history or dismissing it seems to me a mistake.

Here is an image of performers appearing in Paris in the later nineteenth century--the Bellonini brothers --  I have read them described as a European blackface act: they were known as "Hottentots à L'oeil Blanc" [sic]. I don't know anything more about them, and others may want to fill me in, but I thought I would share just to notice again that the larger history at issue does not just concern performers/audiences in the United States--though the U.S. of course plays a very big role in it:

https://www.bidsquare.com/online-auctions/potter-potter/folies-bergere-brothers-bellonini-825357

 

Edited by Drew

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4 hours ago, Drew said:

Not air brushed from history. In a way, quite the contrary: the role of blackface in that film should be (and has been) discussed, acknowledged, critiqued--not treated casually, ignored because the film is important and people like it, and/or defended as having nothing to do with the history of racism.  And not perpetuated unthinkingly in new films either. What seems like air-brushing to me is acting as if the use of blackface is a non-issue.  

 

I don't want to take this off on a tangent, but I'm in the camp that thinks these things should be taught in the way Drew describes. I'd add that teaching about Leni Reifenstahls' films, confederate monuments, death campus, Stalin monuments, etc. are all important. At Auschwitz they prominently display a famous quote from Santayana: Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.

Edited by California

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On 8/9/2018 at 7:50 AM, California said:

I don't want to take this off on a tangent, but I'm in the camp that thinks these things should be taught in the way Drew describes. I'd add that teaching about Leni Reifenstahls' films, confederate monuments, death campus, Stalin monuments, etc. are all important. At Auschwitz they prominently display a famous quote from Santayana: Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.

I know no professor of history who doesn't teach this stuff in the way Drew describes. I am not in favor of just being like "Whoops, the 19th century with all their ideals didn't exist!!!" If I taught class on dance, you can bet your bottom I would teach it as they describe, and would feel free to show blackface & non-blackface versions. And talk about what's going on in a much more sophisticated way than "But Petipa!". In fact, I teach plenty of Chinese movies with "white" face/"Japanese" face. And we talk about all the issues wrapped up in it, and why a c. 1960 Chinese film depicting either is different than, oh, I don't know, a 19th c. ballet depicting "Africans" in blackface, at least where absurd makeup is concerned. I show plenty of "racist" stuff. Actually, one of my acknowledged specialities is teaching with propaganda. I'm actually quite good with taking outlandish representations & TEACHING with them. I don't say "But well you know, back in the day!! This was OK!!" No one I know does.

I've probably spent more time watching Leni Reifenstahl's films than most people on this board. 

I simply have no patience with the "but we've been doing it THIS way for that long! That's the way it should be!!!" I am admittedly a Balanchine devotee when it comes to ballet, and while Balanchine *certainly* isn't free from problematic points (either in choreography or his personal life), the corps at least isn't painted up to make them look "black." I find Bugaku incredibly problematic on multiple levels (which I've discussed on this board), but at least Balanchine didn't feel the need to paint them yellow. 

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Moving to different societies, heavy make-ups in Kabuki and in particular Kathakali obscure the race of practitioners completely and Hindu depictions are not infrequently of blue and black faces,  I believe for something to be racist there has to be intent,

Out of interest, what was the reaction to the film The Book Thief in the US?  Was there outrage over the child that blacked his face to resemble his idol Jesse Owens?

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The argument for Lacotte's use of blackface in Fille, as I understand it, is this:

  • This was perfectly appropriate and even necessary, in the Petipa/19th C. context, to mark the foreignness and exoticism of Ramze, etc.
  • Lacotte's production is inspired by and in many ways adheres to the traditions of its 19th C. precursor, making the blackface, again, appropriate and even necessary.

What doesn't make sense about this to me is that, unless you have a racially homogenous group of dancers performing the work, there are going to be racial differences visible among those who portray the non-foreign, non-exotic (i.e. in this case Egyptian — in the case of other ballets, whatever the dominant racial, ethnic or national group may be) characters. Are those racial differences a problem, then? If a black dancer performs Ramze, presumably no blackface makeup would be used? What if a black dancer (or an East Asian dancer, or any other dancer of visibly different racial heritage from the ensemble around her) were to perform Aspicia? Would that be a problem? Why is there such a need for Ramze's difference to be explicitly, visibly indicated through skin color when the other racial differences that may be visible onstage can so easily be overlooked by an audience perfectly comfortable with "suspending disbelief" in an art form that is so heavily dependent on that?

