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Bolshoi To Continue Using Blackface Makeup, Despite Criticism

The ballet, La Bayadere, was first performed in 1877. (file photo)

Russia’s Bolshoi Theater said it will not change how it performs a nearly 140-year old ballet after a U.S.-based dancer criticized its use of blackface makeup as racially insensitive.

Misty Copeland, who in 2015 became the American Ballet Theater’s first black principal dancer in its more than 70-year history, reposted last week on her Instagram page a photo of young Russian ballerinas in blackface rehearsing their roles in La Bayadere.

“And this is the reality of the ballet world,” she wrote under the post, which garnered more than 64,000 likes and stirred a debate with nearly 5,000 comments. The post soon caught the attention of Russian media.

Copeland, who has 1.7 million followers, said the girls -- who Russian media have said are as young as 14 -- should have known that wearing blackface is considered racist.

“There is no way on earth, with the access we have to the media, social media, educating and exposing ourselves to the world, that they would be blind and ignorant enough to not know that this isn’t acceptable,” she said.

Leading figures in Russia’s ballet industry dismissed the attack as unwarranted.

“La Bayadere ballet has been performed in this way thousands of times in Russia and abroad and the Bolshoi Theater will not engage in such a discussion,” Vladimir Urin, the theater’s general director, told RIA Novosti.

La Bayadere, which tells the tale of an 18th-century Indian wedding ceremony, has featured young ballerinas wearing blackface to represent Moors since it was first performed in 1877, Makhar Baziyev, the head of Bolshoi’s dance troupe, told Izvestiya.

“Finding some sort of deep insults in this is simply ridiculous. No one has ever complained to us or saw in these small Moors an act of disrespect,” he said.

Baziyev said it is possible to change the makeup if it causes social outrage. However, in this case, it is just one dancer and her Instagram followers, he said.

Nikolai Tsiskaridze, the director of the Russian Ballet Academy and a former Bolshoi ballet star, told Moscow24 that the Bolshoi did refrain from using blackface at least once during a trip to New York in 2005.

The troupe was warned that wearing the makeup could cause “problems” so the dancers instead wore black costumes, he said.

Social-Media Response

Copeland’s followers expressed outrage and criticized the Bolshoi Theater for being culturally insensitive. The six Russian girls featured in her post deleted their Instagram accounts.

“Over the years, some ballet companies have grown wise to the cultural and racial insensitivities of this ballet and have elected to no longer perform it,” Patrick Frenette, who dances with Copeland at the American Ballet Theater, wrote under her post.

Others criticized Copeland for transplanting America’s racial problems and its history of slavery onto Russia as well as for “cyberbullying” the young girls.

“These girls are not obligated to be aware of North American sociopolitical issues that do not apply to them and their country,” Yulia Teryaeva said in response to Copeland’s post.

With reporting by Moscow24, Izvestia, RIA Novosti
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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.