Blackface & Yellowface On Stage: Should It Be A Controversy?

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

Just seven months ago, Misty Copeland, the first African-American female principal at American Ballet Theater, posted a photo with the caption “This is the reality of the ballet world.” The photo showed the two dancers who were blackfaced in rehearsal at the Bolshoi in Moscow posing in full dress for “La Bayadère,” a 19th-century ballet set in India. Ms. Copeland has become almost a celebrity in the United States, and this post quickly accumulated to about 66,000 likes and 6,000 comments. Some supported her that people all over the world need to learn and be educated about the oppression and pain that blackface holds and racism in classical ballet. Others disagree, claiming that there has never been racism in Russia unlike America.

The use of blackface elicits the painful racism and historical entertainment in which performers darkened their skin to play characters that perpetuated African American racist stereotypes in the United States. While the practice is progressively infrequent in North America with several instances in which politicians and celebrities in the United States and Canada apologized for wearing blackface or dark makeup long after it was generally seen as derogatory and insulting, it still persists in parts of Europe and Russia.

The Bolshoi Ballet responded by saying it has no plans to change the ballet, which has featured performers in blackface since 1877. Bolshoi Theatre director Vladimir Urin said "The ballet La Bayadère has been performed thousands of times in this production in Russia and abroad, and the Bolshoi Theatre will not get involved in such a discussion,” in response to Copeland's comments. The head of the Bolshoi's dance troupe Makhar Baziyev called Copeland’s criticism “simply ridiculous”, saying that ,“No one has ever complained to us or saw in these small Moors an act of disrespect.”

However, some disagree. In a telephone interview, Calvin Royal III, a soloist at the American Ballet Theater, said that his immediate reaction on seeing the image was to cringe and ask, “How is it we’re heading into 2020 and this is a reality in some places?” Dana Nichols, a dancer with the Philadanco company in Philadelphia, said that, “It’s easy to be trapped into doing things like this in the name of an art form you love. But you also have to be a citizen of the world and know this is stereotyping and degrading.” Misty also wrote on Twitter “I get that this is a VERY sensitive subject in the ballet world. But until we can call people out and make people uncomfortable, change can’t happen … It is painful to think about the fact that many prominent ballet companies refuse to hire dancers of color and instead opt to use blackface.”

Racial stereotyping and exclusivity voluntary or not is still commonplace in classical ballet.

Another example is the Chinese Dance from the Nutcracker. Tchaikovsky’s variations like “Café — Danse arabe” and “Thé — Danse chinoise.” were included in the original St. Petersburg “Nutcracker” of 1892. When in fact choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov had access to genuine folk sources for their “Spanish” or “Russian” dances, they were guessing the dances of the Middle and Far East.

From today’s perspective, the dance is overtly racist: revealing clothed sensuality for Arabia and, for China, clownish dancers, often in yellow makeup, waggling heads and comically jumping, around in conical hats with angled arms and fingers, symbolic of chopsticks, pointed upward, along with Fu Manchu moustaches (a long, narrow mustache whose ends taper and droop down to the chin). They were intended to be laughed at and a mocking of people of the far east.

Recently, companies are transitioning in putting restrictions on portraying racial stereotypes on stage. The New York City Ballet altered the choreography, costumes and makeup to remove racial stereotypes about Chinese people in ‘The Nutcracker” in 2017. Soloist Georgina Pazcoguin and arts administrator and educator Phil Chan are leading a movement they call “Final Bow for Yellowface,” encouraging anyone in the ballet realm to sign a clear pledge: “I love ballet as an art form, and acknowledge that to achieve a diversity amongst our artists, audiences, donors, students, volunteers and staff, I am committed to eliminating outdated and offensive stereotypes of Asians (Yellowface) on our stages.” As a result, a lot of ballet company directors have been revisiting their “Nutcracker” productions to remove any racial stereotyping.

Kevin O’Hare, who was with the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet in the 1980s said that when you’re immersed in the ballet world from a young age, racial stereotyping is just how things are. Nevertheless, now that he is an artistic director of the Royal Ballet, he takes a distinctive perspective on the issue.“Suddenly, you look through a different lens, and sometimes I don’t feel things are right for the sensibilities of today’s world.”

Usually, racism in ballet is abstract and subtle; for example, some black ballet dancers wear tights with the colors of their own skin tone while others wear standard pink tights. Nevertheless, sometimes it’s less subtle.

Jean-Christophe Maillot, the artistic director of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo says,“If you ask me if a traditional Swan Lake at Mariinsky can have a black girl in the corps de ballet, I can tell you honestly that I don’t have the answer. But I feel like telling you no.” For him, only dancers with the same bodies, schooling and style should dance a classical Swan Lake.

Yet, with the world being much more connected and multicultural in many countries where diversity and inclusiveness is a crucial priority, it might seem almost ignorant to keep these racial stereotypical biases in ballet. It might be a better change to embrace the changing world and not resolute in keeping outdated traditions- to be a citizen of the world rather than a country.

Traditions are not unassailable.

Misty Copeland blasts Russian dancers for blacking up in rehearsal as director of famed Bolshoi Academy rejects her 'absurd' criticism



Blackface at the Ballet Highlights a Global Divide on Race

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