ballet Russia

When can we use blackface in ballet?

In the past years, growing attention has been paid to the presence of racist stereotypes in the ballet world, particularly the use of blackface.

Almost entirely banned in northern America and Europe, this practice is still very much in use in the Soviet world. In Russia in particular, the idea of blackface being a racist and grotesque practice has always been vehemently rejected, almost to the point of absurdity (think of the Instagram picture of the Vaganova student in full blackface as part of the now infamous Danse des Negrillons). So it was really shocking seeing it on stage for the first time.

This was before the pandemic when I went to Saint Petersburg as a birthday present to myself to see the Mariinsky Theatre in Spartacus. Mind you, this is not Grigorovich’s version of Spartacus, which the Bolshoi is known for and which focuses on the main characters, giving them great virtuosic variations.

Yakobson’s Spartacus at the Mariinsky Theatre

The one at the Mariinsky is an incredibly grandiose and opulent production, which puts a huge emphasis on the depiction of scenes of Roman everyday life (they even brought a horse on stage).

And then came a scene depicting the first battle of the gladiators in Act I (of which a snippet can be found here). There are three gladiators fighting: one is in a “brown tan”, one is in a very dark blackface, and the other is white. In the synopsis, it is described as a fight between a “Gaul” (from France), a “Numidian” (from North Africa), and an “African”.

But the aim was historical accuracy…

Using the tan in this way was of course a very obvious way of conveying the place of origin of these gladiators, even to those like me who weren’t familiar with this production. However, I realise that what resonated with me the most, was the willingness to depict the multi-national and multi-racial character of the Roman empire, which spanned from England to northern Africa, to the Middle East. Something that is often overlooked in our whitewashed version of Roman history.

Even though this was the first time I saw full blackface in the theatre, and believe me when I say it truly shocked me, I somehow found myself appreciating this element of historical accuracy.

Could that have been achieved in a different way?

Actually, yes.

Gladiators from different regions wore different weaponry, so different armour choices could have been sufficient to distinguish between the three different fighters, albeit in a less obvious way.

Was this ok?

At the end of the day, even though the motivation is understandable, and could even be painted in a light of inclusivity, this practice only worked because of the particular context it was in. It was a way of communicating meant by and for Russians who are notoriously not as diverse as the modern audience in America or Europe.

I, just like the Russian audience, didn’t feel personally attacked by the use of blackface, as I never had to deal with that very specific form of discrimination based on skin colour. This is why I could focus on the fact that that particular costume choice was meant as a way to include historically accurate details.

Reimagining more inclusive representation on stage requires a greater diversity not just amongst the ballet dancers, but most importantly within the artistic direction, so as to include a different sensibility in the whole production.

What do you think?

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