I'm not asking why blackface was used in the original 19th C. context. That's a historical question — one that scholars such as @l'histoire would have richly informative answers to. (I haven't ever heard it argued that the blackface tradition should be "air-brushed from history"; choosing not to perpetuate it in present-day stage performances is quite a different thing.) I'm asking why those who argue against the criticisms of Lacotte's use of blackface think that its use is so important as to outweigh the fact that it is controversial and, to some or many, offensive. What's motivating the insistence on holding onto it? (It's a genuine question, by the way — not some veiled accusation of racist intent.)

Edited by nanushka

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4 hours ago, Mashinka said:

Out of interest, what was the reaction to the film The Book Thief in the US?  Was there outrage over the child that blacked his face to resemble his idol Jesse Owens?

I don't know about the reaction and I haven't seen the film, but I'm not sure it would shed much light on the consideration of the use of blackface by the creators of stage works in the present day. To portray a character choosing to put on blackface, for whatever reason, is a representation of character within the world of the narrative — i.e. it reveals something about the character. To offer a blackface portrayal of a character for the purpose of highlighting racial otherness is a formal decision by the creator of the narrative — i.e. it reveals something about the artist. The two cases aren't easily comparable because they're operating on two different levels of narrative representation: one involving the thing being represented, the other involving the act of representation itself. (It's like the difference between a portrayal of a misogynist character and a misogynist portrayal of a character.)

Edited by nanushka

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For anyone who thinks blackface in Pharaoh's Daughter is okay, just watch this and how the minstrel show shuffling dance is recreated by Lacotte:

 

Edited by canbelto

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26 minutes ago, Quinten said:

So what are you going to do about it?

I'm not sure who this question was directed to, but my personal answer would be to comment on it in a critically thoughtful manner, as one often does with works in an art form one is invested in.

Edited by nanushka

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1 hour ago, Quinten said:

So what are you going to do about it?

I don;t know, hopefully open some minds to how offensive and insensitive and unnecessary Lacotte's depiction of Ramze's attendants is.

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16 hours ago, canbelto said:

For anyone who thinks blackface in Pharaoh's Daughter is okay,

No problem - it's OK by me !! And so is women being bought and sold in Corsaire - I love it !!  These works were created in Imperial Russia - too bad they made a gross oversight in not considering possible American reaction 125 years in the future.

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5 hours ago, Quinten said:

Are the people on this forum really the problem?  Today racism is resurgent and uglier than ever, in spite of all the attempts over the last 30 or 40 years to sensitize people to racist imagery.  Maybe it's time for art lovers to encourage artists to take a more active role in the fight against racism.  Spike Lee is a great example of how that's done -- I recommend his biting and entertaining film BlackkKlansman.  Where is the ballet "Charlottesville"?  Pressuring American ballet choreographers to address the issue might be a more effective way for ballet lovers to attack racism than criticizing an octogenarian Frenchman or a Russian ballet company, just sayin'.

Speaking for myself only...I care about ballet and ballet history, and I love the Bolshoi, which is not just any Russian company, but a hugely important one to the entire world (the world of ballet fans anyway). Of course what they do attracts attention and debate.

I also love and admire any number of nineteenth-century ballets, including ones that occasionally make me uncomfortable or that raise my hackles. So I feel a certain sense of responsibility in how I discuss them and works, like Lacotte’s, that pay tribute to them. But, yes, you are right—one could discuss other aspects of the issue, and it has several times been done on this website, though usually around opportunities for dancers and their training/hiring, not necessarily discussing what projects choreographers should take on...(From reading about it I would think Akram Khan’s Giselle is an example of a contemporary work that, as it tells a story about migrant workers, also raises issues of race and racism if only implicitly. A lot depends on how one defines those words. Since I haven’t seen it, even on video, I can’t speak to it though.)

For other kinds of anti-racist struggle that are not focused on the arts at all...or discussion boards...well obviously Balletalert isn’t the place to go into those. But it’s not absurd to assume that some of the people concerned about the issue here may be involved elsewhere.

