I Am a Black Dancer Who Was Dressed Up in Blackface to Perform in La Bayadère

December 11, 2019

On Instagram this week, Misty Copeland reposted a picture of two Russian ballerinas covered head to toe in black, exposing the Bolshoi’s practice of using blackface in the classical ballet La Bayadère. The post has already received over 60,000 likes and 2,000 comments, starting a long overdue conversation.

Comments have been pouring in from every angle imaginable: from history lessons on black face, to people outside of the ballet world expressing disbelief that this happens in 2019, to castigations of Copeland for exposing these young girls to the line of fire for what is ultimately the Bolshoi’s costuming choice, to the accusations that the girls—no matter their cultural competence—should have known better.

I am a black dancer, and in 2003, when I was 11 years old, I was dressed up in blackface to perform in the Mariinsky Ballet’s production of La Bayadère.

I fell in love with ballet at an early age. I remember watching my cousin’s ballet class transfixed by the effortlessness of a grand allegro combination. This was my first exposure: seeing the art form capture and elevate the beauty of my cousin’s black body.

I spent the next 12 years studying classical Russian ballet at the Yuri Grigoriev School of Ballet in Los Angeles. Because our teacher refused to speak English, I grew accustomed to having a feel for what was being said, but at the same time, no idea. I really learned ballet, abstracted from the context of American history and culture. All importance was placed on movement quality and the technique.

The wall that separated ballet from the real world in my mind began to crumble when I was selected to be a child extra in the Mariinsky’s performance of La Bayadère.

When ballet companies tour, they can’t bring minors with them, so they find young dancers locally to fill roles in their ballets. When the Mariinsky came to Los Angeles, they tapped our studio to participate.

As students secluded in the world of Russian ballet, the chance to dance in La Bayadère was a dream came true. We would be feet away from superstars like Diana Vishneva, watching from backstage as they danced under the stage lights and amidst the most intricate sets and costumes our hearts could imagine!

Somewhere deep in the Hollywood complex of the Kodak Theatre, we learned an angular dance in second position. We hopped around with flexed feet, waived our arms and periodically folded into kowtows. In hindsight, it’s obvious that we were performing caricatures of the “Orient.” I don’t even think it occurred to me that La Bayadère was set in South Asia because everyone was white—until dress rehearsal.

Our preparations were overseen by women designated to coordinate the child extras and interpret for us. Our parents were not allowed backstage. They fitted us in dark unitards with hoods to cover everything except our faces. Later, the makeup artist instructed us on how to apply our makeup. She handed each of us a palette of dark brown grease paint, pausing to do a double take after she handed me mine. It wasn’t until I received all of the pieces of my costume—a mahogany colored bodysuit, dark brown face paint and bright red lipstick—that I discovered I was to wear blackface.

I must have been the only dark-skinned person to have been in a Mariinsky production. The women in charge weren’t sure what to do with me. I saw the white dancers around me covering themselves in the brown paint and distinctly remember being at a loss for words because it was so bizarre. It was especially the red lipstick traced around the mouth that disturbed me. I remember looking down at the paints and trying to figure out what they had to do with me. All I could manage to say was, “Do I need this?”

I became that thing in the room that no one had ever had to confront.

Our chaperones exchanged glances and finally responded with an uncomfortable “Yes.” One woman laughed nervously as she indicated that I still had to wear the makeup because my brown skin was many shades lighter than the color of the bodysuit and the paint selected to cover our skin.

Of course, it was quickly forgotten in a production of this magnitude involving hundreds of people. During dress rehearsal, I found out that we were not the only characters that had been darkened. Many had on light brown paint on their arms and faces. The experience was jarring, but I compartmentalized it a way even later that night as I scrubbed my face raw trying to get the paint off

Only years later did it dawn on me that I had played a primitive Indian caricature. I don’t think any of us really understood. Even as a black girl who grew up in a segregated Los Angeles, with some cultural awareness, I didn’t do much better than the girls in Copeland’s post. I had even seen the movie Bamboozled, but my real racial awakening and then subsequent outrage, began much later, around age 15 after reading Assata. Until then, I lived in ignorance, accepting the discomforts in exchange for access to the art form I loved.

Around the age of 17, by the time my dance peers were beginning to commit to conservatory programs and fulltime pre-professional tracks in ballet, I was fully immersed in issues of diversity and social justice. Ballet had my heart, but by then I knew that the magic couldn’t cover up its ugly contortions of body, beauty and culture. I watched as dancers of all kinds were silenced and diminished. In my 20s I found refuge in the world of black modern dance, a place where many fallen ballerinas can be found.

I understand Copeland’s frustrations. This ballet, and many others, are set in mythical ballet worlds, where people of color are dehumanized into caricatures for white enjoyment, to be seen, made to dance, but not heard. It could not be more ridiculous to have a young black girl (or anyone) wear blackface to depict dark South Asians, as they were imagined by nineteenth century French, Russian and Georgian choreographers. Yet the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky still use blackface in their productions today.

Even without the black and brown face in La Bayadère, the setting, the characters, their Indian “inspired” garb and much of the music and movement are prime examples of orientalism. So many classic works of art, literature and performance are tainted by the attitudes of the era in which they were born—dance is particularly evocative as it is real time reenactment. So do we kiss the off color ballets goodbye—including America’s favorite, The Nutcracker? Or do we just modernize them, as many have already begun to do?

Truth be told, La Bayadère is one of my favorite ballets. The Shades act embodies the spirit of ballet. In my opinion, the best part of ballet is its otherworldly qualities—the interpretations of spirits and reveries, the manifestations of creatures, swans, etc. The more theatrical village and party scenes that are full of colorful caricatures serve as a contrast to make the ethereal that much more powerful, but they don’t need to be offensive to accomplish that. Nor does ballet need to exclude people of color in order to achieve the ethereal. In 2019, there is no need for a perfectly uniform lily white corps de ballet.

We need new mythical worlds, new characters and stories—made of the imaginations of different kinds of people.

Ballet is the same as any other field with institutional racism. We can express outrage at the players: those two Russian girls, the makeup artists, the costume designer, or even me and any other complicit party. But as Copeland’s original caption guided us to do, we must be critical of the whole system, too.

Petipa had a good run. Thank goodness Copeland is using her platform to begin the dismantling process.