On February 23, 2020, I attended a Works & Process of “La Bayadere” at the Guggenheim in New York City. The evening’s lecture demonstration program centered around discussing cultural considerations and adaptations for the classical ballet, “La Bayadere,” with Pennsylvania Ballet Artistic Director Angel Corella, moderator Linda Murray from the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and Phil Chan from Final Bow for Yellow Face. The story of “La Bayadere” takes place in the Royal India of the past.
A primary discussion of the evening was around the use of black face in theatre and dance throughout history. Historically, “La Bayadere” has been performed with some of it’s characters wearing blackface. However, this practice is unacceptable in today’s society and has historically been used to demean and degrade people of color. However, as recently as 2019, the Bolshoi Ballet performed their version of “La Bayadere” using black face. A social media conversation between members and fans of the Bolshoi Ballet and Misty Copeland made dance world news, further bringing this issue to light, yet again.
Regarding this particular instance between the Bolshoi Ballet and Misty Copeland, the moderators mentioned it is important to note intention versus impact with audiences. While the intention of using a cultural stereotype or costume may be to illustrate a situation (as the Bolshoi Ballet did), it really doesn’t matter if the impact on the audience is offensive and derogatory. According to the moderators, the Bolshoi Ballet’s statement regarding their use of black face was to convince the audience that dancers were different people (as in the case of a white dancer wearing black face). However, while that may have been their intention, the impact that has on audiences, especially American audiences, is very different, given the offensive history of black face in the USA. Although the Bolshoi Ballet is a Russian ballet company, they are on an international stage and one of the leading ballet companies in the world. What they do significantly influences not only the ballet world, but also the implications their actions have on society and culture beyond the theatre.
So, how did Pennsylvania Ballet and Corella go about choreographing and telling the story of “La Bayadere” without using black face? According to Angel Corella, research and conversation were key in his new choreography. It is necessary to discuss and make change; ballet has to evolve with society. The challenge the ballet world faces is maintaining the story of the ballet while making adaptations through adjusted choreography, culturally appropriate costuming, and new sets that are more respectful and inclusive of their audiences. For “La Bayadere,” black face is not an essential part of the story and Pennsylvania Ballet figured out a way to adapt the choreography.
In the scene in which the “Bronze Idol” performs his solo, the “Bronze Idol” does not pose while the Moor characters, who would have historically worn blackface in previous productions, dance around him. Instead, the “Bronze Idol” continues dancing, which makes the solo much more physically demanding. The intent of the story is not lost and the offensive use of black face is not incorporated.
An important point Corella made is to remember that this is classical ballet. Therefore it will never be 100% truly authentic, no matter the story being told, because the steps and movement vocabulary are that of classical ballet. These stories are also fictional and of fictional places (“La Bayadere” is set in a mystical version of Royal India’s past and “The Nutcracker” is set in “The Land of Sweets). Granted, these stories do use cultural references, but they are still fictional, imagined places. Of course, cultural sensitivity and respect are crucial, but we need to remember that watching a ballet is similar to that of reading literature from years gone by. We don’t stop reading “Of Mice and Men,” or other “banned” books simply because antiquated and/or derogatory terms are written in the text. Rather, we continue to read these books so that we can have the conversation about why these words or topics are culturally inappropriate and how we can change real life situations and perceptions. Ballets like “La Bayadere” should still be performed so as not to erase history, but adapted to respect the diverse audiences who are watching and to do what is right by stopping harmful stereotypes. Adaptations take time, conversations, and concerted efforts from organizations to not only reframe the context around a given ballet, but also to keep its main storyline true.
To help make Pennsylvania Ballet’s version of “La Bayadere” more authentic, Corella sought guidance from Professor Pallabi Chakravorty of Swarthmore College, a Classical Indian Dance expert and dance anthropologist, to make adaptations to the current choreography. The professor suggested incorporating hand gestures from Classical Indian dance into the port de bras of the ballet dancers. She also suggested performing certain ways of bowing, among other things, that were either directly from Classical Indian Dance or better reflected it. Professor Chakravorty mentioned that nothing in Pennsylvania Ballet’s choreography had been offensive before, but now it was more authentic with her additions. The pas de deux in which some of these hand gestures changes were made, with Corella doing a brief coaching session with the two dancers.
The evening was incredibly informative and engaging. Topics that are of particular focus in the arts today were discussed with awareness, respect, and acute attention to the need for pragmatic change in how we, as artists and audiences, engage in conversations surrounding these issues. The most important thing to do and remember is to keep having these conversations. Tossing around buzzwords does not move the conversation forward. More often than not, it shuts it down. Immediately saying that a performance is using cultural appropriation is not the most effective way to bring about change. Cultural appropriation can not necessarily be defined just by looking at something with minimal context. It comes back to the question of intent and impact, among others. Of course, there are times when cultural appropriation is blatantly obvious. Even in those times, having a conversation is critical to any long-lasting, effective, and understood change to occur. I left the performance that evening with a more confident ability to question what I see and absorb.