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BWW Dance: Rebuke to Blackface, Orientalism, and Racist Equivocation in The Guardian

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"If you ask me if Congress can have a Jew in its body, I can tell you honestly that I don't have the answer. But I feel like telling you no."

I know what you're thinking; those words are horrendous, and yet the artistic director of Ballet de Monte Carlo was recently given space in a major British publication to say as much against Black women in a wrong-headed rationalization about blackface. Jean-Christophe Maillot's actual words were:

"If you ask me if a traditional Swan Lake at the 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."

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BWW Dance: Rebuke to Blackface, Orientalism, and Racist Equivocation in The Guardian
Dance Theatre of Harlem at The Guggenheim
Suzanne Vlamis; photographer

Replace the references to "ballet" and "black girls" with "Chinese person" and, well- anything, and what you have is flagrant bigotry. Because it is obviously a racist statement.

Lyndsey Winship's article in The Guardian about blackface and Fu Manchu moustaches in ballet failed to make that connection. Instead, her neutral approach allowed Maillot to issue bad-faith arguments about purity and historical accuracy, unchallenged. If you are Black, the substance of his equivocating might sound familiar to you: There were no Black people in Russia back then so they have to use blackface. Which is precisely why the ballerinas in La Bayadere are all coated in cocoa powder. Because a temple dancer from India named Nikiya would have white skin...

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Maillot buries his foot further down his throat by stating that ballets such as Petrushka should be presented in their original forms (with context) while denouncing political correctness. Because political correctness is the reason that Black people are offended by blackface.

What shocks me about this travesty is that Maillot was offered the platform to present his inanity while--in yet another sign of erasure--no Black or Brown people were interviewed at all. The focus of WInship's article was on artistic directors, so why didn't she contact Virginia Johnson of Dance Theatre of Harlem, Karen Brown--the first Black woman in history to direct a ballet company--or Maurice Brandon Curry of Eglevsky Ballet? While I appreciate Kevin O'Hare's thoughtful statements, he is not Black, nor is he able to adequately speak to the damage that blackface inflicts upon people who look like me.

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I did not want to write this article, but after days of media silence--and The Guardian's rejection of my offer to pen a response--I saw Misty Copeland's posting about Russian ballerinas in blackface and felt compelled to act.

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Last year when Petra Conti published a similar post on Instagram, not a single word was uttered in the press. I admire Conti's dancing but reject her rationalization for bronzing, particularly given her exposure to people of diverse backgrounds while working with Boston Ballet and Los Angeles Ballet. I was repulsed after watching her--now deleted--video with jazz music playing in the background as she and her make-up artist shucked, jived, and finger waved for the camera as if they were in a minstrel show. That she continues to perform this role in full blackface even though it has been explained to her that the practice is offensive has convinced me that blackface needs the same call for abolishment that Georgina Pazcoguin and Phil Chan are leading against yellowface.

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Meanwhile, Copeland's actions prove that she is the activist on this issue that we need. She refuses to back down against detractors and summons the patience of Martin Luther King, Jr to explain why the practice is hurtful, even as hundreds of trolls hurl invective against her and claim that Russia does not have race problems like The United States so blackface is okay. Yes; a mob of White people explain to a Black woman why she can't take offense to racist actions. Brilliant. I'm sure the same people would argue that Kim Kardashian simply had to wear all that browning in her latest bid for relevance.

After a colleague explained to me that the Russian ballerinas blackening up for La Bayadere were meant to represent Hindus, I followed Copeland's example and explained that, "Blackface is disgusting whether it represents Hindus, Africans, or Latinos with deep tans. Rather than blacken someone up, cast a white person in the role as is done with every other part. Or hire more Black people so that this isn't a problem." Cue the statements about the paucity of Black ballerinas accomplished enough to dance any part.

As an American, it isn't my job to write about this issue, which is why I spoke to Cassa Pancho--founder and artistic director of Ballet Black--about the incredible work she's doing to dispel the ridiculous notions about Black ballet dancers in The UK. Her take on blackface is simple: "I feel that at the moment it's being presented as a question. 'Is blackface wrong?' For me it's not a question. Blackface is wrong and I think if you have an audience full of Black, Brown, Asian, and whatever color people, you as a director will think twice about programming La Bayadere or Petrushka. I really believe that." Read our full interview, HERE. But before you go, take in these radiant ballerinas:

Michaela DePrince

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Céline Gittens

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Nikisha Fogo

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Francesca Hayward

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Chrystyn Fentroy

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Any director in the world would feel blessed to work with these phenomenal ballerinas; even Malliot. Ballet is full of twisted arguments that have been passed on to the public as sacrosanct. Non-dancers believe the drivel because they don't know any better. They believe that because ballet comes from Europe, it is only for White people. This of course explains why there aren't and never have been any Black people to master soccer. It also clarifies why people drop their jaws when they discover that my students study and love ballet more than hip-hop.

The intellectual dishonesty surrounding blackface, cloaked as it is in calls for purity, is exhaustingly obtuse. It is essential that we uplift the work of Cassa Pancho and Misty Copeland against regressive calls for "tradition". Those same calls would have banned Balanchine's innovations and legs that extend past 90 degrees in favor of pointe shoes unable to bear the full weight of their ballerina. Is that the look we're going for in 2020?

If you chance upon someone discussing blackface, please advise them to speak with a Black person about it. That Black person will not represent the entire population of African descendants, but her thoughts will contribute towards undoing the erasure of our perspectives on subjects that uniquely impact us. Maybe the folks over at The Guardian will follow suit next time.

Juan Michael Porter II is the managing editor and critic-in-residence for BroadwayWorld Dance.



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