Exotic or Offensive? Ballet’s Outdated Stereotypes Are Overdue for Retirement

June 28, 2010

You’ve seen them in story ballets and perhaps they’ve made you cringe. The ethnic stereotypes embedded in the plotlines with dated, usually 19th-century attitudes. They’re those non-Caucasian, non-Christian characters far removed from the cultural norms of most of the audience members who are watching. They’re often the troublemakers or the butts of jokes presented in the most sophomoric ways. At best they’re annoyingly quaint, at worst they’re offensively xenophobic. We often just take them for granted. It’s tradition, right? But maybe we should take a closer look at those traditions now that we’re well into the 21st century.

Some of the most dated, troubling stereotypes are often the Muslim guys, usually sporting a turban. Take Raymonda, for example. Despite its glorious score and bits of scintillating classical choreography, its thin plot revolves around a maiden in medieval Hungary who is desired by two suitors—one a shining, gallant knight going off to fight the Crusades (in white tights) and the other a lustful, Saracen infidel (dressed in black). Abderakhman, the Muslim dude, plots to abduct Raymonda, but is challenged by the Crusader Jean de Brienne to a swordfight in the nick of time. Guess who wins?

Ballet has often tackled the good-versus-evil theme (e.g., Odette vs. Odile, the Lilac Fairy vs. Carabosse), but is it really tasteful for us to keep reviving characters who resemble Muslim terrorists? Obviously the worldview of the 19th-century Raymonda was quite different, and no one wants to erase his­tory. But the point is—what is the relevance to ballet today? Do young contemporary audiences look at this and scratch their heads? Maybe Balanchine was right: He extracted music from Glazunov’s danceable score and choreographed clever, classically based divertissement-style works (Raymonda Variations, Pas de Dix, Cortège Hongrois) that stayed true to the style while avoiding the poorly drawn characters and the plot’s social land mines.

Le Corsaire
, with its famously jumbled storyline, is a bastardized balletic take on Lord Byron’s poem The Corsaire. Byron flamboyantly championed the Greeks during the Turkish occupation of Greece, so the negative sentiment towards the non-European, Muslim population is served up on a silver platter. In the ballet, a Daniel Craig–like character named Conrad runs up against the wealthy, greedy Turk Pasha Seyd. Usually depicted as pot-bellied and gluttonous, he’s obsessed with acquiring harem girls and waddles cowardly away when threatened by Conrad and his buddies. The slave trader is titled Lankendem (in the original 1856 libretto his first name is Isaac and he is decidedly a Jew) who delights in wrangling the best price for his slave women. Admittedly, the ballet is so convoluted and the characters so cardboard-thin that it loses credibility any time the dancing isn’t about bravado spectacle. But while Byron brandished a buoyant flair with his poetry, the ballet traffics in some disturbing phobias of other cultures. The intermittent comedy is meant to be cute, but it’s not even funny.

On the positive side, I’ve never seen Bournonville’s Abdallah, but the title character (from Basra, Iraq, of all places!) is a simple, apparently likeable shoemaker who just wants to marry the girl he loves. It obviously has little to do with real Arab culture, but Bournonville’s theatricality usually has an honest sophistication and charm that perhaps makes this an exception in the foreigner-bashing department. Correct me if I’m wrong.

La Bayadère
reeks of the fascination that Europeans reserved for the exoticism of India. Yet despite the glorious classicism of its white act, some of the characters come across as Western versions of Eastern religious caricatures, like the wild Fakirs (Sufi monks) who fly around the stage in loincloths, or Gamzatti’s maid, who slinks around like a Mata Hari in a sari. (The Minkus score doesn’t even try to convey an Eastern sensibility.) The Hindu High Brahmin is a scheming priest—in love with Nikiya—who eschews his temple duties and vow of celibacy to thwart Nikiya and Solor’s love by invoking Solor’s destruction. Meanwhile, Gamzatti’s father, the Rajah, wants Nikiya dead. Sounds like an Eastern religious Mafia. Can you imagine a ballet where a cardinal or Pope did something similar? The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights would be picketing outside the theater.

Fokine’s Petrouchka, which derives its characters from the Russian version of Italy’s commedia dell’arte tradition, can still pack a powerful punch with the right cast. The spectacular Stravinsky score stirs the soul, and the underlying theme of oppression never goes out of date. But the character of the Blackamoor, which not so long ago was sometimes performed by a white man in black face with Al Jolson–style white rings around eyes and mouth, remains problematic no matter who performs it.

In the third scene of the ballet, the statuesque man is seen indolently lying around his chamber on a couch playing with a coconut. First he bounces it on his feet, and then shakes it to find out what is inside. When he gets frustrated and can’t break it open with his sword, he gazes at it stupidly and then bows and worships it like a deity. Huh?? At a performance of the ballet a few years ago, there were uncomfortable titters in the audience as if people were trying to process this slave-era stereotype they had just witnessed. (Balanchine’s La Sonnambula used to feature two dancers in blackamoor drag in the divertissement, but it later was changed to a quasi-Asian acrobatic duet.)

About a decade ago, Dance Theatre of Harlem presented a production of Michael Smuin’s A Song for Dead Warriors, a piece meant to highlight the wrongful treatment of Native Americans. But the cast included a black dancer in not-so-convincing white makeup cast as a corrupt white cop. The reverse minstrel-show getup was so distracting that it was hard to concentrate on what the ballet intended to convey.

I’m not trying to take political correctness over the top, but one has to wonder if these outdated characterizations, particularly for ticket holders’ first introduction to ballet, are enough to drive them out of the theater permanently.

Just take a look at the usual depiction of the “Tea” character in the second act of The Nutcracker. He’s often a coolie, dressed as if he could lay the tracks for an American railroad, with his index fingers pointed into the air. Sometimes he’s surrounded by coy Chinese maidens with parasols. Contrast those images with the opening cere­mony of the Beijing Olympics—a jaw-dropping performance of high techno­l­ogy and breathtaking artistry that upstaged American prowess at a time when Americans owe a great deal of monetary debt to the East. It makes you stop and think, right?

Our global outlook has changed. With all due respect to classical story ballets—and there are some wonderful works that deserve to stay around for centuries—perhaps ballet and its insidious stereotypes need to change a little, too.

The Avatar Solution

San Francisco Ballet’s current production of Fokine’s Petrouchka gives a blue face to the Blackamoor (or Moor) puppet—an idea inherited from its neighbor, Oakland Ballet. How did this come about? Ron Thiele, who played the Moor in Oakland’s version, explains: “Oakland Ballet was ethnically diverse and represented the plurality of the community. In 1991, we had internal discussions—including artistic director Ronn Guidi, ballet master Howard Sayette, and ballet mistress Betsy Erickson [now at SFB]—about whether or not it was appropriate to do the Moor in blackface. It was a matter of sensitivity to people within the company and the community. We asked the question, How can we approach this with a more contemporary view? And so we went to a different color—a greenish dark blue. When you go back and put Petrouchka in context, the Ballets Russes’ repertoire was oriental, exotic. The characters were not like the Russians, not like the Parisians. The audience wasn’t seeing themselves onstage. That transformed itself not too far down the road. For us, it was always about making the work relevant and lively and come to life—not just an archaic historic reconstruction.”—Wendy Perron