Russian Classical Ballet Criticized As Racist – Part VI

Dear Readers:

Now that we have gotten to know Tsiskaridze a little better (and those who have heard him speak in interviews know that he is quite a character in his own right, eccentricities and all) — it is time to hear his views about the La Bayadère controversy initiated by Misty Copeland; or rather, I should say, by her blog followers, but she went along with them instead of slapping them alongside the head, which is what she should have done.

Goethe: “I don’t remember writing about a Minstrel show…”

The famous ballet is ultimately based on a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, called “The God and the Bayadere”.  I found this English translation here, for those who are interested in the original source material and can’t read German.  I can read a little German, but it would take me a while to get through, due to the paucity of my vocabulary.  So anyhow, Petipa, a French guy, took this poem by a German guy, and created a ballet that became a classic of the Russian repertoire!  But once something becomes Russian, according to Tsiskaridze, then it is endowed with magic dust!

Tsiskaridze is harsher on Misty than was Makhar Vaziev, who was at least willing to compromise on the issue of the make-up applied to the harem dancers.  For Tsiskaridze there can be NO compromise when it comes to the classics:

Tsiskaridze: “Now go away and don’t make me mad.”

“Russian ballet should not pay any attention to what was written by some artist who lives on the other side of the world.  Such huge megapolises as the Bolshoi Theater should not pay any attention to that sort of thing.  When it comes to the ballet, we should not even be looking at the West.  This is absolutely our culture.  The entire classic culture that exists in the world — it’s just Russian, there is no other.  There is no other ballet that exists in the world:  Even those French spectacles which we returned to the world stage during the time of the Revolution, changed their form quite significantly in the Russian interpretation.  And it cannot be any other way:  There is only one ballet in the world, and it’s Russian!  Everything else is just a derivative.”

Tsiskaridze goes on to refute the notion that classical culture must adapt to current events or problems of contemporary society.  If that were to be the case, then nobody would be able to stage Othello, or only people with dark skin would be allowed to play that role.

“Paint me any color you like, just don’t put me in a tuque!”

“I myself have been painted golden, blue, black, and even other colors.  Realistically, how else is one supposed to depict Othello and other personages?  There was a time when I was hounded in the press, because I wore a Catholic cross when playing a certain role that required a Catholic cross.  I was told that an Orthodox practitioner should never do that.  If you wear a cross for the sake of a role, people say, How dare you!  One must simply not pay attention to such people and never listen to what the critics write.  It’s just hilarious.”

In Conclusion

The Gershwin brothers: “Don’t worry, we thought it through!”

The Izvestia piece concludes with a comment by Olga Rozanova, a noted Russian choreographer and ballet critic.  “There is no racism here, not even an ounce,” Rozanova declares.  “There is no racism in our theaters, period.”  She goes on to complain that, with a magnifying glass, one could conceivably find racism in anything.  And she is worried that the new polit-correctness could put in danger the staging of such masterpieces as Shakespeare’s “Othello” and the Gershwins “Porgy and Bess”.

In regards to the latter work, I have to add my own comment, because Rozanova may not be aware that there is a legal clause in the Gershwins estate, stipulating that “Porgy” may never be performed with “white” singers; only African American singers.  That’s the law.  So that’s not an issue here, as the Maestros wishes are always respected, and nobody needs to worry about a white guy in black grease-paint singing the role of Porgy.  In fact, the only two white characters in the show are the Sheriff and his Deputy, they are non-singing roles, which is just as well, since these two law enforcement officers have their hands full dealing with all the murders, gambling, attempted rapes, and other mayhem taking place in Catfish Row!

If you can dance like a Polovetskian, then you can be in the show! We’ll provide the costumes and make-up.

Anyhow, Rozanova goes on to fret, that the next big thing might be a scandal over “Yellowface”, that is, when an ethnically “white” performer has to depict an Asian character.  For example, in The Nutcracker there is a set piece called the “Chinese Dance”.  One might mention also the series of ethnic dances (including a Russian dance!) performed by Aurora’s suitors in Sleeping Beauty.  And not to mention Borodin’s masterpiece opera “Prince Igor”, with its glorious “Polovetskian Dances”, always a crowd favorite.

In Russia, to be sure, there are plenty of great dancers with Asiatic looking faces, but logistics may not make it possible to cast only these types of dancers; and even if they were cast in the roles, they would still need to wear theatrical make-up, to make them look even more Polovetskian than they already are, to the people in the back row of the theater!

There’s No Business Like Show Business

It also goes without saying that picking the right people for the right roles is not always an “affirmative action” type thing.  Especially when it comes to the Russian ballet, which operates on a strict meritocracy and only selects the best of the litter.  “Best” being defined by leg extension, body type, athleticism, talent, etc., and not necessarily by facial features or skin tone.  What God did not endow must, therefore, be supplemented by make-up.  Which raises a major point in and of itself:  Those like Misty Copeland and Dana Nichols, who attack the concept of theatrical make-up (which is a different animal than everyday make-up used by women in everyday life) are attacking the very concept of the theater itself.  Theatrical make-up needs to be bold and garish; because the theater is not the same thing as a movie, where the camera can get in close to a person’s face.  And in conclusion, if one performs in the theater, then one needs to be prepared to smear on the greasepaint!

