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.
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:
“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.
“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.”
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!
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?