 

Edited by Drew

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On 8/9/2018 at 12:16 AM, l'histoire said:

Not just American. The uses may differ in different countries, but I don’t think the history of blackface in European countries is somehow completely a separate issue.

Right, America was colonized by Europeans and America's history of slavery and subsequent problems has its roots in Europe.

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What does "Cry" have to do with dark makeup or "sanitizing" the racism out of art? I'm not trying to be facetious. I really don't understand the point being made.

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1 hour ago, Quinten said:

Which is more effective, sanitizing historical or historically-inspired works of art to keep people from having to view racist images that make them uncomfortable/raise their hackles versus using art itself to encourage people to think differently about their racial attitudes? 

I'm not sure I would use the word "sanitizing" and I guess I make a distinction, too, in my expectations of historical works on the one hand and my expectations of historically inspired works on the other. But leaving that aside, I think that engaging with older works of the ballet repertory (whether in pious historical preservation, "in the spirit of" adaptations, tactfully -- or tactlessly -- updated productions etc.) doesn't preclude engaging with new work and vice versa.  Since artists are often in dialogue with the past, the two can even be inter-related.  This thread happened to emerge as part of a discussion of the Bolshoi's revival of Pharaoh's Daughter...so that has been the focus.  I suppose that, as a general matter, I don't think the future changes without a reckoning with the past. (For me, personally, that's always a work in progress--work on myself that is.)

Perhaps it's worth adding that as a ballet fan/observer, I can't help but respond to what choreographers do--those I'm able to see--which is a little different from dictating what I'd like to see them try.  When I do have fantasy ideas about ballets, they are usually inspired by music not themes/issues...But it might be interesting to start a thread on stories/themes one think can and should be engaged by new classical choreography.

Edited by Drew

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1 hour ago, Quinten said:

When compared with other strategies for combating racism in the arts, I don't think that's a very effective way to change peoples' attitudes (if that's the goal).  Art itself has more potency...

Why does it have to be either/or? Who’s to say that those making a point about the use of blackface in one particular production of one particular ballet aren't pursuing other avenues of anti-racism advocacy?

Edited by nanushka

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Of course, the best way of dealing with these ballets is simply not to go.  Some here see Pharaoh's Daughter as a racist statement, 99.9% of the Bolshoi's audiences won't.  The Bolshoi doesn't at present have any black female dancers to cast in the role, presumably if it had, it would.  The changeling Indian boy in Ashton's Dream was originally made up, but that's no longer necessary as there's now no lack of genuine Indian boys to play the role.  The African prince in the Wright/Ashton Sleeping Beauty was blacked up, should that production be revived there are a number of black RB dancers to choose from.   There is nothing intrinsically racist in make up being used to aid authenticity.  Racism in dance is about denying opportunities to non white dancers, a practice that is vile and discriminatory, something I knew about all too well when a black dancer friend told me as recently as the 1980's that he stood little chance of joining a classical company because of his colour.   Nearly forty years on times are changing, eventually there'll Be no need for that make up.

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2 hours ago, Mashinka said:

Of course, the best way of dealing with these ballets is simply not to go.  Some here see Pharaoh's Daughter as a racist statement, 99.9% of the Bolshoi's audiences won't.  The Bolshoi doesn't at present have any black female dancers to cast in the role, presumably if it had, it would.  The changeling Indian boy in Ashton's Dream was originally made up, but that's no longer necessary as there's now no lack of genuine Indian boys to play the role.  The African prince in the Wright/Ashton Sleeping Beauty was blacked up, should that production be revived there are a number of black RB dancers to choose from.   There is nothing intrinsically racist in make up being used to aid authenticity.  Racism in dance is about denying opportunities to non white dancers, a practice that is vile and discriminatory, something I knew about all too well when a black dancer friend told me as recently as the 1980's that he stood little chance of joining a classical company because of his colour.   Nearly forty years on times are changing, eventually there'll Be no need for that make up.

Personally, I prefer to critically engage with a work that has value but also has (in my eyes) problematic elements, rather than to "simply not go." 