[THE END] — of all culture as we know it?

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2 Responses to Russian Classical Ballet Criticized As Racist – Part VI

  1. Alexandra Randall says:

    As a Westerner (from New York) who danced with the Royal Ballet (London) during the Soviet Era, just when Nureyev’s partnership with Fonteyn was coming to an end, I am fascinated by your articles. We knew very little about the great Russian ballet beyond what Sol Hurok, the impresario, presented from the USSR – specifically the Bolshoi an a somewhat annual basis. We saw Pliesetskaya and the end years of Ulanova. What we saw we adored; the Kirov was basically closed to us but we balletomanes and young dancers devoured all photos and articles. Most of what we knew first hand was exactly what Tsiskaridze says: it was the French derivative of a Russian art form and ballet was considered a Franco-Fussian Imperialist fusion. Hence, the various iterations of Ballet Russe companies (Col de Basil, etc.) reinforced this. Russians like Tamara Tourmanova and André Eglevsky, Serge Lifar, Olga Preobrajenska, and others became expats in France and some like Alexandra Danilova and George Balanchine ended up in the US. The point is these companies were meant to be a Russian and emulate the Russian art. All non-Russian dancers had their names changed: Nina Rigmor Strom became Nina Stroganova and, in Britain, Alice Marks became Alicia Markova. The West did what it could to try to “Westernize” classical ballet through Balanchine and by choreographers other than those who created the greatest (and not so great but greater than anything else) “core” ballets that the Russians perfected and have performed unwaveringly forever. The Tchaikovsky greats, of course, plus Don Q, Giselle, La Bayadère, Coppelia, and even Michel Fokine’s Firebird is set to Stravinsky. Today the Russian ballerinas have really pulled ahead of the pack in the west because of affirmative action, or diverse body types or a pervasive cultural tic where mediocrity is praised – “good try!” is what students hear instead of what Tsiskaridze is constantly telling everyone as often as he says hello: “work! Practice!.” Misty Copeland would not be a famous, wealthy ballet superstar if she were not African American. She is famous for breaking the color barrier at one company. I’m not convinced when she says she was held back due to racism. In the US, dancers are not all very fair, with beautiful doll features, long limbs. In fact, ABT had Maria Tallchief and Alicia Alonso as Principal Dancers in the middle of the last century. Dancers in the US are not held to the same strict physical standards as they are in Russia, except maybe at Paris Opera Ballet. ABT has become a second rate company as is evidenced by its paucity of talented Principals Even in previous eras it always relied on guest artists (many Russians) to carry the leading roles. Misty is an uninteresting and not especially musical ballet dancer. (To be fair, there are Mariinsky and Bolshoi First Artists and Principals who aren’t better than the corps.). In the Royal Ballet, Francesca Hayward is a mixed race ballerina who is stunning to look at, beautiful body, extremely talented. She’s entirely British trained (RB) with an English mother and Kenyan father. She moved up the ranks swiftly. Many stars today are Asian. The Americans have already been making a lot of noise over the ethnic dances in the Nutcracker and the other ballets. This year, the NYCB changed Balanchine’s masterpiece by eliminating certain makeup and accessories to make things more politically correct. While I understand Gershwin’s’ stipulation regarding Porgy and Bess as the American musical landscape has deep roots African Americans – not to mention unparalleled vocal performers. Without question, it is wrong to retrofit history or literature or ballet and its classics to suit today’s thoughts. Today’s thoughts will be irrelevant and old fashioned and outdated in their time, too. The Vaganova Academy is the greatest school in the world. SAB and Paris Opera Ballet and the Royal Ballet School all have incredibly high standards, with none so high as Vaganova, of course. The elite schools have opened their doors to exceedingly talented foreigners and while there are very few black classical ballet dancers, perhaps it’s changing. (Or perhaps not. Who would have ever thought that at England’s Royal Ballet an Argentinian, Marialena Nunez, would be the highest ranking principal dancer?) All in all, Tsiskaridze is right. In Russia this is a Russia’s culture. It is Russia’s vaunted history and national treasure. The Russians are right to feel no one has a right to tell them how to cast their ballets or how to do costume and makeup for any role. No company on earth can replace each star with its twin in whatever ethnicity is authentic. What’s authentic is whatever the Mariinsky, Bolshoi and other Russian companies choose to do. These are their decisions.


    • yalensis says:

      Alexandra, thank you so much for your super-intelligent comment! You really know classical ballet like a total insider. I wish you all the best for the New Year, and thank you for reading my post.

      You may be interested, check back in a week or so, and I have a new project coming up involving a review of Porgy and Bess. That might interest you, if you also like opera and American literature.


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