I certainly don't think that the use of blackface in Pharaoh's Daughter makes the work as a whole a racist statement. But I do wonder if it's true that 99.9% of the Bolshoi's audience (which is international and multi-cultural) wouldn't find the use of blackface in the production to be problematic. This isn't a provincial company we're talking about; it's one of the world's greatest and most prominent. (And wasn't the ballet even presented as one of the theater streams? It's definitely on DVD. So the company's audience for this ballet has been vast and varied.)

I don't understand the felt need for adherence to visual markers of racial "authenticity," especially in an art form that is so very far removed from visual realism in so many ways, and especially in an era when non-white dancers have the opportunity to dance more roles. What happens to "authenticity," then, when a black dancer, say, takes the lead in Giselle or Sleeping Beauty? If that's now okay, then why for the sake of "authenticity" does a white dancer need to be clownishly made up in blackface in order to dance the role of Ramze? Can the audience suspend their disbelief in one direction but not in the other?

To my mind, the "authenticity" argument just doesn't really suffice.

Edited by nanushka

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4 hours ago, Mashinka said:

Of course, the best way of dealing with these ballets is simply not to go.  Some here see Pharaoh's Daughter as a racist statement, 99.9% of the Bolshoi's audiences won't.  The Bolshoi doesn't at present have any black female dancers to cast in the role, presumably if it had, it would.  The changeling Indian boy in Ashton's Dream was originally made up, but that's no longer necessary as there's now no lack of genuine Indian boys to play the role.  The African prince in the Wright/Ashton Sleeping Beauty was blacked up, should that production be revived there are a number of black RB dancers to choose from.   There is nothing intrinsically racist in make up being used to aid authenticity.  Racism in dance is about denying opportunities to non white dancers, a practice that is vile and discriminatory, something I knew about all too well when a black dancer friend told me as recently as the 1980's that he stood little chance of joining a classical company because of his colour.   Nearly forty years on times are changing, eventually there'll Be no need for that make up.

You are talking about "aiding authenticity" in a ballet based on a Shakespeare play about faeries in a wood, and one about a girl who falls asleep for 100 years and is woken up by a kiss. I don't see why that kind of authenticity (ethnic) is desired.

What about a black or asian Giselle? Or Aurora in sleeping beauty? Or Odette and Odile? Do they conversely require "whiteface?" for authenticity?

Or are dancers of other races now there simply to fill in when their race is called for in a role? This is what is implied by logically parsing your statement...

Edited by aurora

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4 hours ago, Mashinka said:

Of course, the best way of dealing with these ballets is simply not to go.  Some here see Pharaoh's Daughter as a racist statement, 99.9% of the Bolshoi's audiences won't.  

Huh? The Bolshoi is not some regional company from nowhere. It has a huge international fanbase from their lucrative tours, livestreams, and their stars guesting all over the world. Many of these international audiences would surely be offended by the blackface.

Also it's a fallacy that Russians have few people of African descent. It's ironic that this particular argument is still used in the week a movie about Alexander Pushkin, a Russian writer with African heritage.

If the Bolshoi has NO dancers from different ethnicities then, well, that's another big problem.

Edited by canbelto

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On 8/14/2018 at 8:47 AM, aurora said:

What about a black or asian Giselle? Or Aurora in sleeping beauty? Or Odette and Odile? Do they conversely require "whiteface?" for authenticity?

 I always think of the Rockettes own history with the racial issue when it is applied to ballet. At some point I believe the very original idea of the Rockettes having to keep a legacy of uniformity and exact physical replication has applied and still applies in many ballet companies. Except of course, in ballet and unlike the Rockettes, there is a pyramidal system implanted where artistic excellence and capabilities are supposed to catapult the most capable. Still...it is no secret that such uniformity is greatly desired at the ballet stage. Whitening makeup has been indeed used, and many times in quite an extreme form for blending purposes. Raven Willkinson even talks about it and how it helped her save her from being pulled out one particular night the KKK was on her searching backstage. 

I remember a black Cuban ballerina...Caridad Gonzalez, who wore layers upon layers of thick white pancake makeup. From the distance one could tell she was NOT white, but it definitely changed, rather dramatically, her real skin complexion.

Viengsay Valdes is also mixed, and she too wears EXTREME white makeup.

Edited to add: Now...Giselle Alicia didn't allow Caridad to dance Giselle, citing primarily racial issues.

 

 

 

 

Edited by cubanmiamiboy

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